Review: Mario Kart 8 Comes in First Place (Even When Hit By Red and Blue Shells)

Few games enjoy the sheer anticipation and hype that new entries into the Mario Kart series receive. Intrepid reviewers (such as myself) are able to bask in the glory of early play, but must brave the unexplored and sometimes harsh landscape of online communities.

However, just for you dear readers, brave this harsh landscape I shall and through this review you’ll find out if Mario Kart 8 for Wii U really takes the franchise to the next level or if it will get left in the dust of eventual obscurity (who am I kidding, most of you probably spotted the review score on the front page before even reading this).

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There are eight cups to play in Grand Prix with four races in each one, giving the game a grand total of 32 different tracks. Most of them are remasters of classic tracks from previous titles; the crown jewel being the Rainbow Road from Mario Kart 64 (pictured above) — remade and better than ever.

As many Mario Kart fans already know, only six characters have ever been playable in any game in the series, until now. Mario Kart 8 marks the first game in the franchise to make far more than six playable. As a bonus, players can even unlock additional characters as they win gold trophies, along with new stages and vehicle parts.

Once you actually start racing, you realize that races are faster — much, much faster. Even 50cc, the slowest speed in 8, feels faster than the likes of Mario Kart 6 for Wii. This upgrade in speed is more than welcome and a refreshing chance of pace (pun intended), as races are far more exhilarating.

There are three speeds that can be chosen in Grand Prix and other modes: 50cc, 100cc and 150cc, with the latter being the fastest. CPU difficulty is adjusted separately through options, although the AI is certainly mean enough without any tinkering.

Other offline modes include Time Attack and Battle Mode. Time Attack is just your racer and the wide-open track as you attempt to set and break records for fastest completion time. You can upload your best times as Ghost data to the online leaderboard and in turn download Ghost data from other top-ranking players in order to racing against them.

Battle Mode is a bit different than a normal race; each racer has three balloons attached to their vehicle and must target other racers’ balloons, all the while protecting their own. The battles are fun and frenetic, and serve as a nice breather between the more intense Grand Prix races. The only complaint I have is that the tracks are a little too large for these battles, which results in a lot of driving around and searching for opponents. Solving this issue would have been as easy as reducing the track size for Battle mode.

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Like any other title in the series, each character has a certain weight that makes them more effective with different kinds of vehicles, tires and hang gliders. Those weight classes are divided into Feather/Light/Small, Medium and Cruiser/Heavy/Large. For instance, light characters such as Peach and Daisy are best with motorcycle type vehicles while heavier characters work best with kart types. Pressing the minus button on the Gamepad allows you to see how all the parts combined affect stats such as acceleration, handling, balance and more.

Drifting, which was first introduced in Mario Kart 64, is absolutely vital to many stages. As such, it continues the tradition of simplification starting from 6 and no longer requires players to hop before pulling off the mechanic; instead players must be precise in their timing when entering a drift. Other features like underwater racing and performing tricks in middair for speed boosts also make a return.

A new feature, namely anti-gravity, really adds extra depth and strategy to racing. Vehicle wheels automatically and seamlessly shift to anti-gravity, allowing players access to new paths by driving sideways and even upside-down. Players can also ram into other racers to gain speed boosts while in this mode.

Items naturally make a return to 8, with four new types joining the fray: the Piranha Plant, Boomerang, Super Horn and Crazy Eight. The Piranha Plant attacks other nearby racers while bestowing periodic speed boosts, the Boomerang attacks enemies directly in front and then comes back around several times, the Super Horn can knock around racers and cancel out any nearby item(s) (including the notorious Blue Shell) and Crazy Eight is eight different items surrounding your character that are chosen at random when you use them.

As a side note, Blue Shells have been officially nerfed (yay!) so being hit by one is still an inconvenience but it won’t cause magnitude 9 earthquakes and massive seizures in a 200-mile radius.

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Graphics are in full HD quality and while there have been conflicting reports on whether it’s 720 or 1080p, the fact remains that everything is crisp and clear in motion — as a racing game should be, since you’ll only be looking at the game when environments constantly whiz by. The amount of depth and details in the backgrounds is also highly impressive; there have been times while hang gliding that I snuck a peak at the scenery and was amazed that I could see nearly the entire stage in full detail.

What really matters, though, is the butter-smooth 60 FPS that 8 runs in. And yes, it’s locked. In short, a high speed racing game with up to 12 racers at once that never hiccups, never dips and never slows down is a great thing. Even playing off-screen on the Wii U Gamepad doesn’t slow down the action. I will admit though that rarely the Gamepad stone-cold stopped for a second due to the high tax on the controller, but it resumed just as quickly and I was still amazing and in first place.

Controlling with the Gamepad works surprisingly well, especially when using the analog sticks. Tilt controls can also be enabled at any time and while it’s fun it is imprecise and should be avoided for competitive matches. If playing on-screen, the Gamepad displays the racers and their current places, lap location, the horn (which only honks), allows for switching between tilt and stick controls and allows switching between on and off-screen play.

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Online runs just as smoothly as offline and the internet connection doesn’t even have to be particularly great (take it from someone who has been booted out of SoulCalibur 5 lobbies due to very spotty connections). You can choose to play regional or global matches, or create and participate in tournaments. Tournaments can be customized in a variety of ways, such as engine speed, number of CPU opponents racing with the human racers, number of laps, item dropping rate and tons more.

Another online component allows you to share video content. After every completed race, players can choose to watch, customize and upload their highlight reel to Miiverse and even Youtube, using the Mario Kart TV feature. With Miiverse, you can attach a text or picture message to your video, then upload the post to the Mario Kart 8 community for members to view, “Yeah!” (basically a Miiverse “Like”) and comment on. Regarding Youtube, you’ll need a Google account to log-in to, then the video clip uploads on your channel.

As I’m sure many of you heard, if you use the MKTV method of uploading clips Nintendo automatically content IDs it. This means that if you enable ads for the video, Nintendo will essentially claim all ad-revenue. An easy way to circumvent this? Simply use direct-feed instead.

But I’m sure the big question in everyone’s mind is whether Nintendo has “finally gotten with the times” and integrated voice chat into 8. Well, there’s good news and bad news. Good news is that online voice chat is supported in multiplayer matches with friends. The bad news? Voice chat is only implemented during the waiting lobby area and not during actual matches. Furthermore, voice chat will not be available for regional or global matches with strangers. Personally I never use voice chat and I still enjoyed the online matches, but I’m aware that many people do use and enjoy this feature. I’m not sure why full voice chat wasn’t implemented but take that decision as you will.

Finally, while the feature was not released at the time of this review, Mario Kart 8 will have a nifty smartphone and tablet app that will allow players to upload their status, rank and even video clips for other friends to view.

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Mario Kart 8 looks to be one of the, if not the best, Mario Kart titles with new mechanics, even better graphics, high frame rate, faster racing speeds, new items, a bigger roster and a host of other new changes that add complexity and depth to an already excellent franchise.

While I do wish certain mechanics such as two-racer teams and character exclusive specials would have made the list, and many gamers might be disappointed with the partial voice chat, 8 is still an excellent entry that should not be missed.

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