Mario Kart 8 is the best Mario Kart game to date. It’s also just another Mario Kart game. The tension between those statements should be what makes up your decision whether to buy it or not.
Mario Kart 8: On the plus side
It feels like I’ve been playing Mario Kart for a very long time indeed.
There’s a reason for that. The first game in the series came out eighteen years ago, which means it’s entirely feasible that some of the audience reading this didn’t even exist when I was busy obsessively trying to best my flatmate’s time on Mario Circuit 1 all those years ago.
Why yes, I am old. I’m cool with that, because it’s meant I’ve had a lot more time to play Mario Kart than you have.
Mario Kart 8 is the Wii U’s version of Mario Kart, and if Nintendo sticks to its usual form, it’ll be the Wii U’s only Mario Kart game. Luckily, they haven’t really tweaked around the core Mario Kart formula all that much, which means that it’s a game that’s very well balanced — for the most part, more on that shortly — and has the benefit of being the best looking Mario Kart game yet.
Mind you, I’m still perfectly happy playing in fog-o-vision on the N64 version, or indeed within the limitations of Mode 7 on the SNES variant. Your tolerances may vary, but it’s hard to argue that Mario Kart 8 isn’t very pretty indeed, whether in full HD 60fps single player, or split screen — and slightly frame reduced — multiplayer.
Mario Kart 8 takes a number of the refinements seen in previous titles and smushes them together along with an antigravity mechanism that only tweaks around the racing edges even as it allows you to race on walls or ceilings of selected tracks. You get a slight boost for bumping in anti-gravity mode; I’m not sure if that’s how physics actually works, but for the sake of gameplay I’m happy enough to go with it.
Likewise, there’s really only tweaking around the edges with powerups, which now include a boomerang, a mobile piranha plant and a super horn that can, if used properly, stop blue shells from ruining your race. Again, more on that later.
Mario Kart 8 follows the standard Mario Kart template, with eight cups across three speed classes, unlockable car parts and characters and online play for up to twelve characters at once. Right now, it’s not impossible to find races online because the game is so particuarly new and therefore the community is interested. It’ll be fascinating to see how that evolves, especially as it comes not all that long after Nintendo shuttered the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service that made online multiplayer Mario Kart Wii possible. Thankfully you can opt for 1-4 player offline multiplayer as well.
Multiplayer is still where Mario Kart shines, and Mario Kart 8 is no exception to this rule. I can’t say I’ve heavily invested in online play to date, but then I haven’t needed to with kids around to “helpfully” race against me.
By helpfully, I mean shoot me with red, green and blue shells whenever feasible, and even sometimes to their own detriment. It’s a thing they do, but then that’s also very much part of Mario Kart 8’s competitive spirit. I could, were I so inclined, upload their parent-attacking antics to YouTube via the otherwise mediocre Mario Kart TV mode.
Mario Kart 8: On the minus side
There are some small matters that Mario Kart 8 could handle better. There seems to be a limit on the number of items that can be placed on a single track, as I’ve sometimes seen bananas vanish when new ones are being placed. Back in 1993 that might have been an acceptable limitation of technology, but in 2014, it’s less acceptable.
Being able to block the Blue Shell is nice in theory, but the Super Horn is relatively rare and very twitchy on its timing. Likewise the Piranha plant is a cute idea, but it’s not terribly far removed from the invulnerability star in terms of how it works. A little more variance in powerups might not have gone astray.
That points to the single largest criticism that can be levelled at Mario Kart 8.
It’s another case of Nintendo playing it safe with its core franchises, just adding a lick of HD paint along the way. Mario Kart games have always used the same “rubberband” AI system since their inception to keep things close, and while I appreciate that this is in the interests of appealing to the masses, it also rewards poorer play rather than better play per se.
This makes much the same point, predating Mario Kart 8, and it’s all still essentially true:
I can’t help but feel that 18 years after the series inception, Nintendo should be able to come up with something just a little better than “the player at the back gets lightning bolts and blue shells a-plenty”, especially as in human games, there’s often large gaps between players.
The Blue Shell will hunt down the lead player, but firing it off from the back of a 12 racer pack won’t necessarily mean that the driver in twelfth position actually benefits. It’s much more likely just to change the results for the first three or so places.
Battle mode is now set on regular tracks, and this just plain doesn’t work as well for multiplayer combat. Battle Mode was always the side dish for Mario Kart games, because random item giving in a straight up combat situation meant that there was even more reliance on luck, but now you’re placed on very large tracks trying the same tricks, and it’s just not as satisfying.
Mario Kart 8: Pricing
Mario Kart 8’s RRP is around $79, although at launch a number of retail outlets are selling it anywhere from around $55-$79.
If you buy it as a download title from the Nintendo eShop, there’s no such bargain-hunting to be had, although at the moment if you already own or buy Super Mario Kart they’ll knock $10.40 off the asking price for Mario Kart 8, effectively making Mario Kart “free” for now.
No matter which way you purchase it, as long as it’s before July 1st in Australia, you’ll be eligible for an additional bonus download game.
Mario Kart 8: Fat Duck Verdict
It’s interesting to note that while Super Mario Kart kicked the whole Karting game genre off back in 1992, there have been very few games that even approach its level of polish. That’s still true for Mario Kart 8.
But I can’t entirely ignore the fact that Mario Kart 8 is a retread with slightly nicer visuals. If you’ve played a lot of Mario Kart before, you’ll find Mario Kart 8 very accessible, but also incredibly familiar.
Having said that, it’s hard to argue against purchasing a game that’s been so effectively polished over so many years and so many different Nintendo console systems. Mario Kart 8 is undeniably the best version of Mario Kart to date. If you’re an existing Wii U owner, you should definitely pick up a copy, especially given the current free game promotion, which encompasses your choice of Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (Wii U version), GAME & WARIO, Pikmin 3, The Wonderful 101, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Sonic Lost World (Wii U version), Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games or Wii Party U.
What if you’re not? Is it a system seller on a system that’s badly in need of as many AAA titles as it can get?
Possibly not. That might sound contradictory, but I’ve long been a proponent of buying a system only when there’s at least half a dozen (or more) games that you really feel you must play, and can’t play elsewhere. The Wii U has some exceptional games, but not terribly many of them. Mario Kart 8 is a great game, but it’s still just another Mario Kart game, and for some that won’t quite be enough to make them fork over their hard earned cash.