Mario Kart 8 is a beautiful, fun kart racer that introduces sound new ideas to Nintendo’s 22-year old franchise. While it doesn’t reach Double Dash-levels of risk and experimentation, Mario Kart 8 builds on the series’ most essential aspects better than any of its predecessors. Twisting U-turns, a blistering sense of speed, skillful track designs, robust tournament and online features, and gorgeous graphics fall into lockstep all at once. The end result shouldn’t come as a surprise: Mario Kart 8 is the king of the mascot kart circuit, and it gave me hours of enjoyment.
Right from the starting line, Nintendo’s emphasis on re-tuning Mario Kart 8 in a meaningful way is apparent, and everything moves at a faster pace. Characters and vehicle customization parts unlock quickly, Lakitu helps you recover faster, and new items like the Piranha Plant and Boomerang Flower make for useful additions without throwing off Mario Kart’s delicate balance. And finally, Blue Shell-haters rejoice: the new Super Horn stops the much-maligned comeback mechanic dead in its tracks, allowing skill to prevail more often than ever before.
The single best improvement in Mario Kart 8 are the subtle, yet ultimately satisfying antigravity transformations. They set up visually impressive moments while introducing a unique new mechanic to the race. Bumping nearby racers while in anti-grav can give your opponent a speed boost though, so you have to consider the best potential angle to slam into them so that you’re the only one who benefits. Nailing a perfect bump after a tricky S-curve delivered a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. It’s surprising to see such a potentially chaotic idea turned into a nuanced mechanic.
Mario Kart 8’s creative track designs carefully factor antigravity in without overusing it. Some tracks, like Wario Stadium, use it to great effect, but retro tracks like Donut Plains 3 rely on good old-fashioned kart racing skills. The careful layout of boost pads and item boxes provide plenty of opportunities to make comebacks without it feeling cheap or unearned. The deceptively simple shortcuts often felt risky, making me weigh my options mid-race depending on how I was doing rather than blindly jumping into the alternate routes ahead.
The roster tops off at 30 characters, and offers a wide selection of mascots to choose from, including the amazing Koopa kids. However, the overload of babies in this installment floods the roster with smaller racers that feel too similar to their big brother (or sister) counterparts. Overall, the list is great but more obscure characters like Dry Bones or Nabbit would’ve been welcome additions.
Mario Kart 8 offers a bunch of options to play. Single and two-player split-screen races unfolded at a stunning 60 frames-per-second without a hiccup. Three and four-player local competitive races halved the framerate to 30 fps, but it’s an acceptable loss when the racing looks and plays this well. Mario Kart 8’s graphics are some of the best I’ve seen in a game made by Nintendo. Each racer, kart combination, and track showcased expert art direction right down to the tiny treads on the tires.
Online mode supports up to 12-players, and Nintendo gets a lot of mileage out of Mario Kart 8’s basic online features. It’s easy to join races, setup tournaments, and even upload highlight videos to YouTube, but once again, Nintendo’s den mother attitude rears its head: Chat is restricted to lobbies with friends only. There’s no option to invite friends into a game, and Mario Kart 8 also doesn’t provide message notifications. This is seriously disappointing because you have to use outside means to coordinate friends-only races. These omissions often make Mario Kart 8 feel like a fancy import Ferrari with an old ham radio built into the dashboard.
There’s a few other small disappointments in Mario Kart 8 as well. The GamePad always mirrors what’s on the television instead of splitting players into two separately rendered screens. Battle Mode probably suffers the most egregiously of all though. The arenas from previous versions are out, and the newly modified racetracks Nintendo replaced them with don’t feel differentiated enough from the standard tracks. It basically just adds three balloons to standard races. Ultimately, these changes have made what used to be a fun distraction into something completely forgettable.
For a racing game about constantly plowing forward to the finish line, I was surprised by how well Mario Kart 8 also nails the tiniest details. Mario Kart TV’s simple editing suite let me tweak highlight reels, and re-watch my most memorable performances. As I watched clips in slow motion, I was amazed by how much texture detail I had missed while I was tearing up the track.