First things first: it’s going to be difficult to return to previous Mario Karts after this. Even 2011’s effervescent 3DS outing, Mario Kart 7, feels somewhat lifeless by comparison. The new HD visuals are gorgeous, but Nintendo has also built on 7’s neatly interlaced mechanics and introduced a nuanced handling model to create the greatest Mario Kart yet.
But don’t fret: things aren’t so different that you won’t feel immediately at home. Drift boosting is still an essential, adrenaline-spiked technique, and the same is true of drafting and stunts (hit the jump button after cresting the lip of a ramp or other object and you’ll get a little kick of speed in return). But while 7’s drift was immediate, the first time you try it in 8 will likely see you sail clean off the tarmac due to the karts’ new-found inertia. It takes a few corners to get used to, but is quickly revealed to be a deep and rewarding system – pulling off an apex-kissing drift around a tough corner is an uncommonly potent dopamine hit.
A more controversial addition is the spin boost, which can only be used on 8’s new antigrav sections and delivers a slug of thrust simply for bumping into other racers or the pinball-style bumpers that often dot these sections. It’s far from the balance-ruining calamity it may seem on paper, and usually favours the faster, or at least more aggressive, kart in much the same way clattering into an opponent with your wheels planted on the ground does. But with spin boost, there’s a good chance both parties will receive a speed increase, meaning it must be strung together with other techniques in your repertoire to be effective.
And if driving skill fails you, you can always fire off a volley of Red Shells. Mario Kart 8 introduces three new items (if you don’t count the upgraded Lucky Seven, which becomes Lucky Eight here). The Boomerang works as expected and can be flung three times at, or ahead of, other racers to stall them; the Piranha Plant plonks gnashing greenery on the bonnet of your kart and gives you a boost every time it chomps a coin or opponent; and the Super Horn emits a shock wave around you, sending karts flying and deflecting projectiles – yes, that includes the Spiny Shell.
Control options have been broadened, too. Now you can choose to steer using the D-pad, or even handle the throttle and brake via the right analogue stick. In addition, motion controls – using either the GamePad or Wii Remote with steering wheel attachment – finally feel like an effective way to play. We tried both motion-control schemes on the tough 150cc races and managed to win with each one. It’s worth noting, however, that the heft of the GamePad makes it feel slightly less responsive than the lighter wheel.
Mario Kart 7’s penchant for alternative routes is retained, with some of the tracks branching repeatedly out in front of you like a family tree. The glider and underwater propeller transformations are both given new life by weightier handling, but joining them is the new antigrav transformation, which sees karts tuck their wheels up like a DeLorean time machine whenever you pass over a glowing blue strip. It comes with the ability to stick to walls or inverted sections of track, and this has done for Mario Kart what Galaxy’s rejection of tradition did for the 3D platformer: freeing course designers from adhering to the boring rules of gravity and resulting in locales of spectacular imagination.
Shy Guy Falls takes place in a rocky canyon and begins in a comparatively restrained manner. Then the track detours straight up a huge waterfall and twists back on itself to send you plummeting down, flinging you into the air to glide to safety just before you hit the foaming plunge pool at its base. At one point during Bowser’s Castle, you have to avoid its owner’s fists as he looms over the track, pummelling the roadway and sending ripples down its length before a stomach-churning turn sends you downwards and between his legs. Mount Wario, meanwhile, sees you descend a snow-covered mountain that takes in a slalom, a ski-jump and a sideways dash across the face of a dam along the way. If Mario Kart 7’s new tracks made older circuits feel somewhat planar, then Mario Kart 8’s makes them feel positively one-dimensional.
On later tracks, alternative paths offer a choice between rubber and antigravity, an addition that’s particularly welcome in the rejigged Toad’s Turnpike, where you’re able to hop on the wall and circumvent the traffic. Mario Kart 64’s divisive track is still yawningly wide, but for the most part Nintendo’s designers have kept circuits tight and fraught.
You can take the time to appreciate their work free from the stress of fending off attacks in Mario Kart TV, a highlight reel that you can choose to watch after each race. The action can be slowed down or sped up using the sticks, and you can tweak the settings to make MKTV focus on different things, such as items, drifting or hits. You can also choose which drivers to feature (it will default to including everyone who competed), and set the clip to last for 30, 45 or 60 seconds, or to play out the entire race.
Whichever algorithms are at work behind the scenes, MKTV has a keen eye for drama. During one replay, the camera focuses on the banana skin gripped by Mario as we barrel around a banked corner. Once thrown, the camera sticks with the weaponised peel as Mario disappears from frame, only to cut to Peach, pulling focus as she runs into it. We slow the action manually at this point to bask in her tumbling defeat. Another playback sees the camera switching its attention from Yoshi’s kart to the Red Shell we loosed, before a fade cut to the same shell a second away from its victim. The camera then waits so it can capture us spin-boosting off the stricken kart. MKTV quickly becomes almost as addictive as racing.
Your edited highlight reels can be saved and watched in a theatre accessed from the main menu – from which you can also view your friends’ reels and the most popular or recent clips from around the globe – and you can also upload your efforts directly to YouTube. It’s a surprising, but entirely welcome, volte-face after last year’s uproar when Nintendo filed copyright claims against users who had created YouTube videos featuring its games.
Mario Kart 8’s progressive approach to the Internet continues in online multiplayer, which now allows up to 12 players to compete in one-off races or Tournaments. The latter expands upon Mario Kart 7’s Communities and allows owners to set custom rules and choose how long it will run for. When you create a Tournament, an associated Miiverse community will automatically be generated so that you can stay in touch. If you prefer to compete from a distance, you can upload your ghost data, race against others’ ghosts and watch leaderboard-topping performances to improve your own driving.
Local multiplayer is good, too – at least in certain conditions. Twoplayer splitscreen is all but indistinguishable from a singleplayer race – we didn’t notice significant loss of detail or any dips below 60fps – but Wii U starts to wheeze when there are four players to render. It’s not unplayable, but nor is it particularly stable, either. Mario Kart’s Coin Battle has been dropped (though coins are still present in the Grand Prix and holding ten will increase your top speed), but so, more disappointingly, have Balloon Battle’s arenas. Instead, you must attempt to deplete your opponents’ balloons on one of eight standard race tracks, each one stripped of its antigrav sections.
The Mario Kart series’ battle arenas were designed to funnel players into each other, but now you’ll spend long stretches of time without even catching sight of a potential target as you trek round the circuit, hoping someone’s driving in the opposite direction. It’s not about points this time, rolling back to the original game’s rules of simply trying to retain your balloons. You’re not quite out if you lose them all, however. Instead, you become a ghost – invisible to other players, but still able to deplete their balloons, and it’s annoying as that sounds. Even with CPU drivers set to Hard, we were able to park our kart at the side of the track and wait out the three-minute match without being targeted once. It’s not a strategy that flies with human opponents, of course, but the decision to drop arenas is nonetheless a confusing one.
But even this isn’t enough to detract from an otherwise-joyous follow-up to the series’ excellent 3DS outing. That it offers as much of its own innovation again speaks volumes; Mario Kart 8 is as essential a purchase as Super Mario 3D World. Whether it will give Nintendo’s console the sales boost it so desperately needs is another matter, but the famously cloistered company is at last giving its players the opportunity to reach beyond the Miiverse with its YouTube uploads. However it plays out, Mario Kart 8 is yet another overwhelmingly powerful argument in favour of the company’s idiosyncratic approach to design.