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Mario Kart 8

13:3426/07/2014Posted by Dave Stuart2 Comments

It’s difficult to sum up an experience like the pure joy of playing a new Mario Kart game for the first time. I have quite a personal relationship with the series, having played most of the different versions all through my childhood and up to the present day. It’s a series I have come back to again and again, especially now I finally own a version of every iteration. There will be a retrospective of the series here in the coming months, but you’re not here for that. You want to know about Mario Kart 8; the latest of the series and possibly the best.

In a world where most racing games have a slightly worrying fixation with realism right down to the level of the texture on the car seats, Mario Kart is a game series which has proved resilient to this trend. Even in HD, it continues to be a bright and beautiful game where cartoon characters race around fantastical tracks enacting all kinds of violence on each other. Like other racing games, it can be a friendship-ruiner if you take it too seriously, despite how adorable everything looks.

In the GP mode you play collections of four levels which are either brand new or gloriously-remixed especially for this iteration. Unlike Mario Kart Wii, you can have up to four players taking part in a GP to help you unlock all the characters and pieces of karts. There’s a vast selection of characters to play with the roster beefed up thanks to the many spawns of Bowser joining the fray. My favourite is Iggy Koopa, whose eyes dart around like he’s been let out of the asylum and taken off his medication for the duration of the race. Some Mario Kart purists have been upset by the removal of previously-included characters like Diddy Kong or my former racer of choice; Dry Bones.

The animation of the characters is a real joy in HD, watching them in replays as they scowl and flail their way through the track. In a way I guess it reduces Mario Kart players to the level of those car-seat pornographers from Forza when we admire the little touches like the headlights switching on in tunnels or the individually-moving metal horses on the front of one of the karts. The lack of high-definition graphics in the previous generation has certainly made people easy marks when they first see the HD Bowser in Super Mario 3D World or in this case frankly anything they throw at the screen.

There’s more than just a bit of spit and polish to the game though. Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS gave us underwater sections and long drops to hang-glide down, tempting you with the risk or reward of an early landing. Now there’s a new level to the driving which is… well, it’s everywhere. Blue glowing strips indicate sections where you can drive up walls or ceilings, watching racers who took a different path try to overtake you on a completely different surface. You might go up a jump and start gliding while others stick to the ground. And that’s another thing, there are several alternate paths on most maps, whether it’s a split in a road for a small section, a choice to go up the walls in the classic Toad’s Turnpike or the risk/reward of taking an offroad shortcut which will slow you down but cut out a small section of a haunted mansion.

As with any of the better-thought-out Nintendo games, this one teaches you everything new just from the first GP. The first course is a triumphant celebration which you’re driving around and suddenly you’re up on a slope and hangliding back down. It’s gentle enough to get you used to that side of things. The next track has an underwater section and a sideways loop which is half-way submerged. Sweet Sweet Canyon introduces divergent paths and getting shot over a long distance. Finally Thwomp Ruins shows the evolution of levels with each subsequent lap, riding up walls and some giant obstacles. As long as you go into the game knowing which button is go, which is shoot and which is stop (although really who ever bothers with the brake?) then you’re armed for all the tricks of Mario Kart 8. Going on from there we have some amazing remixes of existing levels using all of those tools, Toad’s Turnpike is changed up with wall-driving and trucks with ramps on, the Rainbow Road from the N64 days is stretched out into one massive lap.

The new tracks, as ever, are more impressive as they’re built up from scratch rather than depending on the itch for nostalgia. My favourites are a chase through the clouds, a race through an airport (and a plane briefly) and Mount Wario. The latter of these races is another single-lap course where players accelerate out of a helicopter, down the peak of a mountain, through an industrial complex, through caves and eventually down a massive slalom course to allow for some open dickery with each other in the last second.

The courses aren’t the only change. The karts are made out of completely interchangeable pieces allowing players to modify their ride’s look and feel. The items now include the precarious piranha plant, a sound box which even deflects blue shells and the worst item; the coin. I resented this being in the item blocks but having a ‘dud’ item adds more of the sense of chaos as you’re not always guaranteed a way to defeat people ahead or behind you.

Multiplayer is a joy of course on one machine. Unlike the Wii version you are offered the options to help customise the set of races you and the other players are doing up front instead of having them hidden away in a corner. GP and VS are great fun, only let down by the lacklustre Battle mode which feels like it was placed in the game out of a sense of duty more than anything else, then filled with normal race maps when Nintendo realised they’d forgotten to assign people to make the levels.

Online multiplayer is more robust than versions I’ve played before, although communication options are limited. There is a ranking system like the previous games and the ability to have your Mii shout pre-written statements in the lobby. I love video games but am not actually the best player, so I often stick away from online multiplayer as people tend to be sober and competent. As with previous versions of Mario Kart with online play there are really good players out there, but it doesn’t feel like as much of an insurmountable challenge. Even a substandard player like me can get top ranking in races thanks to good items, chaotic levels and just plain spite. The Miiverse functionality has really been a nice addition with the stamps increasingly seeming like the Wii U equivalent of achievements.

For all the beauty of the game, the detail in the animations, the levels and the minutiae of the Mario Kart experience, there are some problems. There is still rubber banding for one. Coins never really seemed like a good part of any Mario Kart game, although they are thankfully inobtrusive enough in this game. The biggest sin is the GamePad functionality and here it actually loses out to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed of all things. Yes, a Sonic game. In S&ASRT, the GamePad would act as one whole screen for a player, allowing five people to race at once and even in two-player one would have the television to themselves and the other would have the GamePad’s screen. I was shocked to see that while there is off-screen play, if a player with a GamePad is taking part in multiplayer then they get exactly what’s on the television, split-screen and all. It’s a minor quibble given the amazing quality of the game, but feels like a wasted opportunity and anything which makes me defend a Sonic game is more proof of a godless universe.

As I say, this is only a minor problem and what little problems the game has are vastly overshadowed by the sheer quality and fun on offer. Mario Kart 8 is the best version of the franchise I have played, has already proved itself a great experience for playing alone, online, with drunk friends and with family members of all ages. If you have a Wii U then you need to get Mario Kart 8. If you don’t have a Wii U then maybe you ought to do something about that.

+Reviewed on Wii U; game was purchased by the reviewer.

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