'Mario Kart 8' review - New lap, same track

Thursday, 15 May 2014 03:01 AM Written by 

 

MarioKart8BoxartNintendo seems content with playing it safe when continuing first-party series for their Wii U home console. Recent games like “Super Mario 3D World” and “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze” provided the fun factor fans expected, but failed to take risks to separate themselves from their predecessors. “Mario Kart 8” continues this mentality. It brings the series into beautiful high definition but otherwise stays firmly stuck in its lane.

 

The “Mario Kart” series has always been about friendly competition. This eighth game in the series adapts that formula to the most powerful hardware in Nintendo’s arsenal. Some new karts, characters and items are offered, but “Mario Kart 8’s” best quality is its transition to high definition.

 

Visually, “Mario Kart 8” manages to rival the best looking games on the more powerful PS4 and Xbox One. Nintendo has always found a way to do more with less, and this game is no exception. The vibrant colors of the karts, characters and courses pop from the screen. Time and care went into each course to make it seem like these racers have been transported to a new world. The tracks are as intricate as their backgrounds and surroundings. They’re a stunning reminder of how artistically creative Nintendo can be.

 

The problem is that each tracks stands as an example of this game’s potential. It’s clear that time was spent making this game look beautiful, but barely any time was taken to make the game unique. Nearly every gameplay aspect of “Mario Kart 8” has been ripped from previous titles in the series, from the inclusion of coins, to single player progression. Other parts, specifically battle mode, have been changed for the worse.

 

The lone new feature of “Mario Kart 8” is its use of gravity. Courses will twist and turn, taking drivers up in the air and upside down. The karts’ wheels will rotate into an anti-gravity mode so the karts are able to stick to the road. When karts are in this mode, players will be given a speed boost if they collide with another driver. Since both players get the speed boost, it doesn’t add much of an advantage.

 

The game has a total of eight cups, adding up to 32 tracks. Following the standard of previous “Mario Karts,” half of these tracks are new, while 16 are updated versions of classic tracks. Single-player mode has the usual progression of 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. Earning first-place trophies in each cup unlocks the mirror mode, which inverts all the tracks.

 

Classic tracks receive the same striking visual treatment as the new tracks, but some layouts have been oddly altered. For instance, Rainbow Road from N64’s “Mario Kart 64” went from being the longest track to the shortest. It’s now a single loop on an abbreviated track. It was once an endurance battle of nerves, and now it ends before the action even revs up.

 

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Earning trophies for each cup unlock additional characters to choose from; some memorable, and some not so much. About five of these characters are baby versions of Nintendo’s lead characters. The rest of the cast is inflated by the little known B-squad of koopalings like Roy, Morton and Larry.

 

Other single player modes include time trials, versus modes, and battle mode against CPU drivers. It’s all standard fare for a “Mario Kart” game.

 

Coins have been adopted from the 3DS’ “Mario Kart 7,” and the SNES’ original “Super Mario Kart.” Drivers can collect a total of ten coins that are scattered around the track. The more coins a driver holds, the faster that character will be. Getting hit with items or tumbling off the tack loses three coins. Coins should be in every “Mario Kart” moving forward. They add a much needed layer of skill.

 

Collecting coins unlock new parts for karts, allowing players to mix and match wheels and kart bodies to create a custom driving machine. Different parts carry unique attributes that change the speed, acceleration, grip and handling. Having a comfortable kart is essential in “Mario Kart 8’s” competitive modes.

 

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The “Mario Kart” series has always been a blend of luck and skill. Skillful driving can get you into first, but so can the luck of being granted a triple red shell item. “Mario Kart 8” tilts the scale towards the side of skill. It is possible to get so far in front of the pack that a blue shell won’t even let the second place driver catch up. If you’re good enough, you can dominate.

 

This isn’t to say items aren’t a valuable asset. They are, especially some of the new ones. The classics are here like red and green shells, stars, bananas, squid, mushrooms and the dastardly blue shell. New additions have been added to the arsenal like the new horn box item that will destroy any incoming shells, including the blue shell. It will also spin out anyone caught in its radius. The Piranha Plant will gobble up coins a driver might miss, as well as snap at opposing drivers that get close enough. But the great equalizer is the eight-item item. This one gives you a collection of 8 power-ups that surround your driver. You can use them at will. If this hyper power doesn’t get you into first place, you should hit the test track.  

 

The item inventory format has been questionably altered. Drivers can no longer hold two items. In “Mario Karts” of the past, players could hold a shell or banana behind them and collect an additional item. “Mario Kart 8” only allows drivers to hold one item at a time. Fewer items being flung around puts more of the focus on driving prowess, but it did level the playing field for drivers struggling to get into first place.

 

Skill is needed when venturing into the multiplayer arena. The game features four-player local multiplayer, as well as one and two player online play. Online play is smooth but clearly highlights Nintendo’s shortcomings in the online space. Multiplayer modes have no options for voice chat when in a race. Voice chat is only an option in a pre-game lobby in a match among friends. Racing in silence is barely more entertaining than racing against the computer.

 

Online play is slightly customizable, but not to the degree of “Super Smash Bros.” Options for races include bananas only, mushrooms only, shells only, no items and the mysterious frantic mode. There’s no option to mix and match items to your liking. I would’ve loved to create a maddening mode of all stars or all lightning, but couldn’t because of the limitations.  

 

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There’s also the option for six-on-six team battles; a great idea for a competitive mode, but the lack of customization proves to be problematic yet again. There’s no way to organize the teams to make sure they’re evenly matched. The game just randomly throws them together.

 

Local and online multiplayer have the option to race or engage in battle mode. Battle mode is the classic “Mario Kart” mode that grants characters three balloons. Getting hit with an item removes a balloon. The player that removes the most balloons wins. These matches were usually housed in a large open arena, but Nintendo made the wretched decision to move them to tracks. What was once a frantic frenzy of item slinging is now a slow-paced drudge while characters wander around a loop looking for each other.

 

Battle mode may be the worst change to happen to “Mario Kart 8,” but its best is its new MKTV replay system. MKTV does a terrific job at automatically capturing exciting moments of a race, whether it’s a costly mistake or a photo finish. Slowing the speed to super slo-mo truly highlights the visual details of the drivers and environments. Replays can be saved in the Miiverse, or uploaded to YouTube. There isn’t a detailed editing system, but the game usually captures the best moments of each race.

 

The Wii U’s GamePad could’ve been put to good use in “Mario Kart 8” especially for multiplayer purposes, but its features are commonly found in other Wii U titles. The GamePad can display the course map and the racers on it, the race standings, or just mirror the TV screen for off-TV play sessions. Having the second screen could’ve eliminated the need for two-player split screen. The player without the GamePad could view his or her driver on the TV, while the GamePad user has his or her own screen to watch. Unfortunately, two-player modes always split the screen without any options to adjust it. Why is Nintendo wasting great opportunities to use this tech?

 

Therein lies “Mario Kart 8’s” dilemma. The Wii U has the tools to make this a standout game in the series, but instead it’s just a pretty look at more of the same. It’s still all about racing friends in a chaotic battle for first place. That old form of fun is present, but this latest edition fails to drive the series forward with meaningful change.

 

7.75 out of 10

Pros:

Stunning visuals
Best when played with friends

Cons:

Little online customization
No voice chat when racing
Battle mode changes

 Platform   Wii U
 Rated   E for Everyone
 Release Date   5/30/14
 Price  $59.99

 

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