Mario Kart 8 Review

The latest installment in the world’s #1 karting series is finally here. After decades of great racing experiences, Mario Kart 8 aims to be the culmination and perfection of all that came before it, and it surpasses that goal with ease. The core gameplay of Mario Kart 8 is as brilliantly fun as ever, and this eighth entry feels like the crowning achievement of the series.

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Truth be told, all the videos and screen shots in the world do not do this game justice. I have watched countless streams, gameplay previews, trailers, etc., but when I finally saw Mario rev up his kart for the first time on my own TV, my jaw dropped. It really is a beautiful thing to see. The color, the lighting, the sheer detail; all of it is gorgeous. Nintendo has pushed the power of the Wii U to the max with this one. You will have almost as much fun looking at Mario Kart 8 as you will playing it.

“… when I finally saw Mario rev up his kart for the first time on my own TV, my jaw dropped.”

But play it you must. Never in the history of the series have I seen course design like this. Previous installments seem to have a few impressive tracks, and then a few tracks that are more yawn-worthy (see Maka Wuhu from Mario Kart 7). In this new Wii U racer, every track is brimming with a fresh idea or design concept. You will drive up waterfalls, on top of giant eels, down ski slopes, across dams, into an active thunderstorm, underneath an airliner in mid-takeoff, alongside dolphins, through space stations, and all over a Nintendo-style rave party. Long story short, you will not be bored. Like most entries before it, Mario Kart 8 features 16 brand new courses and 16 retro courses. Thankfully, the new tracks don’t completely rely on the cool new anti-gravity mechanic to make them work. While they do use that mechanic in several exciting ways, the tracks themselves are full of life on their own. Unique layouts, clever shortcuts, split paths, and insane attention to detail are all part of what keeps the courses from getting boring.

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“Never in the history of the series have I seen course design like this.”

But that’s just the new courses. Nintendo has outdone themselves with the retro courses as well. In previous games, the retro tracks never really felt all that fresh. Nintendo would add a few cool extras here and there, but for the most part you were just racing on the same track again. In Mario Kart 8, it’s obvious that they went to great lengths to ensure that each retro track is totally revitalized and interesting. I enjoyed many of the old tracks just as much as the new ones, and sometimes more. Toad’s Turnpike and Cheep Cheep Beach are just two examples of how the retro courses feel brand-new as a result of adding these new mechanics, not to mention the fact that they are all rebuilt in stunning HD.

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Whenever you aren’t gawking at the gorgeous environments, you’ll probably be trying to figure out which way is up. I got rather involved in a race with Princess Peach and suddenly noticed that her pony tail was sticking straight up in the air. I thought it was a glitch for a split second. Then I realized I was upside down. We’ve known about the anti-gravity mechanic in this game since its announcement last year, but some were worried that it wouldn’t be enough to make the game interesting. I can assure you that the way Nintendo implements it is quite clever and engaging. It’s so cool to be zooming along the twisting roads of Mario Circuit, then suddenly looking to your right and noticing that Peach’s Castle is upside-down. Or to be driving straight into what seems like a wall of water, when in reality it’s actually you who is on the wall. Furthermore, driving in anti-gravity completely changes your strategy. Running into other drivers suddenly becomes a good thing, because it gives each of you a small boost of speed. Playing with that idea and learning how to take advantage of it will keep you entertained for hours.

“… driving in anti-gravity completely changes your strategy.”

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The one real downer in this game was Battle Mode. For some strange reason, Nintendo decided that it would be a good idea for everyone to duke it out on normal race tracks instead of arenas. This unfortunately just doesn’t work well at all. It is a pain to do a u-turn on almost all the tracks, and u-turns are pretty essential in Battle Mode. The tracks are far too narrow for this, and force you to 3-point turn instead, which is a really quick way to kill the fun of chasing someone down. And that’s ignoring the fact that just driving around trying to locate opponents on a traditional course is pretty annoying. Having said all that, I’m really glad that Battle Mode is what Nintendo got wrong, and not the other way around. To be fair, most people really never play Battle Mode much, so it does little to impair the overall experience.

Even though an old concept may have been ruined, there’s a new concept on the block now called Mario Kart TV. In a nutshell, it lets you watch replays of your races and rehash all those friendship-shattering moments of greatness, then upload them directly to YouTube to ensure permanent hatred. The coolest part is that the game does a pretty good job of picking out all the top most exciting moments in the game and showcasing those. On top of that, you can hold down “B” at any time to drop everything into slo-mo, which is insanely cool to watch, and really shows off the beauty of the game. One gaping hole in Mario Kart TV is complete lack of camera control. If your greatest moment happens to be caught at the wrong angle, too bad. There’s no way swing the shot around to the other side of the action. However, you’ll probably be glad about that when you’re on the receiving end of the infamous blue shell.

“… there isn’t one nook or cranny of the game that wasn’t given a lot of attention… ”

I think the one phrase that can really sum up Mario Kart 8 is “attention to detail.” And I don’t just mean graphically, though the incredible attention to visual detail in this game is phenomenal (down to little cracks in the painted stripes on the road). I’m also talking about more subtle things, like the precisely fine-tuned controls. Each character and kart variation has a distinct weight and feel, and react to the player and the environment more realistically than ever. You don’t notice how perfect it is at the beginning because it just feels so… real. And that’s possibly the best proof of how good it is. Then there’s the sound effects. Each kart/bike/ATV has a unique engine sound. All the classic effects have been updated as well to sound more crisp and exciting, from the item roulette to the sound of a spinning green shell. Each of these things by themselves may not be enough to make a difference, but there isn’t one nook or cranny of the game that wasn’t given a lot of attention, and that adds up to a fantastic experience for the player. Mario Kart 8 certainly could have ended up being “just another Mario Kart,” but I can promise you that it is anything but that.

I give Mario Kart 8 a 9.8 out of 10.

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