A Stunning Display
It is the wish of most parents that their children have better success than they did. The same can be said about developers when crafting the next game in a beloved series. In almost all respects, Mario Kart 8 achieves this aspiration, with one merit not only surpassing its predecessors, but I will confidently claim to be the best of any video game I have ever seen. But I will spare you the suspense now by saying the game is not completely flawless, yielding a few questionable design choices that feel like a step backwards or a step in the wrong direction.
Let’s begin with where Mario Kart 8 shines the brightest: its graphics. From the starting line at Mario Kart Stadium to the finish line of one of two Rainbow Roads, you’re in for a spectacle like you’ve never seen before. Even with the action moving at a stellar sixty frames per second, there are so many visual delights you’ll wish you could take your eyes off the road to enjoy them. Fortunately you can, thanks to the game’s highlight feature accessed after each race or via the Mario Kart TV menu option. This allows you to watch recent races from dynamic camera angles, tweak what gets showcased such as big hits or drifting, and even upload them to the Miiverse and soon to YouTube. However, the editing system sacrifices freedom for ease of use, so you can’t cut and paste sections together, choose your own camera angles, and fashion a completely customized montage.
You do however have the power to watch your highlight reels in slow motion, and it’s here that the extensive array of detailing can be appreciated. From candy filled backgrounds in Sweet Sweet Canyon to a molten Giga Bowser pounding the track in Bowser’s Castle, there’s something new and exciting to behold around every corner. It would take dozens of pages to pay tribute to every superb detail, so instead I’ll just deliver a bold statement. It may not be the photorealism that seems to be the pursuit of other major developers, but Mario Kart 8 is the most gorgeous looking video game… EVER!
Equally stunning is the sound, whether it’s the authentic purring from the engines of the various vehicle types or the brilliant compositions found in every track. Music-centric courses such as Electrodome and Music Park blast you with rhythm that is manipulated as you drive over synthesizers and piano keys. The classical instruments in Cloudtop Cruise give way to power chords on an electric guitar as you enter the heart of a storm cloud. The taunts and cheers of the characters ring above the music to keep you aware that this is true competitive racing. Each orchestration fits the theme of the course perfectly, and are as varied as the venues themselves, leaving nothing audibly redundant.
Yet there’s little time to enjoy the sights, since this is a racing game after all. There are thirty characters to choose from, easily unlocked by completing Grand Prix circuits. The newest additions to the roster are the seven Koopalings, having returned to the scene through the New Super Mario Bros. titles. Yet their popularity is still only with a minority of fans, and having seven rather generic Koopa Kids instead of favorites like Dry Bones and Boo is a bit disheartening. The ability to choose from a growing assortment of vehicle body types, wheels and air gliding attachments allows you to tweak the natural statistics of the characters. Thus Toad can sport a little more girth by getting behind the wheel of a muscle car with monster tires, while Bowser can improve his handling by straddling a motorcycle.
Aside from the Cup tournaments in Grand Prix mode, in which you’ll find a total of sixteen original courses as well as the same amount of overhauled classic courses from prior Mario Kart titles, the Time Trials mode is available for those eager to show their skills at shaving off milliseconds against ghost data from other racers around the world. Vs. mode allows you to customize the match, limiting items, choosing teams, picking the speed of the course and so on. Battle mode is by far the biggest disappointment in Mario Kart 8 . I fondly remember endless showdowns in the various incarnations of block arenas, but sadly they are nowhere to be found. Instead, Nintendo has opted to pit battle goers in select number of the same tracks found in the Grand Prix. The narrow alleyways of most courses prove difficult to pull off u-turns to give chase. Also, there’s only the Balloon Battle option, so no Coin Runners, Bob-omb Blast or other variations you may have enjoyed. Overall, the Battle Mode feels like a tacked on feature thrown in to meet the launch date, which is shameful for Nintendo.
The online multiplayer isn’t the robust system I was hoping for, but it is simple to navigate and easy to get right into the action. Starting with a rating of 1000, you can jump into a quick match with up to twelve other players either in a race or Battle Mode, or customize a match with a few options such as item types and speed. The Tournament mode is little more than a glorified match system, which can be setup for daily, weekly or fixed date matches at specific times. Of course, you still have to have other people interested in the same tournament at the same time as you, which I have yet to find in pre-launch play. I have no doubt the community will mushroom come May 30th, but with the option to create your own tournaments, there will be thousands of choices, and all to do basically the same thing as a quick match. You can play against regional or worldwide opponents, or people on your friends list, but there are only pregenerated text options and no ability to make new friends or check profiles of your opponents. With Nintendo needing to court the hardcore audience, and the Mario Kart series being about as competitive as the Mushroom Kingdom gets, this should have been the time when Nintendo loosened their restraining belt a little.
The multiplayer matches themselves are about as nerve-racking as races get, especially if you’re in first place. Mario Kart games have always given an advantage to those pulling up the rear, and this eighth entry goes the extra mile. The most shocking discovery is now not being able to grab a secondary item while holding a Shell or Banana Peel on your tail. You get one item, that’s it. This makes your single Banana Peel defense rather limp against a trio of Red Shells bearing down on you. Of course, the blue Spiny Shell is stoppable now, thanks to a new item called the Super Horn. Yet after hundreds of matches, I still have yet to be holding one while in first place, actually hoping for an alert that the Spiny Shell is on its way.
The game tries to combat overpowered items by providing several avenues to the finish line using the game’s anti-gravity feature, and adding a new boost mechanic when you bump into the tail of opponents or nudge certain obstacles. Shaking the controller to perform mid-air tricks also provides a little nitro boost. Power Sliding around corners and drafting other racers are more ways to increase your speed. Unfortunately skilled drivers will find them of little value when a Lightning item strikes or Bullet Bills blasts through the pile. Suffice it to say, items almost completely remove skill from any match, where you can jump from first place to tenth in an instant, thus limiting how well you should judge the online rating of another player.
Despite my criticism of some of the modes and gameplay mechanics, Mario Kart 8 is still an amazing game, and as intense and addicting as its predecessors. I may wish for a better Battle Mode and more online features, but I have happily raced hundreds of matches, and expect thousands more for many months, and even years, to come. There is not a single blemish in the track design and detailing, and handling the vehicles is tight and responsive, whether using the analog stick or tilt controls. Mario Kart 8 is perfect in most respects, but a few features are still bound by Nintendo’s restrictive hand.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
A 5.0 is the highest score I can give, but this game deserves higher. It is that amazing looking! 4.4 Control
Handling your kart is as tight as ever. It’s the constrained editing tools in the highlight system and the lacking social options that brings the score down. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A perfect balance between the heavy engine sounds of all the vehicles and the beautiful and intense melodies found in every single course. 4.0 Play Value
Every one of the thirty-two courses is a delight to ride, every single time. The watered-down Battle mode and shallow online multiplayer are big disappointments. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|