If there’s one thing you can be certain of when you boot up a Mario Kart game, it’s that you’re going to have some fun. Whether you’re a veteran to the series or new to kart racing genre, there’s an inherent sense of joy to be found in picking your favorite iconic character, hopping in a vehicle, and speeding by a pretty looking landscape while dodging shells and bananas. The question, therefore, when deciding whether or not to purchase a Mario Kart title isn’t will you have fun… it’s how much fun you’ll have. How much will I play this on my own? Will my friends enjoy it? Is it fun beyond the initial weekend of unlocks and gold trophies? The answers to these questions is what sets great Mario Kart games apart from the merely good… and Mario Kart 8 is a great Mario Kart title.
Mario Kart 8 starts off with the basics: You have a choice of 8 cups to choose from, and the staple speeds of 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc are all there. Four of the cups consist of brand-new tracks for the Wii U title, and the other four consist of re-imagined courses from Mario Kart’s extensive past. After you manage to topple the 150cc cups, you unlock the Mirror races, which are… mirrored versions of the tracks. Oh, and yes, mirrored tracks are much harder to race on than they sound.
The tracks themselves are well done and fun to play through. The 16 new tracks also take advantage of the new anti-gravity mechanic introduced in Mario Kart 8. While the screen itself doesn’t reflect the fact that you’re racing upside down or sideways, when your kart goes into its hover mode (your wheels will turn sideways) you’ll know you’ll be doing some gravity defying hijinks. There’s more to it than just how neat it looks in the highlight reels, though: While you and other racers are on a zero-gravity area of the track, you all can bump into each other in order to gain short speed boosts. Who gets the most benefit for said bump depends on how the two characters collided: If you hit another character correctly, you’ll be able to get ahead, but if you mess up, you might push them farther into the lead. This allows for some interesting tactics on certain parts of the track, and learning how to deal with being bumped is important to keep yourself in first.
The anti-gravity mechanics also allows for more options when it comes to finding alternate routes along the tracks. The most enjoyable tracks of Mario Kart 8 are the the ones that offer you multiple paths, with no clear “better” way to go about the track. While there may be a certain way around the track that may shave a second or two off the clock, which isn’t very important in the Grand Prix, and that really lets you have fun on the track while trying to get to first place. Finally, it’s important to note that while the re-imagined race tracks do have bits of anti-gravity mechanics thrown into it, there is far less than there is in the new courses, so those tracks tend to rely on more traditional tactics to take the gold.
Being the core of the game, the eight cups in the Grand Prix mode are the main pillar of gameplay in Mario Kart 8, and they do well to support extended playtime. In addition to the tracks simply being fun to race on, as you work through the cups you’ll unlock a variety of new characters and vehicle parts. There are an immense amount of vehicles, wheels, and parachutes to unlock, giving plenty of reason to keep collecting coins while racing alone and with friends. It’s a bit of a shame that Mario Kart 8 fails to tell you how many total coins you’ve collected, but the rate in which you unlock new parts makes it so that, for a good while, you’ll feel a very real sense of progression even past the initial gold trophy gathering.
There is, however, a small downer when racing. When in first or other high places, you’ll often get coins from item boxes as opposed to the typical green shells or bananas. While the coins give a slight boost to keep you ahead, the lack of getting even the most basic item does make “being in first” a little less fun… especially considering the fact that by being in first, you’ll be the prime target of plenty of shell and lightning attacks. You are, more or less, aren’t given much to protect yourself, and it can prove frustrating after being hit by multiple items you couldn’t counter or dodge.
But of course, the main draw of a Mario Kart game for an extended period of time is its multiplayer. Mario Kart 8 offers both local and online multiplayer for your competitive racing needs, and both work as well as you should expect (which is to say, quite well). Local co-op is split screen with up to four players; unfortunately, while you can use the GamePad as a second screen, the screen itself will still be split, so it isn’t very helpful, but the option is there. Also, you (and even one buddy on the couch) can go online and race with a full twelve opponents, cutting out the nasty computer AI and race it out with other humans (whether their skills are human-level or god-tier). Online goes pretty smoothly, a couple small hiccups aside.
While the Grand Prix and racing normally in the cups and tracks is the main crux of the game, Mario Kart 8 has two additional modes for you to play in: Time Trials and Battles. Time Trials are exactly what they sound like: You pick a track and race three laps, trying to hit a record time. You can download a variety of ghosts to race against as well, including official Nintendo ghosts that, if you can beat them all, will unlock a special vehicle part. It’s a good way to get better at the tracks, especially since a ghost will be showing you how to best time your drifts and turns without worry of other opponents or items.
As for the Battle Mode, it is reminiscent to the Battle Mode in Mario Kart 64. You have three balloons, and your goal is to pop our opponents balloons without losing your own. It’s a pretty unique mode for the Mario Kart series, but unfortunately Mario Kart 8‘s rendition is the weakest part of the entire game. While most of the other Mario Karts that implement a Battle Mode have specific arenas to fight in, in Mario Kart 8 you are instead placed on the normal tracks, and tasked with finding the other players on a rather large track not meant for battling. It sucks a lot of fun out of the Battle Mode, and one can only hope that Nintendo will consider releasing dedicated Battle arenas via DLC in the future.
Mario Kart 8, despite a few, mostly small imperfections, is a fantastic Wii U title, and something the console desperately needed to give it a boost. Racing is simply fun, the graphics are beautiful, and it provides enough incentive to keep playing even beyond the initial boot-up. Mario Kart 8 also joins the like of Nintendo Land in terms of bringing a great party game to the Wii U, and will provide you and your friends (local or online) with plenty of fun times in the future to come.