Mario Kart 8 - Review
Mario Kart 8 is fun. Not just fun to play, its entire design seems to be geared towards making you smile. Is it fresh and innovative? Technically, no, it's not. It's the same game that Nintendo has been making for the past two decades, albeit somewhat brighter and prettier. Hell, even half of the tracks this time around are based on ones used in earlier installments.
Yet, despite the sense of familiarity you can't help but enjoy the immediacy of the whole game. There's no annoying tutorial screens, no DLC pass adverts, or awkward menu navigation. Press A approximately three times and you're in a race. Bam. And from then on it's glorious mayhem, as everyone makes a mad scramble to the finish line. All the classic power-ups are back; turtle shells are thrown, banana peels hurled and it's all wonderfully chaotic.
As always, Mario Kart is less a bona fide racing game and more an exercise in damage control. You will get blasted by a power-up at the worst possible moment, you will go hurtling into scenery because someone smeared ink all over the screen while you were going into a turn. And despite all this, there's never any sense of frustration, only the desire to get back on the track and do the same to your opponents.
Tracks themselves remain something of a joy to experience too, with many dramatically altering as the race continues. Grumble Volcano still remains one of the highlights, with the entire track beginning to erupt as you make it into the second lap. Mount Wario, a new track which has players making a beeline down a snowy mountainside, is also a great new addition, the the track's three laps marking how far down the mountain you are. As with the power-ups, there's a certain "handicap" balancing aspect that goes on, as tracks have the habit of changing the rules each lap, forcing all of the players, especially those in the lead, to adapt.
Still, for a game that's mostly seen as a party-racer, for lack of a better term, Mario Kart 8 is no actual slouch when it comes to competitive driving. Karts and bikes have a real weight and heft and there's a genuine difference in a vehicle's capabilities when you switch around the chassis and wheels. Karts range from simple cars to motorcycle and monster trucks, with the different frames having an impact on your acceleration and steering ability.
The game never explains these alterations in points terms: +2 for steering, - 1 top speed, but there's no need to. The ability to tinker and mess around with your kart, and your chosen racer (different drivers fall into different size categories), is another excuse to experiment on the track and play some more Mario Kart. It took me hours to settle on my preferred custom configuration and even now I don't have absolutely everything unlocked so that could always change.
Alongside the typical cup races and time trials there's battle mode; a three hits and you're out, kind of race. It's slightly disappointing that this mode didn't get its own custom tracks and so comes across as the weakest link in the available modes. Fortunately, this is countered by a sleekly incorporated multiplayer option, allowing you to jump into races online. Frankly, this is what Mario Kart was made for, with a bunch of human players duking it out, the game just gets even more fun and, just like with the rest of the game, it's so streamlined and simple to get into.
There's also the typical slew of items to unlock as you collect coins. The items themselves, which consist of new kart parts and wheels, allow for more tinkering between races, whilst new drivers are also unlocked as you progress through the games cups. There's perhaps a slight laziness on Nintendo's part in this regard. Many of the drivers, such as Mario, Peach and Luigi, all have a baby equivalent too, meaning that a good portion of the game's character roster is full up with core Mario character variants. Metal Mario even makes a return which, let's face it, isn't exactly a thrilling addition. It would have been nice had Nintendo plucked up the courage to throw in a few more interesting characters as well - just to stave off that slight feeling of over-familiarity.
Still, Mario Kart 8 is more a celebration of the series up until this point rather than a completely bold new game in its own right. Nintendo walks a fine line between crafting an impressive new instalment and at the same time seeming to rest on their laurels. Despite all this Mario Kart 8 just has that strange knack of bypassing the tired old cynical part of your brain and nestling itself into that warm, comfy nugget in its centre: it's a game without a hint of cynicism, and perhaps more so than many other games, understands exactly what it is.
Perhaps the most important thing to take is if it ain't broke don't fix. If this is what Mario Kart can achieve then it doesn't look like it needs fixing.
Mario Kart 8 was released exclusively for the Wii U on May 30th.
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