Game review by Steve Cullum.
Game – Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
Release Date – May 30, 2014
ESRB – E for Everyone
MSRP – $59.99 US
Obtained – eShop download code via Nintendo of America
Last year, Nintendo announced the newest installment of their Mario Kart franchise would launch for Wii U in 2014. Mario Kart 8 is set to bring some new elements into the kart-racing genre, but is it enough to get you to fork over your hard earned cash for another loop around the Mushroom Kingdom? Not only did I get a chance to play early demos last year at E3, but I’ve put in over 20 hours with an early review copy. So, buckle up, and get ready for a ride through the ups and downs of Mario Kart 8.
In case you have been living under a rock (joking!), let me first start by quickly explaining the premise of Mario Kart. You and up to 11 others (either real people or CPU players) will race around 32 Mario-themed tracks, all while hurling items, like shells and Bob-ombs, at each other. Your goal is to win. Simple enough, right?
One of the new elements in Mario Kart 8 are the new items. The boomerang allows you three throws, the piranha plant goes after other things or racers in your way while giving you a boost each time it lunges, the super horn gives a blast that takes out even a blue spiny shell, and the Crazy-8 gives you eight items circling your kart. Also, other items have been tweaked. For instance, you can only hold one item at a time, and all triple-items all circle your kart, which could definitely change your strategy. All in all, I think these are welcomed changes, as they could even out the competition.
For the grand prix mode, there are eight cups with four tracks each. Of the 32 tracks, 16 are brand new and 16 are remixed stages from past Mario Kart games. You can pick between 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc, which each increase both the speed and difficulty level. In addition to the grand prix mode, you can also compete in VS matches, where you pick whatever track you want; time trials, where you go for your fastest time; and battles, where you solely try to knock out your competition with items found around the track.
Speaking of the different modes, I actually expected a little more from Mario Kart 8. Don’t get me wrong. What is offered is top notch, but it is incredibly simple. There are not really anything new, except that you can now go through a grand prix with four players. Even the battle mode has been cut back to only Balloon Battle on eight of the same tracks used for racing. In recent editions, we have had at least one other battle game, but that is not the case in Mario Kart 8. Some may say this simplicity is a great thing, as they have focused on what makes Mario Kart great, and I find it hard to disagree; however, it would have been nice to have more brand new elements.
Your controller options, though, are huge in this game. You can use the GamePad, Pro Controller, Wii Remote, Classic Controller, Wii Remote with Nunchuk, or the Wii Wheel. All controls are basically the same as Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7. You will steer with either the motion controls, analog stick, or control pad. All other actions, like acceleration, braking, using items, and drifting are all mapped to a specific button. It is cool too note that if you are using a GamePad or Pro Controller, you can also accelerate using the right analog stick. This is a nice option for people who want more control over their speed, instead of the all-or-nothing you get with a button. I really like how they did not complicate the controls, as it makes it easy for anyone to pick up and play.
The simplistic model continues in the course and character selection. Even with the ability to go bigger, they kept the track list the same as it has been since Mario Kart DS. Similarly, the roster tops out at 30 characters. While this is the largest roster, many fan favorites have been left out, including Birdo, King Boo, and Diddy Kong. In their place, though, are several new characters, consisting of Baby Rosalina, Pink Gold Peach, and the seven Koopalings. While the Koopalings are cool, I’m still wondering what the point of a pinkish-gold heavy Peach is in the game. It might be the oddest character ever included in Mario Kart.
Now, due to the game’s simplicity in modes, I believe they were able to push the Wii U hardware considerably, especially in terms of graphics. Let me just say that this game is beautiful! Each track looks like an amazing HDR photo that you can drive through. On top of that, there are so many details put into every course. Unfortunately, though, you will often overlook them as you race around. If you take some time, though, and forget about winning the race, you will notice little touches of brilliance. For example, you may notice the track keeping the tire tracks and skid marks after each lap. You might see the hot air balloons actually firing to go higher. And you may catch water droplets forming on your screen just after you emerge from the water.
On top of the little touches, this game flies, especially in 150cc single-player matches. The 60 frames-per-second make this the smoothest Mario Kart game I have ever played. Even when playing in off-TV mode, on the GamePad, it looked fantastic! It is so smooth, in fact, that I had to take a break after I first started playing it, because I was starting to get motion sickness. After a few races, though, my mind adjusted and I was fine. Unfortunately, though, the speed takes a hit when playing multiplayer. While it is probably not something someone will notice right away, especially if they have not played the single-player mode, it is noticeable to someone like me, who has spent a ton of time playing on my own. Realistically, though, the game still looked great even in less frames-per-second.
Even online, the game never stuttered or showed any sign of problems. In fact, the entire online mode works great. You can choose to race people around the world, only in your region, or just your friends. You can also setup tournaments, which operate similarly to the communities from Mario Kart 7. Unfortunately, I did not get much experience with tournaments, due to the low number of people currently online. When I did race with others, though, I found the entire process to be simple and smooth. One cool new feature for online play is the ability to use voice-chat for the first time in a Mario Kart game. Unfortunately, though, it seems it is limited to your friend-list and only in the lobby.
Let’s take a quick moment to talk more about multiplayer. You know how the Wii U has this special GamePad with a separate screen? And do you know how much Nintendo has stated they want to show the benefit of having that special controller? Maybe some of you even know how other games have utilized the GamePad in creative ways. Please tell me why there is no five-player option for local multiplayer, then. Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed does it on Wii U, and it works great. Yet, Mario Kart 8 keeps it at only four players. Other Wii U games, like Call of Duty: Ghosts and the aforementioned Sonic racing game, allow for one player to be solely on the GamePad during local multiplayer. Sadly, this is not the case for Mario Kart 8. Instead, the GamePad just mirrors the TV when playing local multiplayer. This is definitely not a deal-breaker, but it is certainly unfortunate and, in my opinion, a missed opportunity.
Do you want to know something else that is fantastic, though? Let’s talk music. I have never really paid much attention to the music in previous Mario Kart games. It’s always been fun, but it’s never something that overwhelmed me. This time, however, it is completely different. Many of the songs are full orchestral recordings, which are amazing. The music also changes, depending on the race lap or what is happening in the race. The music is so good, in fact, that I often find myself going back to race some tracks again and again just because I want to hear its music again.
As stated earlier, you are not limited to only racing. You can also battle it out in one of eight tracks. Yes, you read that correctly. I said tracks. Instead of giving us open-world maps like they have in previous Mario Kart games, this time we get eight of the racetracks in which to battle. While at first, I was shocked and confused, I quickly realized this was not as bad as it seems. While I would have liked at least two open-world maps, battling on a racetrack wasn’t as horrible as I initially thought it would be. Nonetheless, it does make it seem like they were a bit lazy with battle this time. At least, they brought Balloon Battle back closer to its roots, with not allowing you to regenerate balloons (i.e. Mario Kart Wii).
Mario Kart 8 brings back the underwater racing and gliders from Mario Kart 7, but in terms of brand new elements, they have added anti-gravity. Now, whenever you cross over a blue strip, your tires will turn sideways, allow you to hover, and provide the ability to drive on walls and even upside-down. This adds a new aspect to racing. Not only is the screen moving a bit more, but you can also bump into other racers and some track elements to give you a speed boost. This does take some time to adjust, but once you get the hang of it, you will probably enjoy racing all around the track. Unfortunately, this is the only real addition to the game’s mechanics. Everything else is basically the same as Mario Kart 7.
Also similar to Mario Kart 7, you can customize your kart, bike, or [new] ATV. As you progress through the game, collecting coins on each track, you will unlock more items to use. For instance, after you collect 50 coins, you will unlock a new kart, bike, or ATV. You could also unlock new tires or a new glider. There are quite a few options for each item, too. Eventually, you will find your favorite. Be careful, though, as some combinations might work well for one track, but they might not be the best for another track. While this is a cool touch, it does make it annoying when your custom kart does not match up well with the track chosen later online. And they do not make it easy to just switch it out. You must back out of everything, and start over. So, my recommendation is to go with a versatile setup.
There is one other new feature this time around that is important to mention. Mario Kart TV now allows you to replay each race once you finish. You can play highlights from part of the race or the entire thing. While watching, you can focus on certain characters, but you can also fast-forward, rewind, and enable slow-motion. This adds a new element into watching a race again. However, they did not stop there. You can also post these highlights to Miiverse or, as long as you choose a highlight reel under 60 seconds, to your personal YouTube channel. So, next time you are really proud of a particular race, you can share it with all your friends. This is a very nice addition, and it should also help raise awareness about the game. A win-win, right?
In the end, there is really very little to critique. The graphics are beautiful, the music is amazing, and it is very fun to play. The only negatives really come down to the lack of brand new game-changing content. They did not really push the franchise into a bold new direction. It is basically the same Mario Kart we have grown to know and love through the years, but in a fresh new look. I think that is a really good thing. They focused like a laser on what makes Mario Kart fun, and they did it extremely well. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Nevertheless, I do wish they gave us another new mode or two, added a few more tracks, and replaced Pink Gold Peach with someone like Diddy Kong. We can only hope they will add DLC down the road. With that said, I believe Nintendo has done it again with an extremely fun kart-racer, and I highly recommend you pick it up or download it as soon as you can!
FINAL SCORE: 9 out of 10
+ Looks beautiful!
+ Music is amazing.
+ Very fun!
+ Voice-chat when playing with friends online.
+ Easy to control, but still challenging for the “hard-core.”
- Few brand new elements for the franchise.
- Pink Gold Peach.
- Lack of 5-player local multiplayer.
Looking for more of our Mario Kart 8 coverage?
- Mario Kart 8 – Everything We Know
- Mario Kart 8 – How to Unlock Everything
- Mario Kart 8 – All Characters
- Mario Kart 8 – Full Track List
Mario Kart 8 Trailer
Updated on May 15, 2014 (4:05 AM ET) to include a couple areas I originally glossed over, like the new items.