Review: Mario Kart 8

Developer: Nintendo - Publisher: Nintendo: Platform: Wii U - Release Date: May 30, 2014

Concept: Turn Mario Kart on it's head by introducing Zero Gravity and modernize it with a sharable video upload system.

Graphics: Gorgeous tracks and impressively detailed vehicles make this one of the best-looking Wii U games by a mile. Unfortunately, the fluid frame rate has trouble supporting three or more players

Sound: It's a Mario Kart soundtrack, meaning you'll catch yourself humming many great tunes on and off the race track

Playability: The GamePad reigns supreme since the touchscreen displays racer positions, but the Pro and Classic controllers are fine options as well. Wiimote/Nunchucks, on the other hand, are last resorts

Entertainment: If you're a Wii U owner with friends, there's no reason this shouldn't be spinning in your console right now

Replay Value: Very High

No Pit Stop Required

Mario Kart as been a highlight of every Nintendo console since it's Super Nintendo debut and has stayed relevant over the years by adding features that has fluctuated in terms of significance. Entries such as Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash changed the game in major ways by introducing 3D graphics and tag-team racing, respectively. Others, such as Mario Kart DS, Wii, and 7 were undeniably fun, but only provided incremental improvements by comparison. It's been awhile since the series took that next big step, but Mario Kart 8 brings a slew of new ideas that make it the most substantial and inventive entry since Double Dash.

The Wii U’s engine roars as Mario Kart 8 boasts fantastic visuals, featuring beautifully designed courses, vibrant colors, and impressive particle effects. Creative kart designs, such as the Yoshi and Wiggler bikes, feature intricate details including a nice touch of metallic sheen. This is definitely one of the most exquisite-looking games of the year.

The roster has exploded with 30 different racers (even more depending on the number of Mii’s on your system). There are a couple of duds like Pink Gold Peach and Lakitu (I'd prefer Boo and Diddy Kong in their places), but the added variety is definitely welcomed. My favorites by far are Bower’s long-time minions, the Koopalings. Characters still carry a lot of weight when assembling your vehicle and I mean that literally. Choosing a balanced kart is a thoughtful juggle of a racer's weight in conjunction with that of a kart's body and wheels, which greatly influences your overall performance.

A host of new stages are among of the best yet. Favorites include the Electrodome, a techno/club themed track lit with neon and sound-producing pavement. Another cool track is Cloudtop Cruise, which has players racing in the sky across a giant beanstalk and Bower’s airships. Speaking of the Koopa King, a new and terrifyingly improved Bower's Castle is headlined by a gigantic, fiery golem that strikes the track with flaming punches, sending shock-waves that cause the path to ripple violently. Old favorites, such as the N64's Toad's Turnpike and Rainbow Road, are better than ever thanks to some modern renovations. Courses still consists of the fun mix of land, underwater, and aerial glider sections and are now joined by a new element: Zero Gravity.

The most significant new feature, Zero-G consists of special areas of the track that bestows vehicles with electromagnetic wheels, allowing players to drive along the sides or upside-down. Because of this, many tracks are multi-leveled, topsy-turvy affairs with insanely twisted loops and curves. This design also lends itself to more branching paths and more than a few clever shortcuts.

In Zero-G mode, crashing into other racers grants a speed boost, so having a bumper cars mentality is actually encouraged. Keep in mind, though, that smaller characters will go flying off-course if they collide with larger ones (though the Lakitu finally returns you to the race in a timely matter and not his usual day and a half). Overall, Zero-G is an excellent addition that adds another layer of strategy, depth, and creativity to the already stellar course designs.

Cool new power-ups accompany the new course design. The incredibly useful Super Horn blasts nearby racers with it's wide sound-wave and can also nullify incoming projectiles. That includes the giant middle-finger known as the spiked blue shell. The Boomerang Flower is great because it, obviously, comes back, so you can nail players that dodged your first throw on the return trip. My favorite is the Piranha Plant. In addition to chomping anyone within reach, it also gobbles up items on the field (such as pesky banana peels) and provides a small speed boost with each bite. The Crazy 8 is a rare item that empowers players with 8 different power-ups to unleash a ridiculously brutal assault that has probably ended countless friendships.

Four-player split-screen is still the definitive Mario Kart experience but it’s slightly marred by frame rate issues. While silky smooth with one or two players, going beyond that causes the frame rate to plummet considerably for some reason. Multiplayer is still a riotous blast, but it’s a noticeable and disappointing detriment. Battle Mode is a letdown as it trades out arena-style levels and places you on the normal courses which doesn't work at all, mainly because most of them are far too large.

For those lacking actual friends, online play is a great alternative. Options are pretty basic - you can race either regionally, worldwide, or organize tournaments – but jumping into games is near instantaneous and races perform without any real connectivity hiccups. It’s easily the longest and most enjoyable experience I've had with a Nintendo online mode in years.

A new highlight reel feature falls into the wonderful category of "Awesome things I didn't know I wanted". Every race is recorded and at the end you’re treated to a neat replay clip that can be edited to your liking. For example, you can set filters to focus the video on an individual racer or on occurrences such as big impacts or item usage.

Footage can be sped up or slowed to a crawl, which can produce some truly hilarious scenes as well as catch things you didn't see during the race. I do wish, however, that there was a zoom function, as well as the ability to maneuver the camera freely, simply for added control. Race footage can then be uploaded to Mario Kart TV to be viewed by players around the globe as well as YouTube. I absolutely loved toying around with this feature and it's even better when you have a bunch of friends to laugh and dink around with it too.

Mario Kart 8 is filled with great new improvements but it still retains the series' more annoying aspects. Despite having new items and defenses, you’ll still be the victim of irritating catch-up A.I. Losing the first place position you've owned for two laps during the final stretch due to being hit by a sudden bombardment of items will still make you want to take a sledgehammer to your television. Even so, the good more than exceeds any annoyances and Mario Kart 8 does so many things right that is may very well be the best in the series.

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