Mario Kart 8’s title might as well read ‘Mario Kart 7 Deluxe’, because this is essentially an HD retread of the 3DS racing classic with a few extras thrown in for good measure. That is, of course, a good thing. The land/sea/air transformation seen in MK7 provides not only aesthetic variety but potential for clever play… and now it’s bolstered by a fourth mode: anti-gravity racing. So you’re still zapping, boosting, and red-shelling your opponents around Mario-themed tracks, only now you’re doing it on the walls and even the ceiling. But unlike the rollercoaster track layouts that seem to promise so much fun, Mario Kart 8 does, at times, feel a little flat.
With the 32 tracks split 50/50 between brand new and revised retro content, the evolution of Mario Kart track design over the years is starkly apparent. The new tracks are almost universally wider and easier to drive thanks to an abundance of shallow corners. And, as a result, they’re not as exciting as they should be. Sure, the Mount Wario downhill, point-to-point track is a standout, and the Boo-filled Haunted Mansion looks amazing with its warping corridors and lava fountains, but the track design is rarely fiendish or particularly inventive. There is one corner on Bone Dry Dunes that lets you drift right along the inside of a tight corner over two highly pronounced undulations, before releasing the orange boost and flying over a ramp. It’s perfect. But it doesn’t happen anywhere near often enough.
By comparison, the retro tracks have still got class. Of course, nostalgia plays a role there, but many have been enhanced so much, they’re virtually unrecognisable. All have been given a wonderful graphical makeover (DS’ Cheep Cheep Beach, in particular, looks incredible) but many have been significantly warped to include that anti-gravity driving. One old-school ‘flat’ track even breaks into elevated sections on hydraulics before the race begins, ready for some anti-grav shenanigans.
And so, you drive over a blue bar on the track and--with a seamless, automatic transition--your kart’s wheels fold downward and suddenly you’re driving on walls, ceilings… even vertically. What a shame anti-gravity ‘state’ only has a marginal effect on gameplay. The handling doesn’t change, to the point where you can even stop dead and you won’t fall off. So even when you're upside-down, corners still feel the same, to the point where you rarely even realise you’re upside-down in the first place (especially considering the camera hardly changes position), which is disappointing.
In past games, it has been possible for advanced players to exploit the ‘drift boost’ mechanic and ‘snake’ down straights, drifting to the right, boosting from it, then repeating to the left. Mario Kart 7 fixed this to a good extent, but MK8’s drift is even better. Drifting on the apex of a corner charges the boost faster, while straights need so much time drifting, you’ll be facing the grass by the time it’s anywhere near charged.
Also disappointing is the difficulty level of single-player. If you’ve played Mario Kart before (and with seven predecessors to Mario Kart 8, chances are you have), the 50cc and 100cc difficulty tiers will pose such little challenge that you’ll rarely see another kart after the first corner. But even on the more challenging 150cc (and unlockable 150cc Mirror Mode), if you get out ahead of the pack by the end of lap 1, you’re practically guaranteed a win. Online and off, no weapon will close a big gap, especially when even the Blue Shell is now vulnerable.
Yes, you read that right: you can now defend against a Blue Shell. If you’ve got the horn (steady), you can blast the blue bastard out of the sky as it approaches, in a gleeful moment of revenge for all the times it screwed you over on the finish line in Mario Kart Wii. It’s a rare-ish item, plus lightning attacks often make you drop it before you can use it, but the satisfaction when you smash ol’ Blue out of the sky is palpable.
The other new items are both useful and fun to use. The Piranha Plant not only takes exaggerated bites at opponents as you pass, but also acts as a mini-turbo every time it lurches forward with a press of the attack button. There’s also a boomerang for medium-long-range attacks, which isn’t mega-powerful, but can hit multiple racers in one go, and the one-more-than-Mario-Kart-7 ‘8’ weapon, which gives you 8 items at once, moving in a ring around your kart.
Annoyingly, however, you can only hold one standard weapon at a time. No Mario Kart 64-style holding a shell behind you while banking another item here. It always used to feel like a safety net, racing along with a banana visible to everyone else, while secretly hoarding a red shell homing missile. Now everyone knows you’ve only got a banana.
Still, that banana looks incredible because the attention to detail here is magnificent. See those speed-boost mushrooms encircling your opponent’s kart? You can steal one by driving close enough for it to touch you. That is brilliant. A light enough brush of a ramp with your wheels while you’re gliding doesn’t deactivate the sail, but it does let you hit the jump button for a ramp boost. And the best air-punching moments still come from accurately predicting the trajectory of a green shell’s bounce off a wall and using it to smash your opponent into second place. Geometry FTW.
Speaking of air-punching moments… The core online experience is just as smooth and solid as single-player (even the online split-screen mode--where you and a buddy play online together--is sturdy). I did encounter a few unexplained disconnects during this pre-release phase of online play, but uninterrupted races were totally lag-free, even when racing between the US and UK GamesRadar offices.
However. Local multiplayer is not always the riotous good time it should be. Cutting the frame-rate in half to 30fps to enable full-fat four-player races makes the game look visibly scrappier, especially when the quarter-sized windows look extra jagged on a 1080p TV. Some of our four-player multiplayer sessions have been decidedly flat, like everyone feels detached from what’s happening in the game. Wiimotes don’t help. Thankfully you can turn off motion control steering, but the button layout feels restrictive either way. Pads with sticks make the game feel far more immediate and you’ll have a better time as a result.
The intelligent distribution of powerful items seems to vary between modes. Single-player doesn’t seem as generous with the better weapons, only awarding invincibility stars and the ‘8’ if you’re right at the very back of the pack. Multiplayer is a little more liberal, which is a good thing. You want ammunition to chuck at your mates, right? Accordingly, the multiplayer yields bigger weapons all the way up to around 4th place.
For variety, you can customise the multiplayer considerably. ‘No items’ or ‘shells only’ are purists’ heaven, while ‘Bob-ombs only’ is gleefully chaotic. But it does exaggerate that ‘leader will vanish’ problem, as there’s nothing to allow you to catch back up, yet you’re still getting hit.
By far the worst element of the game is the new Battle mode. A Mario Kart staple, the old ‘try to keep your three balloons safe while popping others’ should be a surefire success. But the arenas are gone. Instead, you fight each other on the same race tracks from Grand Prix mode. Sure, they have some extra routes opened up, and you can go either way around the track, but it’s not self-contained enough to be chaotic. Lonely multiplayer is not fun.
Perhaps ironically, then, the asynchronous action of online ghost mode time attack is one of the best reasons to buy the game. Leaving behind the chaos of regular multiplayer racing, you can race against your friends’ 3-lap ghost times, shaving tenths, hundredths and even thousandths of a second off their effort. Upload your own ghost lap and you can brag about it on Miiverse. Draw a little picture, write a little taunt… it’s superb, and exactly how connected gaming should be. And playing with focused precision really highlights the nuances of the drift-boost system and the exploitable placement of obstacles and ramps.
Mario Kart 8 is a high-quality game, of that there is no question. But it often feels like you and it are simply going through the motions. And when the musical swell from Super Mario Galaxy’s Gusty Garden kicks in (aah, the goosebumps!), it does hammer home the fact that this game doesn’t offer anything unique of its own that sets it apart from other kart racers or even other games in the series. As a result, it’s very good--occasionally superb--but not quite exceptional.
Mario Kart 8 is a slick and gorgeous-looking kart racer that's perfectly solid but not always as exciting or addictive as we've come to expect from the series.