Mario Kart is as much a part of Nintendo as Mario and Link are. Since the days of the first kart game on the SNES every new console has brought with it a new kart racer. Over the years the formula has become very well oiled: bring sixteen new tracks across four cups and reimagine sixteen others in a second set of four cups. Give racers the choice of character, and latterly kart plus kart parts, and et voila there’s a new Mario Kart. This might seem slightly disingenuous, but certain iterations have fallen a little flat whilst others have literally soared (you do get to fly to some extent these days). With the Wii U’s karting entry Nintendo has delivered perhaps the finest arcade driving physics known to man, and it’s all so simple, too. Alongside this incredible achievement we have HD tracks for the first time, a wider variety of setups than ever before, some fabulous track design and all of this delivered with the swagger that only Nintendo can provide. Nintendo have truly done a remarkable job here - for many reasons - but one that falls just short of perfection.
The game itself provides thirty-two tracks, each of which (with the exception of one or two) is of the highest quality seen in the series’ history. New tracks include the obvious, like a new Rainbow Road (initially anti-climactic but given time, it turns into a very special track due to its technicality), the sublime Mount Wario where you descend a snowy mountain, ending with a ski slalom on karts and some that make the jaw drop as you see it for the first time (the sheer audacity of Dolphin Shoals - you’ll know it when you see it - is awe-inspiring). Retro tracks come from every preceding console’s Mario Kart and have all been fully upgraded to make use of the Wii U’s high definition fidelity. Not only do they look brilliant, and have new fun animations and additions to the scenery, but they have added anti-grav sections like in the new tracks. This means you can be racing around Toad’s Turnpike and end up on the walls, trying to fly onto the moving traffic. It makes for a new feel to old classics and ensures all thirty-two tracks are fresh and fun whether you’re tackling the single-player game or facing off to folks in your living room, or around the world.
Yes, for the first time in Nintendo’s history you can actually just take to the interweb and play people you don’t know. You can play just with friends as well, but after so many years Nintendo actually understand online gaming. It all works well, of course. You choose to play online and you can do so as one or two people playing locally, and your console searches for a race and adds you in. You vote for a course, race folks from the globe - or your region - and depending on how well you do in both placement and driving style, receive - or lose - points. You can set up tournaments with folk if you plan ahead, or just dip in and out. You’ll probably find that unless you’ve unlocked every kart option you’ll struggle to finish well most of the time, so it makes sense to come to this after the single-player game is done, just to make sure your score doesn’t drop too low before you’re on a level playing field - or as much as you can be in a Mario Kart game.
The single-player game is the same as always. Eight cups, four tracks in each, with two open at the game’s start. The others are unlocked as you progress. You have the choice of three engine sizes - 50, 100 and 150 cc - which equates to difficulty level. The smallest engine size is far too simple for an experienced karter but it does help you to unlock various characters and kart options before you tackle the medium size, and receive the first challenge. Having said that you’re unlikely to come unstuck until the biggest engine is selected. Here every racer is competitive, those at the back get many more power-ups than seems fair and as is always the case with this racer, you will find yourself leading the pack often, just to be tackled by a plethora of shells of all colours plus everything else. We found ourselves moving all the way from front to last far too often. It seems just a little too unbalanced currently - sure you get hit more often when leading, but once hit we regularly got done another two to three times before we could get moving again.
Honestly this is what holds Mario Kart 8 from greatness. The power-ups have always been a part of it, and it's churlish to criticise for retaining them and causing the incandescent rage that makes you want to throw your GamePad at the TV. So we won’t do that. But we will criticise the sheer volume of attacks on the game-leader which takes all the fun out of it when you’re swiftly shoved into last place without any chance to avoid it (blue shell first and then…). It’s more frustrating when you consider how wonderfully Mario Kart 8 drives. The controls are so simple yet the kart’s physics are amazing and despite the simplicity of control, there are so many subtleties that mastering your chosen vehicle takes time and effort. Hold A to accelerate, turn using the analogue stick or D-Pad (preferred). Press and hold R to drift; press L to unleash your weapon. But then every time you go over a jump, pressing R at the right time gives you a boost. Drifting leads to a boost, too, but the longer you hold that drift the longer the boost. Combine all of this with your choice of racer, kart, wheels and aviation tool and you have an incredibly deep driving mechanic for those aiming to be the very best. When you think about each track and the multiple routes and shortcuts as well, there is so much scope to perfect any drive that you’ll be kept going for hours.
You’ll need to make the most of Mario Kart 8’s depth, too, if you want to come first in each race in the fastest class and do well online. There’re the time trials, as well. This is where the pure skill of driving comes into play and you can post times and download other folk’s ghost data to see just how far you need to go to get closer to that fastest lap and race time. Sadly, the time trials make you long for pure racing against others sans power-ups. Again, the power-ups are an integral part of Mario Kart but it is such a good driving game that the absence of a pure mode frustrates. It doesn’t make the game any less good, and as mentioned isn’t a fair criticism given it’s what the game is all about but it does stop it from being the greatest driving game ever - something which wasn’t the aim but does frustrate those of us who love driving games! An aspect of the series which this time around has been somewhat nerfed is the battle mode, whereby you are tasked with beating your opponents by, for example, bursting their balloons before yours. Only this time around you do this on a normal track, rather than a bespoke battle arena. Utterly bizarre change given it means you’re driving around aimlessly waiting for someone or looking for another, rather than going head-to-head from one side of the arena to the other. All the fun of this balloon-popping fair has gone; why bother with it in this state? An inexcusable design decision from Nintendo.
Despite this flaw in game design, overall it is masterful. We’ve mentioned already the HD graphics are superb and really bring to life each stage, but the vibrancy of colours and detailed animations of track flora and fauna (the cows! the birds!) just brightens everyone’s day. The racing is fluid too, as it is done at a pacy sixty frames per second. This holds true as you go to multiplayer as well, amazingly, but drops off at four player split-screen. The sounds are brilliant with a band being brought in to play each track’s tune and simple but clever ideas executed perfectly - for example as you go underwater the music is muted slightly and seemingly slowed down, just as it would be if your ears were submerged and music continued to play above. The attention to detail is second to none and Nintendo continues to stand apart from any other developer on this point. You’ll find yourself just nodding your head and dropping your jaw periodically long after you first boot the game up. All of this wonderful design and action is retained for posterity if desired thanks to Mario Kart TV, a new mode whereby you can review race highlights and edit them to deliver a worthy video for upload to YouTube (another first for the house of Mario), especially desirable if you happen to have a special Luigi death stare included.
Ultimately Nintendo have again produced the goods and delivered another system seller. Many companies long for one true example of this in a console’s lifetime; Nintendo now has two within a year of each other. The driving is exquisite, the track design is wonderful and the overall presentation is marvellous. We have here perhaps the finest Mario Kart to date, aside from battle mode, and an entry into the series which whilst being so special, only serves to highlight the series’ flaw more prominently. Good job then that that flaw was never seen as one anyway as that’s not what Mario Kart is about. This is what Mario Kart is about - wonderful, prolonged fun.