The Mario Kart franchise has celebrated over 20 years of success, has spanned five home consoles, two handheld consoles, and three Namco developed arcade machines. To call Mario Kart anything less than a system seller is to sell the franchise short. My only experience with the franchise was 17 years ago, after the Nintendo 64 sequel released.
At this point in time my game of choice was Diddy Kong Racing; a racer that had a fairly fleshed out single player mode. To then jump into what is essentially a game made for four player split-screen racing was an eye-opener. I didn’t have four controllers and I didn’t have friends who owned Nintendo 64s. So I jumped into the single player Grand Prix, and thinking you should start at the start, quickly grew bored of the slow pace of the 50cc races. So I put it away, and jumped back into Diddy Kong Racing.
Mario Kart 8 is my second look at a franchise that put me to sleep. A franchise that not only disinterested me, but had pushed me into the loving Kart of another. Coming off the back of a serious Sonic and All-Star Racing Transformed obsession I find that my first experience with Mario Kart 8…. is the 50cc Grand Prix.
For those who have somehow avoided this multi-million selling franchise, and any other Kart racer, the premise is simple: you have three laps, pick-ups that give you weapons, boost pads, a drift button, and the need to come 1st. The best part of the Mario Kart franchise is how simple the game is to pick up, how quickly you’ll be winning races and growing confidence in the early stages of the game, and how challenged you’ll eventually be when playing against others.
The aforementioned Grand Prix is split up into 3 difficulties which are disguised as speed categories. The 50cc option is for anyone new to the franchise, or people who are new to gaming. It’s a slow-paced affair with dumbed down AI opponents. They won’t go the extra mile to earn boosts, they’ll be hesitant with their weapon use, and they most definitely won’t draft behind you to get a speed boost. Veterans will likely either skip this until they want to unlock everything, or they’ll blaze through it in a single setting.
The 100cc and 150cc options are faster and increasingly more difficult. Instead of simply making the AI competitors faster they actually become smarter. They’ll hold onto weapons to unleash them at the best time for them, they’ll drift around corners and do tricks off jumps to ensure they’re maximising their extra boosts, and they most definitely will draft behind you to get a speed boost.
The best thing about the AI in this game is that every time you enter a Grand Prix you feel like the individual opponents keep the same virtual driver until the final race is done. If Luigi manages to beat you to the finish in the first race, you can expect him to be challenging you for the next three. It makes it feel a little more human-controlled, and helps keep a competitive feeling alive while racing alone. This is a much needed element for any single player racer experience.
Unfortunately, as you progress through the hardest difficulty you’ll come across one of the greatest and most frustrating aspects of the Mario Kart franchise: the weapons. Unless you’re new to the internet you’ve likely seen or heard of the deadly blue shell: a weapon given to those not in first place that targets and disables whoever is coming first. It’s frustrating, it’ll likely cost you a placing or four, and it usually hits at the worst possible time.
But without the weapons, it just wouldn’t be Mario Kart. While the majority of the pick-ups are, for the most part, offensive (red/green/blue shells, banana peels, piranha plants, etc) there are also an equal amount of defensive items, and some of them even do both. While tossing a homing red shell in front of you, watching it curve down the track, taking out the player in front, and stealing first place is a joy each and every time… it’s the complete opposite when it happens to you. You’ll curse, you’ll throw a controller, and you’ll turn the console off with rage... but you’ll be back for more.
Straight up, the gameplay in Mario Kart 8 is damn near unbeatable, but there’s more to a game than just its gameplay. For a game with such a demand of your playtime, the game really suffers from a lack of options in almost every way. Having spent the majority of the last generation or two using shoulder buttons or triggers to accelerate or break, there’s literally no way to move it away from the A button. Not only is there no option to change button layout, but there are no option menus to be seen.
I’m so used to being able to adjust sound or image, or even being able hit a button to watch the credits, it was weird to simply have no control at all. Maybe Nintendo are just that confident in the decisions they’ve made. But they’d be wrong.
The main area that this pain point was felt was in the amazing highlight system you can view after each race. By default you get a 30 second highlight reel that you can watch, rewind, and slow-mo through. If you like what you see you can even save it to YouTube, post it on the Miiverse, or add it to the Mario Kart TV service. The problem, though, is the word “default”. Sure, you can go into a highlights menu and change what that replay you’re watching is focused on, and whether it’s 30, 45, or 60 seconds, but if you have a preference, you’ll have to make those changes each and every time. The lack of options here hurts.
It also hurts when it comes to the character selection screen. With a decent roster count of 30 it’s hard to think that there would be complaints here, but as you slowly unlock forgettable character after forgettable character, you’ll start to wonder what Nintendo were thinking. How is Metal Mario a character of its own and not simply a selectable skin for Mario? Why Baby Rosalina and not Bowser Jr? Why are SEVEN of the unlockable characters the Koopa kids when Goombas, Magikoopa, Birdo, and other more recognisable characters are missing? If anything, this shows that Nintendo need to start looking outside of the Mushroom Kingdom if they want to house an impressive character roster.
More important than the characters, however, are the tracks, and in HD at 60fps they look and feel amazing. 16 new tracks, and 16 remastered retro tracks fill out an impressive track listing. While fans may be happy to see old tracks return, they may also be the ones wishing for more new tracks. The sad thing is, you’ll be playing the game so much that maybe 32 tracks just isn’t enough? For the most part they’re all solid, they feel great, and the attention to detail of everything on and off the track is perfect.
But there’s still something missing. I wasn’t sure what it was until I came to a remastered 3DS track called DK Jungle. This is an absolutely stunning level designed around the Wii and 3DS Donkey Kong Country Returns title. From the environment to the music, everything just feels perfect, and that’s when it hit me. Nintendo needs more of this. If this is the level of detail and love they can give a non-Mushroom Kingdom track, then sign me up for a Hyrule track, a Metroid inspired circuit, or an Animal Crossing raceway.
A new feature to the tracks in Mario Kart 8, and something I’ve kept pretty quiet on until now, is the addition of zero-gravity sections. Instead of your typical hills, jumps, and corners, tracks now take on a more F-Zero aspect. Tracks curve upside down, racing takes place on walls/ceilings, and speeding up a cliff only to turn a hair-pin corner and race down a waterfall becomes normality this time through. I’m not sure how Nintendo could have sold this idea better, but unless you’re focusing on the backgrounds or watching replays, it’s hardly noticeable. It doesn’t detract though, and when it works it’s immensely enjoyable.
Once you’re bored of playing by yourself, or are just up for a bit more of a challenge, a fantastic multiplayer mode is waiting for you and your friends. Whether you want to grab a few extra controllers and have a night in of 4 player split screen friendship testing, or go up against up to 11 others in an online match, everything you could want is here. There are tournaments (including local NZ ones) running 24 hours a day, the ability to race full Grand Prixs with friends, and of course every coin you collect online counts towards your Kart customisations. There’s so much replayability in Mario Kart 8 that you’re unlikely to stop once you start.
There are two last things I want to discuss, the first of which being the recently announced Amiibo figurine collection (Nintendo’s answer to Skylanders figurines). During E3, Nintendo announced that while Super Smash Bros will be the first title to utilise the figures, that Mario Kart 8 will eventually support them to. But how they’re used is anyone’s guess. Hopefully they hear the cries of their user base and allow new characters to be selectable, or possibly new tracks based on the Amiibo you’re using. While these are things I hope Nintendo are focusing on, I can’t help but feel it’ll merely add some extra customisations to the Karts. If anything, this would be a great test-bed for what could eventually be Mario and the Nintendo All Star Kart.
Finally, after the intro I gave, I think it’d be ideal to mention how Mario Kart 8 stacks up against its biggest competition: Sonic and All Star Racing Transformed. While Sonic Transformed doesn’t have the fluid 60 fps motion that helps Mario Kart 8 shine, it does have a huge variation of racers and tracks. It feels grand, and it feels inclusive of Sega’s beloved franchises. It’s also incredibly challenging, and feels like something that needs to be mastered to be fully enjoyed.
On the other hand, Mario Kart 8 is easy to pick-up, easy to enjoy, and no matter how good you are, there will be moments that make you smile. You don’t have to spend hours perfecting your driving style, and memorising complex tracks; it’s almost a ‘Sonic Transformed lite’. Despite being so similar, they’re incredibly different titles that each hold their own in what they’re trying to achieve, but Nintendo, stop fleshing out your roster with forgettable characters when you have such an amazing selection that you could be using. I’m not sure what I’d do if you released a downloadable Baby Wario and Waluigi.