Review: Mario Kart 8
Make no mistake; Mario Kart 8 is pitch-perfect.I don’t often review games. When I do, it’s usually in loud bursts, mid-play – more often than not loaded with expletives. Every now and again, a game deserves a little more that an outburst. Mario Kart 8 has at times forced me to conjure up out of me some quite labyrinthine phrases of rage. How else can you respond to being robbed on the final straight by Baby Peach? A baby has just crushed your chance of a 3-star rating on the Special Cup. A baby… And she does it with a face crammed full of that trademark magical glee Nintendo injects into the very best of their titles. I was seething.
Make no mistake; Mario Kart 8 is pitch-perfect. From the tracks to the kart handling, it sings. The anticipation builds every time Lakitu hovers above the start line; 12 racers, engines revving, hungry for battle – because Mario Kart has always been as much about racing as it has been about surviving. There are no loyalties on the track, don’t let its sunny veneer distract you from the brutal war that wages across three laps (and the occasional point-to-point race). Like all great Mario Kart games, this is a game of precision parabolas sliced by choices of risk and reward.
You’ll be battling across four new cups, comprised of four races each, along with another 16 tracks from previous iterations. Mushroom Cup is a relatively gentle introduction. Anti-gravity racing, gliding, under-water racing – you’ll race the gambit. It’s exhilarating, it’s glorious; presented in full HD, and a silky smooth 60fps, it couldn’t be asked for more. Flower Cup and Star Cup up the difficulty. Mario Circuit is a tight, tangled affair; a track asking for power slides. Twisted Mansion will punish you for complacency with its undulating floors while Mount Wario is a dizzying point-to-point race down a mountain that will leave you behind if you aren’t on top of your game. Special Cup is home to Mario Kart 8’s toughest races, including the infamous Rainbow Road. These are the tracks that are fun precisely because they are perilous; whether its an edgeless Cloudtop Cruise or the fire-laden Bowser’s Castle – this is where you’ll find chaos breeding drama.
The Retro Courses are adapted so well that they could be mistaken for making their debut. Moo Moo Meadows, with its sunset lighting, is especially gorgeous. The only real disappointment among all the tracks in the game is the N64’s Toad’s Turnpike. With roads too wide and slow, lifeless vehicles, it is the one track that perhaps could have done with a more aggressive overhaul. Meanwhile, the N64’s Rainbow road track also feels wider, easier to navigate. As well as being turned into a point-to-point race (with no option to return it to its 3-lap glory), it’s a shadow of its former self. But these are minor criticisms in an otherwise formidable array of tracks.
The only place Mario Kart 8 truly falters is in Battle Mode. Gone are arenas, instead replaced by a limited choice of tracks. An overhaul of the points system also sees points awarded for the number of hits on opponents, although each racer still only has three balloons, as opposed to last-man-standing – and with 12 players taking part in these battles it feels much less refined than the battle modes of past Mario Kart games. In light of just how brilliant the racing is, the loss of a more bespoke Battle Mode is all the sadder.
There are a couple more strange choices made by the design team. The race map is relegated to the Wii U GamePad with no apparent option for displaying it on the main display. This is a two-fold problem because first, Mario Kart is a fast game that requires faster reactions – and looking down is a distraction that isn’t easily afforded – and secondly, it means the race map is only available to the player with the GamePad. The use of the GamePad essentially renders the race map utterly useless – so much for innovation. The second bizarre decision is to not have race times; there are no lap times and no split between racers either (unless explicitly playing Time Trial mode). Finally, and its only a small detail, but there’s no podium cut-scene when completing a cup. While this might be a small detail, it’s a strange lack of bookend – there’s no time to chide your beaten opponents, no gloating celebration of your brilliant victory. I’ll admit again that it is a small detail, but it’s one that is sadly missed.
Nintendo is keen to push Mario Kart 8 as an attempt to rectify previous online misteps, with online Grand Prix, Time Trial and Battle modes for 1 or 2 players. We were able to get online to have a match and aside from some initial connectivity problems - stemming from one player uploading something - it worked perfectly. The only noticeable difference between local multiplayer and online was a slight pause before Lakitu began counting down to the mayhem.
Unfortunately, voice chat is limited to the lobby. While this has its uses, it's exclusion from matches is a let down. Playing Mario Kart is always a very verbal affair, and while some of those words will offend Nintendo's family policy, the exclusion of in-game chat made the experience feel hollow. Knowing that I was with someone, but couldn't laugh at their peril when I pipped them to 1st, dampened the atmosphere. Or, to put it another way - I Have no Mouth, and I Must Scream.
Mario Kart TV allows players to watch highlights, or the full race, after the fact and even upload it to YouTube. With a variety of options, including which players to focus on and what kind of action to showcase, you can craft some fun videos that can be played at any speed. We managed to rewatch some good moments, and spot others we hadn't even noticed, and it's bound to be a hit with friends that enjoy lauding their victories.
For the first time in the series' history, the soundtrack was recorded by a full orchestra and it really pops. If you've enjoyed the music in previous games, this is going to be no different. From the triumphant theme tune to the melodious track pieces, audiophiles will be in heaven playing Mario Kart 8.
Make no mistake however, Mario Kart 8 is a solid title and a shining example of what the Wii U can do. Unfortunately it is an example of how the GamePad can be a hindrance, rather than an innovation, but it is the end result of a series that has been so expertly refined, any missteps are forgivable. The Mario Kart series has always been about a flat-out battle on the roads, with all of the charm and fun that Nintendo is able to provide, and Mario Kart 8 lives up to this history.
--- Additional reporting by Ashley Jones
N-Europe Final Verdict
A fantastic showcase of Nintendo's ability to create a fun, well-tuned, game. This is exactly what the Wii U needs, and exactly what you should own.
- Gameplay 5
- Playability 5
- Visuals 5
- Audio 4
- Lifespan 5
- Full HD in 60fps
- Tremendous fun with friends and online
- Creative new tracks
- New features well integrated into retro maps
- Lack of on-screen map, lap times and online in-game chat
- Battle Mode feels weaker