It’s time to dust off that console you keep telling your friends you bought by accident.
The latest entry in the Mario Kart franchise is super fast and loads of fun. The game takes cues from its predecessor, Mario Kart Wii, but this time around the gameplay is more polished and the whole thing runs a lot smoother. There are still some niggling issues that could have made the final product a little better, but on the whole Mario Kart 8 is an awesome game to spend time with, and the gameplay is stupidly addictive.
By now you might have seen a couple of trailers or screenshots showing off the new anti-gravity feature. This means that your cart (bike, or quad) can now literally drive up the walls – opening up loads of possibilities for the most wacky, interesting and delightful tracks we’ve seen yet. Some courses take the race almost completely underwater, and there are also massive jumps that prompt a glider to fold out of your vehicle as you soar through the air. The tracks are all brimming with personality and the inspiration that’s gone into dreaming them up shines through perfectly. The attention to detail is here is unmatched, and the inclusion of throwback tracks is always welcome even if they don’t all feel exactly like they did years ago. It’s impossible to get bored of these courses, they’re just that good.
Mario Kart 8 feels both familiar and brand new at the same time. Drifting or boosting past your opponents is still thrilling and a wide range of customizable vehicles make the experience even more personal. New carts, bikes, quads, wheels and gliders are steadily drip-fed as you accumulate coins, allowing the driver to explore new options as their skill level improves. Allowing some customization is a great feature and lets players experiment to find what suits them best at their own pace. Unfortunately you cannot save preset designs, but this isn’t a huge deal. It’s fun to explore different weight classes and combinations – nearly every vehicle handles differently and balancing the stats makes the experience a lot more personal while encouraging the driver to play their strengths at the same time. Setting up your vehicle is not a very complex process, but searching for that winning combination will take a little more effort. Smashing a race online or with friends using your own set-up is highly rewarding.
Fans will instantly sink their teeth into the familiar Grand Prix, Versus and Time Trials modes. Theses are all just as great as they’ve always been, however, Battle mode is a totally different beast this time round. Reactions to the new Battle mode have been mixed, and you’ll see why once you play it. Battles now take place on regular race tracks rather than specifically designed battle arenas, except racers are all placed at different positions along the track facing with some facing the opposite (backward) direction. What happens next is an awkward jousting match that just simply doesn’t work out very well. This is a real shame, because battles were a huge hit on previous titles.
Local muti-player racing is still as fun as it’s always been, and the online community is as competitive as ever for those looking to climb the ranks. A few connection issues plague the online arena but this has improved considerably since Mario Kart Wii. Online matches are a riot, and the inclusion of tournaments allows for a more customized experience. It’s now possible to set up games with your own rules on items, such as mushrooms only, or races with no items at all. The ‘frantic’ item setting speaks for itself. Don’t expect to come out of there without a few bumps and bruises.
The way items are handled in Mario Kart 8 is a matter of taste. Some feel that the frequency of the more powerful ones like stars, the new (and deadly) Piranha Plant, or the ever-controversial Blue Shell is much too high and only discounts the skills of racers by adding a greater element of luck to the outcome – but this has always been a part of the game. The inclusion of the Super-Horn (an item that can destroy Blue Shells) is awesome, but it’s so rare you’ll barely ever come across one when you actually need it anyway. Getting smashed by a bombardment of shells and slipping from first place to last still happens, but the depth of the online ranking system still manages to reward the better drivers over time. It’s fair to say that a little luck can go a long way in this game, but it’s still balanced well enough to be highly enjoyable.
So, what about the driver roster? Who’s been selected to speed through these awesome courses as playable characters?
The roster is quite expansive with nearly all the well-known Nintendo personalities showing up. A new addition this time round is the Koopalings. Theses guys (and one girl) are unlocked at random along with a few other surprises. It’s always good to see new faces and have more options. There are more than enough to choose from which is great – but I have no idea why Nintendo chose to put in 5 baby characters. Who even plays baby characters? 1 or 2 would be acceptable at most, but these spots could have been filled with much more interesting racers. There are plenty more Kongs I’d love to see again…
Also worth mentioning is the slow-motion replay feature. I was sceptical about why this should even be included, but seeing the game unfold in slo-mo is pretty incredible. It really highlights the details you’d never see while flying around the courses at break-neck speed. And some of the split-second facial expressions are too beyond hilarious.
Overall Mario Kart 8 is not perfect, but no game really is. There are a couple of hiccups here and there, but this is no doubt one of the most strongest entries in the series to date. Basically everything that could have been improved on in Mario Kart Wii was addressed, and then some. The courses are majestic, and the gameplay is both highly personalised and rewarding at the same time. There’s hours of fun to be had here.