Before I begin this review I should point out that I’m the kind of guy who likes to complete games in order. You might be wondering what relevance this has, but I assure you it’s important. You see, it’s this compulsion to complete the game in order that almost made Mario Kart 8 seem underwhelming after I had been anticipating its release for months. Almost.
It’s been a while since I played a Mario Kart title, so I figured a good place to start would be with its 50cc engines. I had decided to keep my knowledge of Mario Kart 8 and its new features to a bare minimum prior to the release date in order to be surprised by everything new the game had to offer. Jumping into the first race, things seemed promising. The game looked amazing, the ability to defy gravity and hover over the track was fun and it was everything I remembered being great about the franchise. As I progressed through the different championships however, things started to feel stale and borderline boring. I was winning each event comfortably and there was little in the way of a challenge. I was beginning to feel like the game lacked depth and that the tracks were too simplistic.
I then moved onto the 100cc and 150cc events, and it was here where Mario Kart 8 really begian to fall into its stride. Putting aside the obvious difference that the karts go a lot quicker, there’s a whole new dynamic that opens up when you switch to the larger engine class. Most importantly, you begin to appreciate the layers and strategy that go into finishing a race in first. Now I’ve played through all the previous Mario Kart titles bar the very original on the SNES, and while I’ve always understood the importance of drifting or timing your jump off ledges for boost, I’ve never really quite implemented a strategy as strongly as I have with MK8.
Combining constant drifting, taking the racing line and jumping off bumps/ledges for extra boost are all fundamentals to guarantee success; this is then combined with clever item management to ensure you’ve always got a banana or shell to defend attacks from behind, trying to steal mushroom boosts as they circle around your opponents, drafting and remembering the shortest routes. When an unfortunate barrage of shells, bananas and other power-ups can see you go from first to middle of the pack, trying to claw your way back by the end of the third lap makes for some really fun yet rewarding gameplay. Being a second behind first place and firing a well-aimed green shell to hit an opponent just moments from the finish line to take the win will certainly be a highlight.
There’s no denying that Mario Kart 8 looks spectacular and keeps with Nintendo’s tradition of delivering colourful and inviting environments, but it’s the level of detail that really needs to be applauded here. Smoke wrapping around your rear tires as you do your pre-race burnout, the colour of your wheels changing as you drive over dirt or ice and seeing skid marks along the track as you and your opponents drift around the course all just come together and it’s great to see how far the franchise has progressed since its beginnings. No longer is racing simply restricted to the ground either, with most races now including anti-gravity sections, underwater routes or even requiring you to fly through the air. I’ve yet to properly conclude whether speed is affected depending on your terrain, although it does add some nice variety to the gameplay.
Track design in previous Mario Kart titles has always been a strong point of the franchise, and for the greater part they don’t disappoint in MK8 either. Of the 16 brand new tracks each looks unique and there’s some truly awesome circuits – Sunshine Airport has you driving throughout an airport and amongst aeroplanes, Mount Wario is a fantastically varied and exciting three-part track that begins with you dropping out of an cargo plane and travelling down the mountainside, through a dam and through a ski course and Bowser’s Castle not only adds additional challenges as you complete each lap, but looks great too. Keeping with tradition there are also 16 tracks which have been re-created from previous Mario Kart titles, but it’s here where I’ve got mixed feelings.
I love the fact that Nintendo have spent the time to bring back player favourites from previous titles (Yoshi Valley and Royal Raceway from MK64 are personal favourites of mine), and I love how they’ve updated some of them with new twists and challenges too, but it just seems that the tracks are shorter, and this was something I felt was a problem with the new tracks too. It just felt like the race was over far too soon. My only other gripe is that Princess Peach’s caste in Royal Raceway is now blocked off and the Rainbow Road from MK64 is a three-part course rather than a three-lap course. These are two courses I remember fondly as a kid and it’s a shame, particularly with the latter, that Nintendo didn’t just re-create the course exactly as it was almost two decades ago just with updated visuals. Don’t get me started on battle mode either; the lack of proper arenas to duke it out on means the mode’s not really worth playing.
There’s no denying that Mario Kart 8 is a solid and enjoyable title, and a great addition to what is one of my personal favourite franchises. The game adds some great new features like anti-gravity and underwater tracks and the ability to perform flips while jumping off a ledge and combined with the various elements I mentioned above, adds a really welcomed level of depth to the game that saw me enjoying the races far more than I have in a previous Mario Kart title. At the same time, there have been some features which have been removed such as the ability to hold more than one item at a time (which makes item management a little more difficult), but there’s nothing that spoils the gaming experience. Is it to suggest you should buy a Wii U right now for this game? Maybe, but if you own one you’d be making a mistake not to check it out.
Mario Kart 8