Friday, July 4, 2014

Mario Kart 8 (2014, Wii U) - Low Gravity, High Class Racing

A good way to feel old: Looking at Mario Kart, Nintendo's mascot-based go kart racing series, and realizing I've been hyped for each new release for over 20 years. I'm probably wrong, but it may be the only long running series in gaming history where I've played every single installment, and for the most part I've greatly enjoyed each one (my least favorite, possibly controversially, is Mario Kart 64, which is still a decent game.) It's not an innovation-rich series, but that doesn't matter when every game has been so good, and Mario Kart 8 is one of the best.

Click here for a Mario Kart 8 screen shot gallery.

Like Mario Kart Wii, MK8 offers the option of driving either with traditional controls or tilt-based controls. The courses are much tighter than MK Wii's, so it's harder to perform well using motion controls here than it was back in that one, but for people who preferred that option it still works well enough. The 3DS installment, Mario Kart 7 (the first one to adopt a number scheme for its title), offered kart customization, where players select a body, wheel, and sail type (for gliding off of jumps) for their kart, each with varying stats, rather than choosing from pre-built karts. All of those features return in MK8, with more options than ever. I'd personally rather go back to each weight class having its own set of karts instead of every character being able to use any combo, but for people really into maxing out their desired stats there's plenty to play with here.

Mario Kart 8 features 30 playable characters, many of which are unlocked quickly as you play and pick up coins during races. The roster's not my favorite; we have all seven of the Koopa Kids first introduced in Super Mario Bros 3, and while I like them, it's kind of redundant having all seven. There are now five baby versions of existing characters, with Baby Rosalina being the newest, a Mario Kart trend that I've never liked. Metal Mario and Pink Gold Peach are the most boring characters in the lineup; if we were going to get graphic swap characters, how about Dr. Mario instead? Something more interesting to look at.

My personal favorites are Shy Guy, Waluigi, Donkey Kong, and Daisy. Some characters from previous games I'd love to see come back, possibly as DLC, would be King Boo, Funky Kong, ROB, Dry Bones, and Birdo. Birdo even gets a poster in the game, as part of a Women of Racing banner, but she's nowhere to be seen! Big props to Nintendo for giving Wario a fart sound effect when you honk your kart's horn when playing as him, though. Currently available DLC (very reasonably priced; $12 for 6 new characters and 16 new courses) adds Legend of Zelda's Link, Animal Crossing's Villager and Isabelle, and alternate versions of Mario (Tanooki), Bowser (Spooky skeleton) and Peach (Cat.)

As with most Mario Karts, there are 32 courses available to race on; 16 all new ones, and 16 from previous games. Happily, the returning courses look so much nicer and have enough new features that they feel very fresh. Nintendo did a really great job here. Of the new courses, my personal favorite is Mount Wario, a course that puts you on a icy ski course rather than a road. I'm not sure why it's Wario branded, but it's an incredibly good course! Some other favorites are Cloudtop Cruise, a sky-based stage that transitions between clouds and vines and Bowser's airship fleet, and Toad Harbor, the Mushroom Kingdom's take on San Francisco. I'm very pleased with the course list, and there's only really one new one (Bone Dry Desert) and one returning one (Music Park) that aren't very exciting. The 16 DLC courses are also quite good, with a pair of twisty F-Zero inspired courses being my favorite. There's even an Excitebike course!

A new element that makes stages feel so good are the new anti-gravity segments. Players are able to transform their wheels in certain parts of stages and glide along walls, ceilings, and whatever else is in the area.While the racing isn't very different in these areas (it's not like Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed where your kart switches forms and has massive control shifts), it adds a nice visual dynamic that makes courses feel more intense. Some of the classic courses have been revamped with these anti-grav sections too, adding more originality to courses you may already know.

Visually, Mario Kart has never looked better, and MK8 is one of the nicest looking games available on the Wii U. There's some aliasing problems on minor objects, but characters look bright and delightfully squishy, the roads have some nice textures, lighting effects, and water effects, and character animation is phenomenal; these guys make some amazing, ridiculous faces, which you'll get to see up close in the game's Highlight Reels, where you can rewatch the big moments from each race and even upload them to Youtube. The frame rate is incredibly solid as well, and I'm glad two-player split screen splits vertically rather than horizontally.

Online play works well and is easy to use. I still love that, like Mario Kart Wii, you can bring multiple local players into an online race. Regular races and battle mode are both available for online play, but that brings me to my only real complaint: This game's battle mode is terrible.

In previous Kart battle modes, players would race around arenas, sniping at each other with turtle shells and banana peels. That's all gone in Mario Kart 8; instead, you just drive on a normal race track, and can be hit three times before you're out of the game. Since there's nothing to group everyone together, you go far too long without seeing other players, and even when you do, hitting them isn't fun or strategic. It's a dumber, far less interesting battle mode than ever before. I've always preferred racing to battle mode, but cutting the arenas entirely and replacing them with this is a massive let down.

Mario Kart 8 is an extremely good addition to the series and I really hope more characters and courses, if they can maintain this level of quality, get released later on as additional DLC. Maybe we could even get a Classic Battle Mode added back in at some point, but that's probably just wishful thinking. Bring back Funky Kong and you've got my dollars.

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