Mario Kart 8 Review (Wii U)
Do you really need another Mario Kart? After appearing on every significant Nintendo system since 1992, most gamers likely own at least one Mario Kart cartridge, disc or eShop download.
If that's true of your collection, then “Nope.” could be your answer -- especially if you're the kind of player who prefers to race solo, or loves popping balloons in Battle Mode, because Mario Kart 8 does those things about as well as Princesses Peach's servants do their guard duty.
On the flip side, if you were upset when, two weeks ago, Nintendo suddenly pulled the plug on Mario Kart Wii's and Mario Kart DS' online servers, your answer will be a resounding "Yes!" as Mario Kart 8's lag-free, 12-person network play is worth shelling out another $60, just to replace that non-functioning component of your old copies.
And if, somehow, you don't have access to any existing Mario Kart -- not even on friends' or neighbors' televisions -- then this eighth edition should still elicit a slightly less enthusiastic "Yes."
Apart from the Super Nintendo original, Mario Kart has always been a series where item luck, not driver skill, can be the difference between placing first and finishing fifth. That tradition continues, to the delight of casual players and the dismay of serious racing fans, in the franchise's eighth installment.
New power-ups like the three-shot boomerang, carnivorous piranha plant and devastating “crazy eight,” which awards eight different items at once, join an already loaded arsenal that includes red shells, blue shells, bullet bills, bob-ombs, bloopers, fire flowers, lightning strikes and superstars.
Mario Kart 8's one new defensive item, a horn that disrupts incoming projectiles and slams nearby drivers with a soundwave, could have been a nice counter-balance to the insane amount of weapon spam that you'll face in 12-player, 150cc races. But in Grand Prix mode, the super horn's so rare that you might only see it once per cup. Instead, the first place driver is typically given a surplus of coins from randomized item boxes, leaving his or her tailpipe vulnerable to attack. Even when you do have a banana peel or green shell backing you up, Mario Kart 8's barrage of items is so intense, that you're frequently put in situations where the only option is spinning out, at the cost of three precious coins.
The coin system, which originated in Super Mario Kart and was reintroduced in Mario Kart 7, feels like an unnecessary layer atop an already complex driving system, which includes airborne trick boosts, drive-over turbo strips, zero-gravity collision boosts, slipstream drafting and two degrees of power sliding boosts. Because coins are rarely placed along the fastest racing lines, and instead, are often planted in out-of-the-way locations, grabbing them feels more like a chore than a reward for expert cornering. It's not the kind of chore you can ignore, either, as the amount of coins in your driver's pocket directly affects his or her top speed. Competing online, which seems to reduce the odds of obtaining overpowering items, often feels more like a race to collect the maximum 10 coins and reach top speed rather than a turn-by-turn contest of driver skill.
Another Mario Kart 7 invention, hang glider and submarine attachments, allows go-karts to float through clouds or swim among sea creatures. These gliding sections, however, are so short and simple that they add little to the game, beyond some slight visual variety. Aside from slightly reduced speed, the underwater areas control so similarly to the standard asphalt racing, that their inclusion also feels inconsequential. The same could be said for Mario Kart 8's new wall-climbing, upside-down, anti-gravity sections, which transition so subtly that you'll hardly notice when your magnetic, neon blue wheels are being used. During cramped split-screen racing, though, these zero-gravity moments have a tendency to create more confusion than fun, due to sightline issues.
After eight iterations over a 22-year span, it's disappointing that Nintendo's single-player experience still hasn't evolved beyond the basic Time Trials and Grand Prix modes. Mario Kart veterans should be able to defeat all the staff ghosts and finish every 150cc cup within one fun but short-lived weekend. After that, there's little left for solo players to accomplish, aside from shaving seconds off course records, or unlocking a few marginally different bike parts.
Mario Kart 8 contains the standard mix of 16 completely new courses and 16 remastered tracks pulled from previous entries. The 32 raceways may seem like a large number, but because laps tend to last less than a minute, it still feels like there's a shortage of roadways to explore. While tracks are packed with plenty of moving parts, character cameos and lively scenery, the roads are so wide and fail-safe, that the actual racing can become a bit boring. Even classic courses like Yoshi Valley (Nintendo 64) and Royal Raceway (Nintendo 64) are now much easier, thanks to added guard rails and wider pavement. The redesigned version of Rainbow Road, like Royal Raceway, has even had its super-jump shortcut removed, and has been edited down to a single anticlimactic lap, instead of its original three.
Nintendo's clone-filled, 30-character roster is equally disappointing, as five spots are wasted on pacifier-chewing “baby” versions of existing racers. Two additional spaces are squandered on metallic re-skins of Mario and Princess Peach. Past Mario Kart entrants, such as Dry Bones, Birdo, Boo, Diddy Kong and Funky Kong are conspicuously absent. Mario Kart 8's only new contestants, Bowser's seven Koopaling minions, are mostly interchangeable and forgettable, aside from the pink, pudgy Wendy and the wild-haired wizard Ludwig.
Multiplayer remains Mario Kart's primary appeal, though its fun factor is slightly diminished by some technical faults. Online voice chat is disabled during gameplay, meaning the few seconds you'll spend map-voting are the only moment you can communicate with your friends. Random network errors have ended several of my online sessions mid-race, though these disconnections may be a result of release-week server overload. The netcode powering online play is impressive, as I've competed against racers as far away as Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Germany and Belgium without any noticeable latency.
Offline multiplayer modes run at a reduced frame rate (30 FPS) whenever three or more human-controlled karts are splitting the screen. Though two-player races run at the regular frame rate (either 59 FPS or 60 FPS, depending on AI drivers' inclusion), the screen can only be split vertically, making path-finding difficult during sharp turns and disorienting zero-gravity sections. Unlike rival Wii U racer, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Mario Kart 8 does not allow an extra friend to play on the GamePad while everyone else is playing on the television.
Mario Kart 8's lone new mode, called Mario Kart TV, is a replay capture system that runs in the background during races, saving them to a "recently played" list for later viewing. Even with the ability to upload and download user-made highlights, Mario Kart TV still feels like a waste of development time and in-game resources, as your clips cannot be longer than 60 seconds, and it can be difficult to edit a video down to the exact moments you want to share.
Battle Mode, once a selling point in games like Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash!! has been shot down by poor design decisions in Mario Kart 8. Instead of firing weapons inside compact, circular arenas, competitors now start at random places along the game's normal raceways. Problem is, these standard courses are long, one-way roads, which facilitate little action, but force lots of slow, 180-degree turns while tiredly searching for targets.
Mario Kart 8 is not the must-have, system-selling title that Nintendo needs to make the Wii U something more than an also-ran console.
But if a Wii U's already set up as the second or third system in your entertainment center, Mario Kart 8 should provide a few fun months of family-friendly multiplayer. Just don't expect to get much mileage out of the game's poorly conceived Battle Mode, or from its overly familiar, uninspired single-player content.
Visuals: Mario Kart 8 proves that the Wii U, despite its outdated hardware, can still produce graphically impressive video games. A lack of anti-aliasing, though, creates rough, jagged edges around the game's lively, colorful worlds. There is also a slight stuttering effect that causes minor frame loss in any race where a full pack of AI drivers is involved, disrupting the normal 60 hertz refresh rate.
Audio: Familiar Mario Kart sound effects, like the item box roulette and the pre-race countdown, possess a strong nostalgic allure. The personality of each racer is enhanced by character-specific celebrations, cries and taunts. A large band of live musicians is employed across a diverse, energetic soundtrack, mixing jazz, classical and rock music.
Controls: The Wii U's GamePad, Pro Controller and Remote/Nunchuck combination provide three viable methods of controlling your go-kart. Option number four, a Remote wedged inside a plastic, motion-controlled steering wheel, lacks the responsiveness and precision necessary for 100cc and 150cc events.
Online: You'll be pleased to find no noticeable latency in Mario Kart 8's online modes. Occasional server errors and a lack of in-race voice chat are the only downsides to an otherwise excellent online experience.
Replay Value: Mario Kart 8's chaotic multiplayer contests remain entertaining, but its same-old selection of single-player events has grown tiresome. Battle Mode is also more boring than ever, thanks to a lack of mode-specific battlegrounds. Staff ghosts have become unusually easy to defeat, since unlockable “expert” versions are not a part of Mario Kart 8's Time Trials.