This is the definitive Mario Kart experience that you’ve been waiting for. A bold statement to open any critique, but one for a game that is entirely worthy of such early praise.
It is likely that you already know what to expect. Thumping the air when you overtake a rival just before you cross the finish line, laughing when friends fail in their attempt to use a Rocket Start to propel themselves from the starting grid, and grinning in satisfaction as you use multiple Red Shells to smack your way forward a few positions. Each instance has occurred since Mario Kart’s conception, but over the years such thrills still haven’t become old no matter what your age.
There is a degree of familiarity in what Mario Kart 8 delivers, although you’ll soon be lost amid the spectacle of it all. Needless to say, it is in what’s new that allows the Wii U exclusive to shine. Anti-gravity doesn’t seem like such an obvious game changer, but opens up tracks in such a way that you can approach each lap entirely differently. Driving along the sides of the a building, soaring up a waterfall, and screeching along a dam are moments that all feel equally riotous, and the adrenaline rush is supported by returning underwater and glider sections that make the Mushroom Kingdom feel as if it was created solely for the rush of being behind the wheel of a kart.
There’s an unrelenting pace to it all now, never felt before with such resounding clarity. Lakitu recovers wayward racers from misjudged turns ridiculously quickly, Spin Turbos are granted to those that playfully collide with each other on anti-gravity zones, and multiple boost pads are lined along tracks that see even Mario’s moustache rustle in response to the sheer speed. It’s an unrivalled joy, and continues to spark that Nintendo magic that fans have repeatedly fallen for.
It is the new tracks that accentuate Mario Kart 8’s accomplishments the most, although returning retro tracks have been carefully reworked with some introducing anti-gravity zones to freshen them up. There’s enough of a concoction across the game’s usual eight Cups for players to discover their own favourites, although standout moments can be found when driving through a thunderous cloud in Cloudtop Cruise, the fiery ferocity of Bowser’s Castle, the neon-fused visuals of the Electrodrome, and whizzing down the snowy climbs of Mount Wario, among others.
You’ll enjoy these across the usual slate of modes: Grand Prix with its 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, and Mirror 150cc four-race Cups; Time Trials pitting you against enviably-skilled ghosts; VS Race in which you can set your own custom rules to liven things up; and Battle, where racers drive around tracks in any direction they wish to pop rivals’ balloons. Whilst players may lament the lack of smaller arenas in Battle mode, this works well and adds an element of tension in not knowing when a player will appear around the next corner.
That neatly leads us onto items, which deliver four new additions over the arsenal that players were previously able to equip themselves with. The Boomerang Flower is a satisfying weapon, especially when you’ve lined up a throw that will spin out multiple racers, whereas the Piranha Plant chomps forward to grant you boosts whilst also munching bananas, coins and nearby competitors. It is the sonic wave-emitting Super Horn that has been met with a gleeful response, allowing players to defend themselves from incoming Spiny Shells, whilst the Crazy Eight provides an assortment of items to use as you wish. Coins also make a return appearance, allowing you to heighten the speed of your kart, which is imperative on more challenging difficulties.
Drifting remains just as integral to speeding around each track in the quickest time through the Mini-Turbos that they continue to provide, whereas Jump Boosts, rewarded by performing tricks in mid-air, are important for keeping yourself at the forefront of the pack. Rubber banding, a bugbear throughout the kart racer’s history, is now relatively negated, with only a handful of aggravating instances that I encountered where I was suddenly robbed of victory by the AI that blitzed my racer with a sudden barrage of consecutive items nearing the end of the race.
Nintendo’s shift to HD development has already resulted in sublime results. But, in Mario Kart 8, Hideki Konno and his team have really made the hardware sing. 1080p and 60fps in single player is a visual treat that your eyeballs deserve to witness, whereas the drop to 30fps when three or four players get in on the action isn’t enough of a degradation to ever threaten the game from remaining insanely fun. The Nintendo Big Band have already displayed their skills in the recent Mario Kart 8 Direct, but the company’s pursuit of recording live music for their games continues to bring greater energy to the entire experience.
What will come as a disappointment is that Mario Kart 8’s unlockable content, whether that be racers or vehicle parts, have already been revealed. If that was part of Nintendo’s plan to divulge how bustling the game is with content ahead of launch is unclear, but we can at least find solace in a 30-strong character roster that is bolstered beyond the norm by the seven Koopalings, Baby Rosalina, and Pink Gold Peach. Hoarding Coins across all modes will reward you with a slow trickle of vehicle parts for you to experiment with, and there’s plenty of depth to be found in building karts, bikes and quads that suit your own play style.
Taking Mario Kart 8 into the online arena has been handled particularly well, and sees players placed into matches with relative ease. You’ll initially select whether to search for opponents globally, regionally, for registered friends and players met in previous races, or in tournaments that you’re participating within. After which players will be quickly pooled together and vote on which track they’d like to race around, before shortly being positioned on the starting grid.
It is in Mario Kart TV that we see Nintendo look to tap into the community spirit, allowing you to view saved highlight reels from your races or those uploaded by your friends. Reels from your 12 most recent races will be saved automatically, whereas players can mark up to six highlight reels as favourites. Whether taking inspiration from competitors or not it is noteworthy that Nintendo have integrated the option for these to be uploaded to YouTube, an exciting prospect that will see creative minds turn their clips into an extravaganza.
Mario Kart 8 is nothing short of sensational. Under the hood, it is an expertly tuned engine that roars at far more deafening proportions than anything that came before it. 22 years of continual refinement have allowed the incomparable Nintendo EAD to drift the series toward exquisite perfection, drawing on their own talents to craft a kart racer that is more thrilling and carefully balanced than it has ever been before.