Mario Kart has, since 1996, been one of the best casual racing games around, not just on Nintendo, but possibly across the gamut of consoles. It’s also the greatest example of rubberband racing you’ll ever come across. Now in its eighth iteration, it’s time once again to hit the tracks and see whether the latest in kart racing is a slow start, or a mad dash for the finish. (Ed: You enjoy coming up with these ridiculous puns, don’t you?)
Anyone who hasn’t played Mario Kart before is missing out on probably one of the greatest multiplayer racing experiences ever concocted; for that matter, it set the record as the very first go-kart racing video game ever. Heck, even the Guinness Book of Records ranks Super Mario Kart for N64 the number one console game of all time (along with other records such as best-selling racing game ever). Much of the game’s glory can be attributed to a single powerup: the Spiny Shell aka the Blue Shell, aka the Great Equalizer, aka many other unsavoury words that I will not use in this review. For those of you who aren’t aware, the Spiny Shell has one mission: hunt down the player in first place, and knock them senseless, allowing other racers to overtake. It’s glorious if you fired it, and worth several screams of frustration if you’re the recipient. In fact, Mario Kart is one of the few games to actively punish you for playing well. And oddly enough, this is precisely where all the fun is. Schadenfreude: it’s what humans are made of (Fun fact: the English word for “schadenfreude” is “epicaricacy”. Now you know.)
Anyhow, to get back to the review itself, Mario Kart 8—the first Mario Kart game to be displayed in Glorious Full HD™—sees the biggest lineup of characters ever seen in this series, with a new baby version of Rosalina being introduced, as well as the introduction of the Koopa Kids (but no sign of Bowser Jr). Of course, the old favourites are still there, but it’s by no means the full list of characters to ever appear in Mario Kart. At 30 characters, though, it’s still an impressive list. The racetracks themselves are no less impressive either, with 16 new tracks, and 16 retro tracks from older games in the series retooled into Glorious Full HD™. Visually, the game is simply beautiful, and I don’t say it lightly. The environments and characters are stunningly detailed, and each kart gets its own personalized treatment. One of the nicer graphical touches, for example, is that when you collect a powerup, the character is actively holding the powerup in their left hand, meaning that you don’t have to search the screen to figure out what your chosen racer is holding.
Perhaps the biggest change to the game is the addition of new Anti-Gravity sections to the tracks, where the walls and ceiling literally become part of the track, and normal track rules don’t apply. The nature of the racing also changes during these parts of the track, too: bumping into other players gives you a boost, so it becomes a bumper-car experience on top of go-karting. It takes a bit of time to get used to NOT avoiding the other players—it’s hard to overcome years of conditioning. You’ll be about halfway through an A-G section, happily avoiding everyone when you suddenly go “oh wait”, and then the fun REALLY begins. It’s awesome. Take my word.
Many of the powerups from older games return here, but there are a couple of new ones. The Piranha Plant attaches a—what else?—piranha plant to the front of your kart, allowing you to literally eat up your opponents. The plant has a mind of its own, so all you need to do is come in close proximity to someone else for the plant to perform its vindictive move. The other new powerup is the Boomerang Plant that saw a debut in Super Mario 3D Land. Here you get three tosses of the boomerang at someone in front of (or behind) you, with the associated mayhem you’d expect. The Lucky Seven from Mario Kart 7 returns here as Crazy Eight, a pickup that shows eight powerups circling around you. Quite literally, pick your weapon. See this screenshot below.
Another new feature is Mario Kart TV, which allows you to edit a highlight reel of your race and upload it to the Miiverse or YouTube. You’ll obviously require a YouTube account to perform the uploads, but expect a slew of Mario Kart 8 videos to suddenly proliferate around the video sharing site, probably showing the most vindictive, judicious uses of the Spiny Shell that you’ll ever see.
In terms of multiplayer, Mario Kart 8 features both local and online multiplayer, with four and twelve players respectively. Local is about what you’d expect, and no different to what’s been before, unless you’re using the gamepad to play, in which case you get a horn button. Yep! A big, stonking button that honks the horn. It sounds like it should be lame, but it’s the kind of thing that just adds that extra something. Of course, if you don’t want the horn, you can change the gamepad’s display to an overview of the track, or to mimic the TV display. But we’re discussing multiplayer here. To play online (which supports up to two local players), each player requires a Nintendo Network ID. Once you have that, you’re good to go! Finding a game is an incredibly simple affair: first select whether you want to play against local racers, the entire planet, or just rivals. The game handles the matchmaking with little aplomb, but you’re matched fairly evenly with others from what I saw. Once you’re in a match, you spectate the remainder of the race your new soon-to-be enemies friends are playing, and then in you go to the voting screen for the track. There was little noticeable lag, and the track loaded in about the same amount of time as the single-player experience. In short, seamless, painless, and quick. It’s also great to be able to take a Nintendo title online this easily, and race against the entire planet.
To be honest, although the Wii U isn’t selling well currently, I do believe that this game is one of the best reasons to pick one up, although certainly not the only reason. It’s clear that a crazy amount of thought went into the game to make it appeal to the widest possible audience without sacrificing quality gaming. It also supports just about every controller that the Wii U can support, from the gamepad to Wii Remotes using tilt sensors, to Wii Remotes with the Nunchuck attached, to the classic controller, to the Pro Controller. It supports the old Wii wheel as well, if you enjoyed playing with that. It’s amazingly kid friendly, and easy enough for the noobiest noob to pick up.
It’s difficult to find fault with the game. The same old mechanics that made the originals so much fun have not gone away, and the addition of the new anti-gravity mechanic adds enough to bring experienced players back. There are only the three main modes with the game, however (race, battle, and grand prix), lacking any mission modes from some of the older games in the series. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a fun racer, but despite its colourful and youthful appearance, is actually a lot more fun that you’d expect. If you haven’t got a Wii U, then seriously, this is the time to get one, because the best casual racer you’ll play all year has just arrived.
Final Score: 9.5 Spiny Shelled prawns out of 10
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa (Core Group)
Platform: Wii U
RRP: R650 (R750 for the awesome Limited Edition with the Spiny Shell statue!)
Release Date: 30 May 2014