It seems like practically every conversation had about Nintendo’s fledgling Wii U always has a lot of caution attached to it. People in the gaming press and in the industry itself have had a lot to say about Nintendo’s latest home console, but an overall feeling had by many seems to be disappointment. For many of these commentators, the key to the Wii U’s potential success always seems so obvious to people. Whether the ideas are creating more new intellectual properties, making sequels to the old Nintendo favorites like The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, or seeking out greater third-party publisher support, for many the messaging about the Wii U is a rather simple problem to be fixed.
It’s true that Nintendo has been seeing some financial setbacks as a result of the Wii U’s lackluster performance in the market, but this past weekend, many doubters have been silenced by the strong showing of a returning old favorite series from Nintendo, which managed to single-handedly increase Wii U hardware sales in Europe by an astonishing 666%, ultimately selling a staggering 1.2 million copies worldwide after a Friday, May 30th international launch. That new addition is, of course, Mario Kart 8, the latest installment in the “Big N’s” highly addictive kart racing game series featuring many of their most memorable characters. While being the first blockbuster Wii U title, Mario Kart 8 both iterates and expands on many of the series most longstanding tropes, and also likely stands as the most gorgeous game in the Wii U library thus far. While a lot of people rag on the system’s power level in comparison to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Mario Kart 8 gives us a beautifully detailed and stylized game that plays very smoothly at 60 frames per second.
Of course, though, the bigger issue is how fun the game is, and how it differentiates itself from the previous entries in the series. While not exactly perfect, Mario Kart 8 is probably as close as you can get to that standard without actually crossing the threshold.
Booting up the game for the first time, the thing that will undoubtedly smack you in the face during your first few laps in the Mushroom Cup will be the game’s visuals. While it was suggested by analysts that the game may natively be rendered in 1080p full-HD, a deeper look by the folks at Digital Foundry show this not to be the case. What’s perhaps more impressive than reaching that threshold, though, is how Nintendo was able to create such a vibrancy in detail even if it’s not rendered at that resolution. In the age of HD gaming, where unequivocally more powerful hardware like the PS4 and Xbox One have not yet made 1080p gaming the standard, a less-powerful console is, in some respects, now visually outshining a fair amount of games on the new-gen offerings from Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo has applied their typically atypical creativity in the level design, lighting effects, and peripheral details to create a game that looks virtually flawless. The detail on shadows, particularly up-close occluded ones, bathes both the character models and environments in a higher degree of photo-realism than I’ve seen in any other Nintendo game: if these shapes, creatures, and colors existed in real life, they’d probably look a whole lot like this.
Also helping matters in this case is a residual glow to the levels, adding to both the degrees of environmental vibrancy and realistic lighting effects, giving an odd but unmistakably beautiful juxtaposition between realism and bombastic fantasy. As for the level design itself, we have 32 total tracks in the game: 16 all-new tracks, and 16 remastered retro tracks. The retro tracks include offerings from as far back as Super Mario Kart, bringing Donut Plains back to life in beautiful, high definition glory along with a few added surprises. A couple favorites from Mario Kart Wii, like “Grumble Volcano” and “Moo Moo Meadows” are also back, given a pretty intense visual scrub and looking better than ever in the new game. New tracks are creative and surprising, with two of my favorites being “Sunshine Airport,” where you literally have to watch out for oncoming commercial airliners, and the “Electrodome,” which looks like a vibrant acid-trip inside Shigeru Miyamoto’s head. Everything pops with electricity, giving life to bright neons and crackling noises all around you.
In a nutshell, Mario Kart 8‘s presentation is one of its absolute best features. Even though previous Wii U games like Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3 have all given us some beautiful visuals, the sheer amount of things going on with such a specific level of detail on everything easily make this game the visual standout of the Wii U software library. But of course, in a video game experience, gameplay is king. Thankfully, Mario Kart 8 may not just be the best looking game in the beloved series, it may also play the best, too.
For those of you who have been living under a rock, let me explain the basic premise and gameplay of the Mario Kart series. Playing as beloved Nintendo characters like Mario, Luigi, Toad, Princess Peach, Donkey Kong, Bowser, Koopa Troopas, and Shy Guys, you hop into a go-kart or motorcycle and engage in a race around the fantastical locales of the Mario series. While racing, you can maneuver your kart through shortcuts in the track to try and get ahead of the competition, and give yourself speed boosts by drifting around corners, and doing tricks off of jumps. Pure racing is only part of the experience, though. The Mario series as a whole is known for its power-ups that augment the player character’s abilities in certain ways, and power-ups and items are essential to mastering any version of Mario Kart.
Littered around every track are question-marked blocks that you drive into to secure any number of items, ranging from Koopa Shell projectiles (green for straight shot, red for homing), Fire Flowers allowing you to shoot fireballs at enemies, Bananas to make a fellow competitor spin out, temporarily slowing them down, along with the Super Star that can give you a short burst of speed and invulnerability to every other item.
Mario Kart 8 adds a number of new items to the mix, including the classic Piranha Plant that can attack any enemy within range and allow short bursts of speed, the Boomerang Flower giving you three throws of a boomerang projectile, the area-of-effect Super Horn allowing you to either make a racer spin out or destroy any incoming projectile when timed correctly (including the previously insurmountable blue Spiny Shell), and the “Crazy 8,” which gives you 8 items to use all at once. MK8 also includes practically every control option under the sun. Options include using the Wii U GamePad, the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Remote (either in conjunction with the Wii Wheel, or with a nunchuck), or the Wii Classic Controller Pro. Finding your most optimum controller choice is essential for being competitive in the game, and will also make use of the game’s items a lot easier depending on your unique play style.
While the mastery of item use is a necessary skill in any competitive Mario Kart player, the latest game adds a whole new dimension with its courses that include sections of “anti-gravity.” In these sections, which allow your kart to drive upside-down or on walls of courses, there’s a noted change in the feel and physics of the karts, giving new boosting opportunities and drifting mechanics. While you could likely call it a marginal addition to the overall craziness that is Mario Kart, the effective use of anti-gravity sections on the courses can easily determine the outcome of a race, so you may want to practice this new element to the experience before you jump online.
Which brings me to the actual element of online play. Mario Kart 8‘s online system isn’t as refined, or easy-to-use as offerings on the Xbox or PlayStation consoles, but it’s a definite step in the right direction for both this series, and future Wii U multiplayer offerings (I’m looking at you, Smash Bros…). The online system in MK8 favors getting into lobbies with friends, making it very easy to jump into lobbies with other registered Nintendo Network users on your Wii U Friends list. Voice chat is enabled, but only in the game lobbies, not the actual games themselves. At first I didn’t like this, but when I heard the awful things spewing out of my mouth during the actual online races, I was kind of glad that the people I was playing with weren’t aware of them. It’s also pretty easy to just jump into a lobby with other players from all over the world, but know this: online play is brutal. If you hate losing a race in Mario Kart, be sure to practice a lot on 150cc (i.e. “hard” difficulty) before even attempting your first online race.
One oft-mentioned element of MK8 that misses the mark is the return of “battle mode,” which removes the racing element and only focuses on player vs. player item-based combat. Where previous Mario Kart games were equipped the specially designed battle mode levels for this game mode, MK8 opts instead to use the regular racing tracks, which is a bad and perplexing choice. All in all, though, battle mode hasn’t been nearly as popular as it once was on Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash!!, so while this is a knock against the overall game, it’s a marginal one.
A welcome return from a beloved series, Mario Kart 8 may be the best that we’ve ever seen from the kart-racer. While I have a personal soft-spot for 2003’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!! on the Nintendo GameCube, Mario Kart 8 does practically everything right: it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, has a silky-smooth frame rate, includes eye-popping new and remastered courses, contains useful new items, employs mind-bending physics, creates funny interactions and characters, and will be a guaranteed hit at any party you decide to include it in. In addition to being perhaps the most gorgeous looking Wii U game to date, it’s also proving to be a heavy system seller, and the reason for that will become abundantly clear to anyone who picks up a controller to play: Mario Kart 8, like every previous MK game before it, is incredibly fun. With only a couple of blemishes apparent on an otherwise seminal release, Mario Kart 8 is likely the game to own if you already have a Wii U.
Mario Kart 8 is yet another stellar game from Nintendo, showing off the capabilities of both their developers as well as the Wii U console itself. On that basis alone, it gets nothing but smiles and a hearty recommendation from this gamer.
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