It’s easy to forget given all of the problems they often face as a console manufacturer, but Nintendo is probably the greatest game developer in the world. They owe this title to their complete understanding of what makes a game great, and their thorough mastery of game design. Unlike other games, which are increasingly becoming bloated with needless options, modes, and an emphasis on telling a grand story, there is often a refreshing simplicity to Nintendo’s approach to games- you boot it up, and you’re playing almost right away. No aspirations to overwhelm you with needless options, or to tell you a grand story. You’re playing a game, and Nintendo understands that.
In that regard, Mario Kart 8 is probably Nintendo’s greatest triumph in over a decade. The developers at Nintendo EAD have stripped away everything that was extraneous, and distilled the game down to its simplest essence- the core formula of racing, drifting, tailgating, and item usage. The focus is now squarely on the racing, and the racing alone, and everything in Mario Kart 8 exists to enable that racing. There is something to be said for starting up a game, and being well into it just thirty seconds later.
But at the same time, there’s also the nagging feeling that Nintendo, in their great hurry to have a bona fide system seller out for their struggling Wii U, made concessions, and compromised on the final product a bit more than you would expect. While it’s refreshing to see a simple main menu with just two game mode selections separating you from some high octane kart action, there is also some dismay associated with the fact when you realize that those two modes are really all that you get. And that right there is the curse and boon of Mario Kart 8- in its unyielding focus on simplicity, it has become what might be the greatest Nintendo game as far as pure game design goes in over a decade. But that same focus also holds the game back from true greatness as an overall product.
"The developers at Nintendo EAD have stripped away everything that was extraneous, and distilled the game down to its simplest essence- the core formula of racing, drifting, tailgating, and item usage. The focus is now squarely on the racing, and the racing alone, and everything in Mario Kart 8 exists to enable that racing."
Mario Kart 8, for those of you who are just now joining the rest of the world in its over twenty year long obsession with the franchise, is structured like every other game in the series- it splits itself into a single player mode and a multiplayer mode. The single player modes are racing (either in a Grand Prix, or custom tournaments), or the battle mode (more on this one in a bit). The Grand Prix functions as the main ‘career’ mode of the game, as you have to steadily make your way through all the 32 tracks, separated into 16 cups of 4 courses each, to unlock new characters and karts. The karts, characters, and tracks are all based on the Mushroom Kingdom that the main Mario games take place in.
You race to unlock more karts and characters, and you have to race across three ‘classes’ (roughly equivalent to difficulty levels) and complete the Grand Prix mode on each. Racing itself is extremely simple, and after eight iterations, Nintendo has this formula down to an art, with racing, drifting, drafting, gliding, and boosting feeling the best they ever have. In this regard, Mario Kart 8 also benefits from being the first game in the series that doesn’t dismiss the mechanical base of its predecessor to start afresh- it uses the already adept mechanical framework of Mario Kart 7, and finetunes and tweaks it. Mario Kart 8 as a result feels absolutely tight. The racing physics are amazing, and the kart seems to respond to what you want it to do, rather than your button presses on the controller. Newcomers and veterans to the series alike will be entirely comfortable with the mechanics of Mario Kart 8 within minutes, though both will probably spend inordinate hours of their lives trying to master said mechanics.
Of course, pure racing prowess will only take you so far in Mario Kart 8- a hallmark of the series has always been its emphasis on items and weapons. Indeed, item usage in the Mario Kart series is always emphasized, to the extent that it often compromises on the core racing, and makes the games unbalanced. This was an issue most endemic in Mario Kart Wii, where it felt like the game was actively punishing you for being good at it- it was impossible to be in first place for more than half a minute, and not be bombarded by all manner of red shells, blue shells, lightning bolts, and squids, and suddenly dropping down at least half a dozen places.
"Mario Kart has always been known for its stellar track design, but for the first time ever, it feels like the developers found themselves unconstrained, and went all out."
Mario Kart 8, however, is different. Item usage in the game is almost shockingly de-emphasized, as it places the focus squarely on the actual racing. Most items that you get aren’t offensive, they’re defensive, challenging you to try and maintain your lead or your current position as you try to work your way up. Existing items have all been retweaked to ensure that they remain balanced, with even the dreaded Blue Shell finally getting a counter in the form of the Super Horn, a new item that can destroy anything in its vicinity, including, yes, blue shells.
It’s just as well that items aren’t the focus of the game anymore, because the game’s exemplary track design demands absolute focus. Mario Kart has always been known for its stellar track design, but for the first time ever, it feels like the developers found themselves unconstrained, and went all out- Mario Kart 8’s new tracks will have you racing in forests, on cloudtops, at an airport, down a waterfall, underwater, gliding through the air, and even defying gravity. Functionally, there is little difference between racing up a wall, and racing on the ground, but it opens up so many alternate paths on each track, it encourages players to try and find shortcuts even where they wouldn’t ordinarily think of trying to find them. The new batch of 16 tracks that Mario Kart 8 introduces is, without question, the best new batch of tracks ever introduced in a Mario Kart game. Meanwhile, the 16 old remastered tracks that you are encouraged to revisit might as well be brand new tracks, with so much work having gone into rebuilding them that they feel brand new, and end up standing proud with the new introductions.
All of this also carries over to the multiplayer portions of the game. Mario Kart 8 supports up to four players locally, or twelve players online (with up to two players per console being allowed to go online). The multiplayer mode is surprisingly progressive- the netcode is impeccable, with there being no lag, the races go without a hitch, lobbies are easy to find, and the matchmaking is great. It’s easy to join races with friends too, and you even get a (very limited) voice chat option for friend races. To add to all of that, Mario Kart 8 also lets you set up tournaments, which is an expansion of the communities concept introduced in Mario Kart 7. Essentially, tournaments can function like custom servers or lobbies, with you being able to set custom playlists, decide what items will be allowed, decide what class and kinds of vehicles will be eligible, and deciding whether the tournament is open to the public, or to friends only. You can even make tournaments timed, so that they begin and end at certain times. It’s really all very well done, and the multiplayer, which has long been the lifeline of the Mario Kart series, is the best in Mario Kart 8 than it ever was.
Equally astonishing are Mario Kart 8’s sharing features- in addition to the standard screenshot sharing features that the Wii U supports at an OS level, Mario Kart 8 also supports video sharing and uploading, over both, Nintendo’s own Miiverse, as well as Youtube. After any race, you get the option to create a simple and short highlight reel (using a simple but to the point video editor suite), and to share it with your friends (or simply to save it so you can view it later). The feature, which is called Mario Kart TV, is actually the centerpiece of the game, and once again, represents an unusually progressive move for Nintendo, a company which is traditionally averse to online interactions. MKTV isn’t necessarily the best or most full featured video sharing suite on the market at all, but it’s simple enough to get into, and creates some truly memorable sizzle reels of some of your best moments.
"Mario Kart 8 is a gorgeous game. It won't be too much of a stretch to say that it might be the prettiest game on the market right now, and this owes itself to Nintendo's excellent artstyle, and also the technical accomplishments of the game, which include dynamic lighting and shadows, and a blistering 60FPS at 720p. "
All of this is wrapped up in one stellar looking and sounding package. You see, Mario Kart 8 is a gorgeous game. It won’t be too much of a stretch to say that it might be the prettiest game on the market right now, and this owes itself to Nintendo’s excellent artstyle, and also the technical accomplishments of the game, which include dynamic lighting and shadows, and a blistering 60FPS at 720p. It’s a treat for the eyes, and it’s actually incredible that Nintendo managed to get this out of the Wii U. Weak the console might be, but if this is the kind of visual output that we can expect from Nintendo games on the system, I don’t think Wii U fans have much to worry about.
As good as Mario Kart 8 looks, it somehow manages to sound even better. For the first time in series history, the music is all fully orchestrated, and it makes a world of a difference. The tracks all sound lively, upbeat, and jazzy, and they’ll immediately be stuck in your head. In fact, the title screen theme alone is so good that you probably won’t want to proceed to the main menu for a while, just so you can listen to it a bit more. The music is absolutely amazing, and the remixes of the old tracks that show up are incredible too, with Rainbow Road 64 probably being a standout of the entire set.
With the game doing so much right, it’s actually shocking to realize how much it does wrong (or more accurately, doesn’t do at all). The Battle Mode is the first instance of this- although Battle Modes have always been divisive ever since Mario Kart 64, they have also always been fun. Mario Kart 8’s Battle Mode is probably the first instance of a battle mode in the series being poorly designed. No longer do you get custom battle mode arenas to battle in, and are instead relegated to running around the same courses that you race on, trying to find other players before the time runs out. Not only is this tedious and boring- you aren’t likely to ever actually come across another player, and a battle will never be properly finished, with winners instead being decided by the standings at the end of the timer- but it’s also shockingly lazy, and is perhaps the first indication that the game was rushed.
And then you realize that for all of its mechanical and visual flair, there really isn’t much to do in Mario Kart 8- once you’re done racing and unlocking things, what’s left to do? You can go online and race there, you can race locally, or you can try your luck at the butchered battle mode. There’s a Time Trial mode, and there are always Miiverse Stamps to unlock, but unlike previous games in the series, which have offered a wide range of single player content, Mario Kart 8 feels very barebones.
"And then you realize that for all of its mechanical and visual flair, there really isn't much to do in Mario Kart 8. Unlike previous games in the series, which have offered a wide range of single player content, Mario Kart 8 feels very barebones."
There are multiple other such problems with Mario Kart 8 too- for example, the game somehow doesn’t have an options menu. Yes, I know what I said before about an admirable focus on game design and a reluctance to overwhelm the player with a bloated options menu, but just a simple one, that maybe let players set custom controls, or just set the volume of the music and sound effects individually, would have been acceptable. But it doesn’t exist, it’s not there. Also not there is a stats tracker, which feels like a baffling omission. And perhaps most relevant tot he actual game, the character roster feels very padded- we have over 30 characters to choose from, but they’re padded out with seven different Koopalings and a lot of Baby and reskinned characters.
None of this really detracts from the core game’s brilliance, of course. Mario Kart 8 is a masterwork of pure mechanical and game design, and it’s a very progressive game. A lack of options or content does not change from any of that, or from the fact that Mario Kart 8 probably represents the series at its best, even eclipsing the innovative Double Dash, or the loaded to the brim with content Mario Kart DS. And ultimately, like I said before, there’s something to be said for the stark focus on simplicity that Mario Kart 8 emphasizes. We can sit here all day and debate the merits of including a proper battle mode, or a better character roster (both of which are highly likely anyway in the form of post game DLC), but when all is said and done, Mario Kart 8 represents the best game currently available on the three next gen consoles, and is the best reason to get a Wii U if there ever was one.
This game was reviewed on Wii U.
Stunningly gorgeous looking game, incredible soundtrack, fine tuned and refined mechanics that represent the series (and genre) at its best, balanced items laying the emphasis squarely on racing, online mode and sharing functions are top notch and incredibly progressive
The Battle mode is nerfed, the game is lacking in content and features, the character selection is lacking and disappointing