Thundering into view, it could be said that there is a lot of hope currently riding on Mario Kart 8. Whilst Nintendo’s plans for E3 this year understandably remain shrouded in secrecy, retailers earlier this year indicated that they saw the return of their beloved kart racing series as the “one real last chance for Wii U“.
It could be said that the company thrive on such pressure, as Mario Kart 8’s gear shift into high definition is fast becoming Nintendo’s most resplendent achievement on the console yet. The Mushroom Kingdom once again comes alive in a vibrant spectrum of technicolor, the company’s penchant to paint their worlds with such vivid artistry easily striding to the fore.
As we already know, anti-gravity is Mario Kart 8’s most significant addition, making the experience all the more thrilling as you see competing drivers race overhead. This is most masterfully shown within the slate of new tracks that are being introduced, whether that be the Flower Cup’s wall-warping Twisted Mansion or driving around the Mushroom Cup’s colossal water wheel in Water Park. And it isn’t just the new arrivals that excite, as, in presumably addressing criticism levelled toward Mario Kart Wii, anti-gravity also works its way into classic tracks with Nintendo reinventing old favourites such as Toad’s Turnpike, plucked from Mario Kart 64.
But in all honesty, after feverishly playing the latest build it is nuance and pacing that set Mario Kart 8 apart from its predecessors. Whether that be the way that Mario’s moustache tussles in the breeze, the painstaking detail that is placed into each and every track, and the way that the audio sounds submerged whenever you drive through underwater sections. Inadvertently find yourself careering off the track, and Lakitu rescues and returns you to the midst of the pack in the blink of an eye. Collide with a competitor whilst speeding along any of the anti-gravity track segments and your character will be granted a Spin Turbo, spinning around only to recover with a speed boost. Nintendo want you to always be a part of the race rather than becoming frustrated by it, meaning that Mario Kart 8 feels the most fast-paced entry that they have ever delivered. And it’s all the better for it.
The Spiny Shell has been quelled in frequency, with a Coin pickup now returning to Item Boxes with the game retaining their use to hasten your character’s kart. The Fire Flower, introduced in Mario Kart 7, also returns, whilst new additions include a potted Piranha Plant that chomps nearby foes and Coins alike, as well as a Boomerang Bro. … err, Boomerang that can be thrown in repeated succession directly in front of you, hitting competitors on its outward and return journey.
The character roster is similarly bustling, thanks in large part to the arrival of the seven-strong Koopalings, whereas vehicle customisation across Karts, Bikes and Quads returns, allowing you to tweak your chosen character’s stats across speed, acceleration, weight, handling and grip. The Wiggler-themed Kart design proved a personal favourite, even if I couldn’t persuade my competitors of its charm. But it appears that there’ll be plenty of choice, visible from the Tanooki Hang Glider that we spotted a CPU character sporting even if it hadn’t been available to us ourselves.
In terms of the game’s graphical performance, Nintendo have been clear on some technicalities. Play alone or with another player, and the game will gleefully speed along at a comfortable 60 frames-per-second, whereas with three or four players this will drop to 30 frames-per-second. Switch between the two in quick succession and you’ll notice such change, but after a few races the unrivalled joy kicks in and you’ll soon ignore any discernible difference. As Nintendo have always taken pride in accomplishing, it’s the quality of the experience that counts, and Mario Kart 8 proves an absolute riot when you get others involved.
There’s still much that we don’t know about Mario Kart 8 having only been granted access to the game’s central, eight cup-strong Grand Prix mode, although only four were playable. But we could at least see what the other modes (Online – One Player, Online – Two Players, Time Trials, VS Race, and Battle) promise us.
However, those looking to enjoy local multiplayer will be pleased to hear that all control schemes are covered, whether that be playing with a standalone Wii Remote Plus or with Nunchuk, the Wii U Wheel, Classic Controller Pro, Wii U Pro Controller, and, naturally, the Wii U GamePad. Whilst GamePad integration doesn’t set the world alight, Off-TV Play is welcome, whereas the map allows many an informative glance to see either how far behind or ahead of the pack you are. And yes, the playful Horn is still there, which we couldn’t resist tapping repeatedly.
If there was anything to take from spending three hours with the game, it was just how much Mario Kart 8 has improved since the playable preview build at E3 2013. Displaying all the hallmarks of Nintendo’s fun above all else approach, this could easily become the best Mario Kart that we’ve ever been graced with. And precisely what the Wii U needs right now.