Mario Kart 8 presents a strong case for investing in Wii U. Dave Cook puts pedal to floor and accelerates into a world of joyous racing banter to bring you his final impressions.
Mario Kart 8 is more than Wii U’s visual benchmark; it’s further proof that Nintendo’s focus on control and fun comes from a good place. Once you hit the tarmac and let rip with those drifts and jumps, you’ll be thankful that it didn’t try to reinvent the wheel.
During last year’s Super Mario 3D World impressions I argued that Nintendo’s mastery of the 3D platforming format had turned the genre into a one-horse race. Whenever the Japanese giant releases a new entry to the series, it’s essentially competing with itself.
The same is true of Mario Kart, a franchise that has remained consistent at the core since 1992, yet bolstered with new tricks and features to keep it fresh over the years.
Mario Kart 8 is the culmination of that effort, a slick, enjoyable and thoroughly pleasant experience that favours old school simplicity over bogged-down mechanics and needless padding. It’s perhaps the best reason to buy a Wii U today.
You’ll have no trouble picking up your GamePad and getting stuck right into races thanks to the familiar control scheme, and while that may sound a tad uninspired on Nintendo’s part, the carrying-over of Mario Kart 7’s drift and boost mechanic is actually a smart move on Nintendo’s part. The game’s beauty shines through thanks to some superbly-designed courses that force players to think strategically about when to engage a drift turn to earn boost, and picking the right time to unleash it for a burst of speed.
When you’re hammering along more intricate tracks like Bowser’s Castle or Shy Guy Falls, simply sticking to the racing line isn’t enough. You need to learn the shortcuts, figure out how to combo your drifts and boosts to maintain top speed and make smart use of your power-ups. So while Nintendo appears to have turned out another Mario Kart game with the same old control method as before, the similarities are only skin-deep.
The courses themselves have been lovingly created and look superb on Nintendo’s hardware with a clean art style reminiscent of a Pixar movie. It’s the most visually impressive first-party game on Wii U, and it wouldn’t look out of place on PS4 or Xbox One either. It’s no inFamous: Second Son or Battlefield 4 of course, but it shows that the company can achieve graphical excellence on its home format when the shoe fits.
“A game rammed full of polygons, high-quality textures and graphical trickery amounts to very little unless it handles effectively. The company has its control method honed to a point that this racer feels wonderful in your hands.”
You’ll feel it as you scream around the damp, coastal roads of Dolphin Shoals at 60 frames per second. As you ascend the rocky path hanging high above the bay’s sparkling waters, you’ll be greeted by shimmering lens flare and the sun’s glare reflecting in puddles that splash loudly under your kart’s wheels as you pass.
Flair aside, it’s hard to dismiss the joy felt as you hammer around corners in the music-themed Electrodome, flanked by crowds of Koopa Troopers and Piranha Plants dancing to the beat, or watching gingerbread Toads bound about in joy in the grandstands of Sweet Sweet Canyon.
While the tracks have started to deviate away from levels in Mario games a little, they benefit from the same rhythmic ethos applied to jump-placement in Nintendo’s platform games. Each slippery turn and jump feels deliberately placed to hold your focus until the final lap ends, and this magnetic appeal is bolstered further with the inclusion of anti-gravity sections. While these stretches of road play out the same as those found on terra firma, they make for a positively disorientating experience.
You can engage anti-gravity sections by driving over blue strips on the road, and while they can help you bypass obstacles or gain a speed boost, Nintendo has balanced them by adding additional risks such as sheer drops and other hazards. They’ll see you driving horizontally along the side of store fronts in Toad Harbour, along the wobbling walls of Twisted Mansion and corkscrewing around Rainbow Road’s interstellar highway. These moments make for some of the most visually-arresting tracks in Mario Kart history.
My favourite course is Mount Wario, which starts on a grid inside a high-flying plane. Once the race starts, the cargo hatch opens and everyone drops out onto the snowy piste below, thundering through frozen caves, around evergreen trees and through slalom gates to be greeted by a cheering crowd of Toads at the bottom. It’s a superbly-designed sprint that rolls all of the Mario kart franchise’s tricks – from hang-gliding and drifting, to boosting off the peak of jumps and anti-grav – to make something that feels fresh and most importantly of all, fun.