Hitting on all cylinders
By Corey Dirrig
There is something very special about Mario Kart 8. Before it’s release, many thought the series had no tread left on the tires, that Nintendo had done everything they could in terms of game design, mechanics, and tracks. But then Nintendo surprised us all, as the series has evolved again, giving us gorgeous high definition graphics, a new anti-gravity system, and some of the most creative and original tracks as well as reimagined classic tracks I’ve ever experienced from the brand. Mario Kart 8 is arguably the best game on the Wii U hands down, continuing to surprise me with every turn.
Mario Kart 8 feels like a very natural evolution for the series. It brings back all of the great qualities from previous entries, mostly from the DS, 7, and Wii incarnations, and fine tunes those mechanics to make a solid game. What is immediately apparent though is the presentation of the game. Mario Kart 8’s visuals not only rival the best on the Wii U, but look better than most of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One titles that are out as well. The art direction is simple but bold, which really makes an impact. And though it runs at 720p, its frame rate runs at a crisp 60 frames per second, never seeming to drop frames even in online matches. It is worth noting that the game does drop to 30 frames per second during 3 or 4 player split screen, but that does not take away from any of the chaos or fun. The character models are vibrant and charming, never showing any rough edges. It definitely takes a lot of queues from Super Mario 3D World in that regard.
One difference that really stands out is actually it’s sound design. There are various improvements to the engine sounds and squeezing tires, all feeling unique to that kart or part. I noticed that even with all the modern effects and tricks, they still managed to implement some classic sounds in there as well.
Some of the items have also had some minor changes as well I noticed. For example, getting the three bananas in previous versions used to be very useful as a shield of sorts, rarely did an item sneak past one of them. Now the bananas are smaller and more spread out around the vehicle, making me less guarded. Green shells are a bit faster and the red shells, even though they are still homing shells, require a lot more straight roads than they used to. Then there is the infamous blue shell. This item may have the most significant changes. For one, it slides across the ground taking out all in it’s path to the first place driver instead of hovering in the air. And if you have a mushroom, their is a window, though very very small, where you can escape it’s wrath. Their are also three new items in the mix, including the boomerang, the horn and the piranha plant. The piranha plant snaps at passing players as well as gives a useful mini-boost, while the boomerang is a fun to throw at passing racers, requiring more skill than you might think. The horn may be the most useful however, allowing me to cause passing racers to spinout. The best part about the horn though is the fact that it breaks the Blue Shell, causing instant gratification. Pulling it off feels so satisfying, especially on a heated third lap. The Crazy Eight, though rare, provides multiple standard items. I should note that the ability to queue up a second item is gone, which I thought was weird, but in the end is better for the series. It makes for a more strategic approach to each item you get.
One major issue I had with Mario Kart Wii was it’s kart and bike balancing. The karts all felt the same while the bikes all had this issue where they turned too quickly, even for fans of vehicles with a strong handling attribute. Mario Kart 7 for 3DS did a better job of fixing those issues, but Mario Kart 8 feels like everything was redone from the ground up. Every kart feels unique, each having that sense of correct weight distribution and accurately detailed physics. Bumping into characters gives the correct response, as small characters go flying and bigger characters bullying them away. It is surprisingly impactful to the experience. All this may be lost in 50cc, but in 100cc and even more so in 150cc weight and grip have never felt so important when power sliding and taking those crucial shortcuts.
Customizing your Kart, especially in the 3DS and Wii versions, was a fun way to make you stand out from the pack. Mario Kart 8 takes the customization process and really steps it up a notch. Experimenting with various setups will have different effects. Character size, kart stats, and type of wheel all have dramatic effects on how your kart performs. It adds plenty of replayability, and many players this time around will need to play multiple builds until they find their goto two or three characters and kart sets. I love Rosalina and Donkey Kong myself, and I have a handful of kart sets that get me through both single player and online experiences.
The game is as mechanically sound as ever, but what makes this game shine is the implementation of anti-gravity, a key component to how most of the tracks function at some point. When starting out in slower speeds it may feel underwhelming, especially when learning tracks, as your eyes are focused on the back of the kart. What initially felt a lot like a gimmick in the commercials and the game shows quickly became the highlight of most of the tracks it’s featured in, and shines brighter in the faster modes. Anti-gravity also adds the Spin Turbo feature, adding more chaos to every race. When in anti-grav sections colliding with another racer gives you both a boost, albeit through a spin that can either help or hurt your trajectory. You can learn to use this to your advantage though, easily boosting you ahead when you’ve fallen behind.
Let’s get to what really shines in this game: the tracks. The tracks featured in Mario Kart 8 are some of the most well designed and constructed ones in the series, the strongest compilation to date. There are the standard 16 original and 16 retro tracks, all spread out into eight cups. The first cup starts with relatively easy designs to ease players into the new experience in typical Nintendo fashion. But by the time you reach the second, third, and fourth cup, the designs all feel anywhere from insane to chaotic, all in the best way possible. As outstanding as these new tracks are, the real stand outs are the amazing redesigned classic cups. Twisted Mansion and Sunshine Airport are some standout tracks for me, and Rainbow Road is a gorgeous version of the signature track. My favorite by far though is Mario Circuit, which encapsulates everything the game is trying to do new and does it with outstanding results. I found myself looking up to see racers flying upside down (or right side up!) trying to catch up to me. Like most of the games, there is a suite of classic tracks. But unlike previous entries, they feel like entirely new experiences. Whereas previous generations in the franchise have been relatively faithful to original designs, with the inclusion of anti-gravity, gliding and underwater driving have all been added, seeming that the developers have approached these tracks as a dedication to classics rather than producing exact copies. The nostalgia factor kicks into high gear, especially for those who have grown up on the series. Some of the stand out tracks for me were Super Nintendo’s Donut Plains 3, GBA’s Mario Circuit, and of course all of the Nintendo 64 courses, most notably the recreation of N64 Rainbow Road. Every one feels unique and right at home with the new tracks.
The one mode that seems to have gotten the shaft in this otherwise amazing game is Battle Mode, ditching its giant arenas for 8 existing tracks with players going all kind of directions for a Balloon Battle. The same basic premise exists, pop all of the opposing players balloons with the items you acquire and they are out. Shifting from the typical 4-player set up to a full 12 players can cause a laugh or two and be pure chaos, but that fun only lasts for a few rounds before feeling tired of it. It feels less like a deliberate design choice and more like a forced feature shoehorned in at the last minute. It works, and it’s a mode often relegated to occasional play, but I really prefer the arena battles of old.
Nintendo has also created a stellar online mode, and the community is thriving. You can jump into Worldwide or Regional matches with strangers in Grand Prix or Battle. Text chat through pre-determined messages is back from the Wii version, and there is still limited voice chat amongst friends in lobbies only. Each online game mode selects three tracks as well as a random option for you to choose from in each round, with the options switching every race. Custom options for playing with friends are out there as well, and joining them is relatively easy. What impressed me the most though as I played the online modes extensively is the lack of lag and dropped games. I was only dropped out of one race in more than 40 races in my initial time online. That’s pretty impressive, even by the other companies’ standards.
Also added to online and offline modes is Mario Kart TV, where players can watch replays or check statistics, even on the go via the online app. In its own self-contained area you can view highlights of recent races or the most popular highlights from Miiverse. The editing tools are a lot of fun to use, as you can extend beyond the default 30 seconds to a whole race, have the footage focused on certain characters and more. It can be a lot of fun finding those humorous moments like crazy hits from items to knocking players off course.
Mario Kart 8, hands down, is the best game on Wii U. It is smart, fun, and mechanically sound. It’s design is superb, down to every last detail. The way the karts feel in terms of weight distribution and physics really are stellar. The graphics, though simple, are charming and some of the best the system, and the industry for that matter, have to offer. This game alone warrants the purchase of a Wii U, as it will consume dozens of hours of game time. Aside from battle mode, this is the perfect kart racing experience and is unmatched by anything else in the genre.
Review of DLC Pack #1 featuring The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo is known for making high quality titles, we all know that, but they have never really done DLC with a few notable exceptions. Until now that is. Nintendo is showing the industry not only their DLC for the first time, but how to do DLC correctly.
On the surface, it is exactly what you’d expect from a game like this: New courses, new characters, and new karts and wheels. But it’s the level of detail that make this so special. In Hyrule Circuit, rupees are there instead of coins, and instead of the standard noise you hear when grabbing a power-up, it blares the signature chest opening ring. Nintendo didn’t have to make those little changes, it’s the fact that they took the time to make those moves that makes this DLC something special and worth talking about. It’s a well designed track and I would have been thrilled to just have that, but those extra touches really add to the immersion. To go the extra distance and make these changes just for the Zelda specific races, that’s love for your fanbase
One of the biggest surprises to this DLC however is Mute City. Mute City is the F-Zero track, and yet again the attention to detail is second to none. Run through the health replenishing zone and your vehicle will give off that same effect that F-Zero did all those years ago. It’s such a tease to see Nintendo show F-Zero love here with all its anti-grav glory. It really makes you wonder if they have something planned for that franchise. There is more nostalgia in it’s reimagined retro tracks, including the impressive SNES Rainbow road, as well as it’s new tracks like the Japanese dragons based world and the Excitebike track.
As you’d expect, the tracks in the pack are the highlight and you’ll quickly find the one or two you love the most.
There are three new characters that come with this pack Though the obvious highlight is Link, it also includes Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach, which are interesting choices, but they are fun none the less. There are awesome details included in each character as well. During jumps, Link swings his master sword, Cat Peach meows and claws at the sky, and Tanooki Mario swings his tale or turns to stone. The latter two are fun, but Link is definitely the stand out. Also exciting for some is amiibo support. It’s not much, but you can touch certain amiibo to your controller to unlock racing suits for your Mii racer. Good luck finding amiibo though. It’ll be tough to unlock all of the suits. They are well designed and fun to see, but ultimately many fans will use the normal slate of characters.
The vehicles are visually appealing, for sure, but I still went for my go-to karts to be from the original selection. The Epona “Master Cycle” bike looks nice, and the Blue Falcon is great too, especially if you want that F-Zero feel.
This DLC is some of the best I have ever played. It is smart, it is fun, and best of all, it is wallet friendly. You can buy this pack alone for $8 or both this and the next pack for $12. That is an extra 50 percent of game. Nintendo is rewriting the rules of gaming again, and I can’t wait to see what else they have in store in this and future titles.
Review of DLC Pack #2 featuring Animal Crossing
Nintendo has done it again, bringing stellar DLC back to Mario Kart 8. And Spoilers: It’s better than the first pack. This pack features some fun new characters that are worth experimenting with, some fun new tracks, and the fun-loving characters from Animal Crossing, Villager and Isabelle, as well as another F-Zero tribute in Big Blue. Dry Bowser, who previously appeared in Mario Kart Wii as the most difficult to obtain racer, is now back on the roster. What an amazing amount of content that is packed in this DLC.
Obviously the part everyone is looking at in this pack is the new courses. Two courses from Mario Kart: Super Circuit are included, as well as fan favorite Baby Park from Double Dash. While taking the old track layouts of Cheese Land and Ribbon Road, the courses themselves have been completely remodeled and look stunning. They easily could be mistakable for new tracks. Cheese Land’s new design adds new shortcuts and obstacles to race around. Ribbon Road is given an overwhelmingly charming kid’s toy room aesthetic with stunning detail in the backgrounds as well as easter eggs such as a Yarn Yoshi amiibo, crank up Bowser toys from Super Mario World, and some assets from other Nintendo games. Surprisingly, Ribbon Road has adapted extremely well to new game play mechanics that are unique to Mario Kart 8.
As for the brand new courses, the biggest ones that stand our are Big Blue, the F-Zero course, and the Animal Crossing stage. The Animal Crossing course. It still functions just like Mario Kart, but it’s more authentic to the Animal Crossing world, similar to how Hyrule Circuit was in the first pack. Animal Crossing’s seasonal changes are the star of the pack, giving us four variations of the track, changing each time you play it,smartly designing small changes to the course like ramp placement, autumn bushes, and snow. If you take a good look at the coins on the track you’ll see that they are actually star coins. Big Blue is still teasing us with F-Zero, and is a single-lap downhill course, re-using similar assets from the Mute City course from the first DLC pack.
The one thing that stands out, separate from the DLC but released on the same day is the 200cc mode. It makes you rethink the conventions of everything you know from racing for the last year. It makes you rethink all of your turns, jumps, slides, and shortcuts. And in the F-Zero tracks, it adds to the feeling of nostalgia for those games as well.
These new courses are how DLC is supposed to be done. They feel great, look stunning, and can keep you logging game time. It’s a demonstration not only of Nintendo getting DLC right, but still showing up most of the industry in this regard. This DLC release coincides with a free update which adds a 200cc mode to the game, which is insanely chaotic and fun.It’s not an essential requirement of Mario Kart 8 to have more content than what was already provided, but its DLC offerings are still a must-have, being even better than the previous pack.