Review: Mario Kart 8 for Wii U

It’s Nintendo’s way or the highway. Fortunately, Nintendo’s way is still pretty good.

So here we are: Mario Kart 8. As the title implies, this is the eighth entry in the long-celebrated Mario Kart series which began all the way back on the Super NES– at least, it’s the eighth if you ignore the three arcade games released at various points over the last decade, which Nintendo seems content enough to do, for better or for worse (they’re notorious quarter munchers, but nonetheless have some nifty characters, tracks, and features not seen anywhere else).

Unlike the previous seven installments, however, Mario Kart 8 has more riding on it than perhaps any other entry in the series to date. Along with the upcoming release of Super Smash Bros., it is effectively one of the two pillars which may ultimately determine whether the Wii U will be able to stand tall in the annals of Nintendo history, or whether it ultimately falters in the face of its technologically-superior rivals.

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I want to get one thing out of the way, front and center: I am not exactly what one would call “good” at Mario Kart. Well, that’s not entirely true; in 50cc, I can kick some serious shell– green, red, or blue, take your pick. Bump it up to 100cc, and things begin to fall apart; I can remain somewhat competitive, but actually coming in first tends to feel like something of a fluke. And 150cc? If my life depended on winning that, I’d consider asking someone to just pass the poison and save us all about 15-20 minutes.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have fun with the game, but if I have to do something outside of my comfort zone– say, win a higher-class cup in order to unlock a character– then frustration tends to ensue. Mario Kart 7 was especially bad about this, with every single character except the Mii being locked behind winning a cup in 150cc. As a result, the only character I ever saw outside of the starting lineup was the Mii.

Strangely enough, I held up far better in every speed class of Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing and unlocked everything on my own with its SEGA Miles system, calling it my favorite racing game for the last several years– which kind of stung in some ways, as I’ve long favored Nintendo over SEGA. Even so, it gave me hope that maybe someday, Nintendo might reconsider how they approach some aspects of Mario Kart. And while it may not be quite there yet, I nonetheless feel like Mario Kart 8 has made some significant strides in the right direction, and might be my favorite game in the series to date overall, even though I still have individual preferences from previous titles.

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If you’ve played a Mario Kart in the past decade, then you pretty much know what to expect, especially if that Mario Kart was either Mario Kart Wii or Mario Kart 7. You have 32 tracks inspired (however loosely) by the world of Mario, half of which are new and the other half returning from previous entries, with the latter sporting all-new graphics and some changes made to take advantage of whatever twist the newest title brings to the table.

In this case, the twist is anti-gravity mechanics. During certain portions of the race, you’ll cross a series of blue lights which will automatically switch your vehicle to a sort of hover mode which allows it to run along walls, ceilings, and the like, as well as gain a speed boost from bumping into other racers. This can lead to some fun and interesting moments, including one of my favorite, where a large portion of the GBA Mario Circuit retro course mechanically rises up at a right angle as though it were a part of Autobot City transforming.

The downside of this new element is that quite often, it doesn’t really factor into gameplay very much beyond the bumping part. The camera remains behind and slightly above your racer at all times and at all angles, and while this is unquestionably a good thing, it makes it more difficult to visually appreciate the concept as you’re racing. Instead, it largely comes into play during the video playbacks, when you’ll see that the stream you were just racing through was actually a waterfall you were racing up. Unfortunately, in my experience, people aren’t too interested in the replays without being urged, so the idea may be lost on a lot of people.

There are times when it does really come through, though. Interestingly, one retro course really highlights how cool it can be as the tunnels in Toad’s Turnpike will allow you to race up onto the walls. You can then avoid the traffic down below you– or would that be to your side? –while watching the cars and trucks move by as normal. It just goes to show that the idea has greater potential than what you’ll see here (for the most part), but Nintendo may not have fully realized it yet.

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One habit the Mario Kart series has been known for over the years, much to fans chagrin, is introducing a cool new concept and then dropping it entirely for the next game. Double Dash!!‘s two-person vehicles and personalized weapons were dropped for Mario Kart DS, for instance, and Mario Kart Wii‘s motorcycles went back to the shop for Mario Kart 7, which gave us hang gliding and underwater attachments for the karts.

Thankfully, Nintendo has opted to evolve and expand upon what they’d built in Mario Kart 8, rather than effectively start over on a new snowflake. Not only are Mario Kart 7‘s air and water modes back, but so are the motorcycles from Mario Kart Wii (albeit without the wheelie speed boosts), and they’re now joined by a new ATV 4-wheeler vehicle type, all of which can be customized as in Mario Kart 7. Sorry, Double Dash!! fans, but the two-seaters have yet to return– maybe next time.

The result is that you have options– lots and lots of options. Besides just choosing your character, you also have to choose whether you’re using a kart/bike/ATV, which body from that class you wish to use, which wheels you want, and which glider you want– and many of them sport different stats (viewable by pressing Start/+), making customization a bit of a process. In fact, the sheer number of options might be overwhelming for some; fortunately, you can still pick just about any combination– or just the defaults– and still have a good race.

Oh, and one improvement over Mario Kart 7 in this field is that you get a new part with every 50 coins– no more requiring an absurd number as you progress.

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What would a Mario Kart game be without items to either help you race towards victory or send an opponent circling out of control?

The developers went all-out on tweaking this one, it seems, with new items added and some old ones discarded (no more fake ? boxes that no one ever fell for! Though those were done away with last time…). The biggest difference that you’re likely to notice is that you can no longer activate an item and pick up another item at the same time; at first this seems like it might be detrimental, but while you can’t hoard items in such a way, nor can the computer or other racers. The result is that you end up feeling less like you’re being spammed with items constantly, though I’ll admit I’ve seen a lot of Lightning Bolts during some races.

Similarly, Blue Shells feel like less of a problem now– at least, in the time I’ve been playing, they’ve been far less frequent. As in Mario Kart 7, they race along the track, rather than flying over it, making them a hazard for any poor sucker caught in their way as they chase down the lead racer, leap up, and come crashing down with explosive force. In one race, I was even coming up on the finish line while in first place, and… I’ll be honest, I don’t know what happened. It just stopped. We think a boulder might have crushed it, interestingly.

Suffice to say, that’s been a source of much rejoicing for this installment: The Blue Shell can be killed. You no longer have to implement some professional-grade trickery or hope the stars align to give you a Super Mushroom while in first for a speed boost. Of course, the main way this idea has been promoted has been through the use of the new Super Horn, a proximity attack which wrecks everything around you, including the dreaded Blue Shell… which, ironically, is just overall far less dreadful in this one (seriously, for several games, it offered no advantage to whoever used it; it was there for pure spite).

The only problem? I’ve yet to have a Super Horn and encounter a Blue Shell at the same time. It can be used against other items and racers, of course, but the ideal scenario has not happened to me even once yet.

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Some other observations about the items are that the red shells seem far less effective than they used to be as well, but I think that’s been an issue following them over the years. I think I’ve been hit by as many green shells as I have red here, if not more. Unlike the Blue Shell being toned down, it’s kind of sad to see– it used to be the most devastating weapon in Mario Kart, and now it’s become rather mundane.

When you pick up a triple-item– three shells, etc.– they automatically begin to circle your kart. That even goes for the bananas, which no longer trail behind you. What’s more, the rotation seems kind of slow, and it’s easy to still get hit by items despite your “defenses.” On the bright side, it seems easier to hold on to items until you need them now. In previous titles, it seemed like nearly anything would rob you of whatever you gained, leading to a “use it now or lose it later” mentality which robbed the game of a sense of strategy. Now you can fall down pits, get Blue Shelled, or whatever, and still keep your item… unless you’re hit with a Lightning Bolt. That will still knock it right out of you, but compared to before, that’s okay.

Another new item is the Boomerang Flower, and… well, it looks cooler in trailers, let’s just say that. There’s probably a certain level of mastery to it, but it seems like the rebound never hits anyone, though it can at least go through multiple racers in one throw.

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Regarding the character selection, I went on a bit of a rant about it before, and I’ll let that stand on its own. Suffice to say, I like some choices, I’m unhappy with others, and there are several characters from previous installments I wish had returned, but more on that in a bit.

One improvement that I love is that the characters are now unlocked randomly by completing a cup on any engine class in first. While it’s still something of a pain if you’re looking to dive right into multiplayer out of the box and someone wants to use someone not yet unlocked, at least it gives everyone a bit more of a fair chance to do so. It’s no SEGA Miles, but still quite welcome. The downside is that you cannot repeat the same cup/class combination to get multiple characters; that means that if you’re like me, you’re going to have to tread into 100cc to get everyone. So far, I’ve yet to unlock anyone outside of 50cc.

On the bright side, I do have Rosalina, Iggy Koopa, Mii (though I wish he had the voice from Mario Golf: World Tour), and a few other Koopalings, so I’m pretty happy on the whole. Metal Mario and the remaining Koopalings might be nice, but I won’t be losing any sleep over it– especially since, for the first time ever, characters who haven’t been unlocked can still be used by the computer anyway. For a lot of them, that’s all I really wanted.

In addition to characters, you can also unlock stamps for Miiverse by completing the Grand Prix with certain characters, or by beating staff member ghosts in all the stages of the Time Trials. Nintendo seems to be going all-out with these lately, and I personally welcome it.

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Other observations I’ve made during the actual races is that rubber banding is back, though in some cases it feels more like a slingshot. There have been times when other racers seem to come out of nowhere and rocket right past as you struggle to catch up. On the other hand, rubber banding seems to be non-existent in online mode, which I’ve personally had no problems with. Well, almost no problems– it seems no one else in the world likes to race at 50cc. Maybe after the game is released, we’ll see if either of these continues to hold up.

Local play is pretty good, too, though I don’t think I favor Nintendo’s choice of going side-by-side for two players, rather than the stacked version in the original. It’s more difficult to see to either side, at any rate. One other thing is that it’s interesting how Nintendo really encourages people to play and communicate together in the same room, yet while providing an online experience, there’s virtually nothing to simulate any sort of chat beyond a few token pre-assembled phrases in the waiting room between races.

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There is no good way for me to phrase this next part, so I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mario Kart 8‘s Battle Mode pretty much sucks. Almost outright.

Personally, I thought it was at its best in the original Super Mario Kart and has been downhill ever since, but Nintendo has just been doing some really terrible things with it in recent installments: Making you blow up your own balloons with the mic in Mario Kart DS and switching to a point system in Mario Kart Wii being the chief offenders. This time? They’ve done away with arenas.

Instead of fighting in a specially-designed course, you’re battling along modified racetracks from the normal mode of the game. I’ve yet to find anyone who likes it, with one fellow player stating that it basically just felt like racing around in circles with no real goal in mind– especially when most racers wind up heading the same way. At least the maze-like design of Yoshi Valley feels a little better suited to Battle Mode.

Oh, and it’s still on a point system.

It’s not bad that Nintendo is trying new things here; far from it. What stinks is that they didn’t include these new ideas in addition to what people already knew and loved, instead trying to force replacements which, so far, have largely proven unwelcome. What’s wrong with offering a little choice?

On the other hand, a neat addition to Mario Kart 8 is MKTV, wherein you can upload short clips of yourself racing to YouTube and/or Miiverse. You can upload them as they give them to you (as I did above), or you can try to take on the editor to make a more ideal presentation.

Truth be told, it’s a shame that this kind of feature isn’t available at the console level for all games being played, but at least it’s here to begin with. Now you can capture great or funny moments (such as Waluigi slamming face first into a sign, as seen above) to share with everyone online.

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As you’ve probably seen from the screens sprinkled throughout this review, the game is amazingly detailed and absolutely gorgeous. In addition to the textures, there are a lot of fine touches as well, such as the varying tires’ skid marks across the ground and how they’ll gather different types of mud, dirt, and the like. They even went so far as to include the logos for various “sponsors” seen throughout the game (made-up, not real, for those worried) at the end of the credits roll.

They’ve also helpfully modified some tracks which have proven more difficult to navigate in the past with various styles of signage which directs racers on where to go, making tracks such as Sherbert Land and Yoshi Valley a bit less dreadful to deal with. Speaking of Yoshi Valley, it and other courses feel more alive than ever, as instead of basically being unoccupied by anyone but the racers, there are all kinds of spectators to be seen, from Yoshis in the valley to Koopa Paratroopas in the Piranha Plant Pipeline and Toads in space suits on Rainbow Road. They’re having fun, you’re having fun– it’s a blast for all.

The sound is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, this is the first Mario Kart to ever have orchestrated music, and it sounds terrific with a great “big band” sort of feel. On the down side, the voices can sound a bit off at times. For instance, Mario seems more high-pitched than usual on the title screen, but better at other times. Meanwhile, Rosalina often sounds like Peach in some instances and more like herself in others, all over the course of a race. It’s just weird, and one can only hope they might have a way to tweak it.

For all the remarkable detail that went into this game, though, I’m sorry to say that they still haven’t brought back unique victory animations, theme songs, or ceremonies, as I went over here. Suffice to say, it doesn’t really drive me to unlock or use any more racers than I already have, as there’s nothing to see. Everyone gets the exact same victory, so move along. For a game which is built around racing through Mario worlds as your favorite Mario characters, it is a bit of a shame for them to lack such distinction where it matters most.

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Finally, we come to the controls. I mentioned the matter of choice with regards to the Battle Mode above, and it rears its head here as well, for better and for worse.

On the plus side, you have plenty of options: You can use the GamePad and steer with the analog stick, the Dpad, or even with motion controls. You can also use the Wii Classic Controller, the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Remote with Nunchuk, or the Wii Remote by itself with either the Wii Wheel or a la carte, with motion control steering or using the Dpad. It’s quite a range of input, and one to be applauded.

Where it falls apart is that you cannot change the input. Personally, I’ve been spoiled by other games (such as Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing and its sequel) which allow you to use shoulder buttons for acceleration. Given that Mario Kart was largely the racing/driving game I played for many years, I never knew any better, but I do find it a lot more comfortable to use that way. However, Nintendo won’t allow you to alter the inputs in any way, and I’ve honestly noticed some irritating I don’t think I would have otherwise from having to default to holding the A or Y button down at all times.

Sadly, the GamePad doesn’t really add a whole lot to the experience– something made all the worse by the fact that they really need to justify this device to people right now. That said, it is my controller of choice, though so far I’ve done just about as well with any of them, and even the motion controls work just fine (though I prefer regular; also, the video above was captured from when I tested them out). The GamePad screen can be used for Off-TV Play, or you can display the map of the course, though it will only display the other racers if you enlarge it. You can also view the rankings on the left side, as well as which item each racer has.

Unfortunately, unlike Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Mario Kart 8 doesn’t allow you to enjoy a local 5-player game by using the GamePad in conjunction with four other players using the television screen. It’s a shame, as something like that alone might have been able to sell some people on it.

This screen taken from Japanese-exclusive downloadable content, and does not represent the version of the game as reviewed herein.

This screen taken from Japanese-exclusive downloadable content, and does not represent the version of the game as reviewed herein.

On its own, Mario Kart 8 stands as a great game, but it also has the problem of standing in the shadow of its own legacy. As my wife put it, it’s “one of the best Mario Karts, but it has the lamest roster.” Seeing characters such as Diddy Kong, R.O.B., Funky Kong, Wiggler, and Dry Bones left behind for the likes of Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach kind of stinks. On the bright side, at least we have Waluigi back (I’m serious).

The series has also seen some pretty cool cars and bikes over the years (how can anyone not love racing with the Mach Rider-inspired Mach Bike or F-Zero‘s Blue Falcon?), and given that for many of the parts in this game, the changes are purely aesthetic, it’s a shame that more of them haven’t returned.

Then there are the stages. Mario Kart 8 has a lot of fun ones, though it feels like it didn’t introduce many of my favorite kind– the ones that really feel like you’re racing through Mario’s world, like Piranha Plant Pipeline. Others I’d love to see return include the Airship Fortress, Shy Guy Bazaar, Wuhu Loop, Kalimari Desert, and of course, Neo Bowser City. The number of courses offered remains the same with each installment, and that means the number of classics left out is only growing exponentially.

Fortunately, there may be a solution. Nintendo hadn’t really made any mention of downloadable content for Mario Kart 8, but as you can see, there’s plenty of room for it. Throw in the Battle Mode kerfluffle, and there’s a lot of room for it.

However, last night (as of this writing), it was revealed that in Japan, Mario Kart 8 players could download a Mercedes-Benz GLA car, as seen above, for free. There’s no mention of this becoming available outside of Japan (though we can only hope), but what it does show us is that the game can definitely be updated with new content.

We just have to hope that Nintendo will.

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That said, I can’t evaluate the game on something so hypothetical; I can only look at what lies before me. That said, Mario Kart 8 has a lot of ups and downs, but the ups ultimately win out. As I said before, it may even be my favorite game in the franchise, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

While testing out the multiplayer, some friends were quite impressed with how far Mario Kart has come, and with good reason. There is still quite a bit of room for improvement, but if there was ever a good place to start playing Mario Kart, this would be the one, and it may just be the new standard for Nintendo to beat. All that’s left now is to enjoy this one to the fullest, and cross our fingers that they will indeed top themselves with the ninth in the series.

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Mario Kart 8 will be released for the Wii U on May 30th, 2014 at a price of $64.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.


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About the author

David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.

  • TheGameroomBlitz

    I’ve got high hopes for Mario Kart 8, but man, Mario Kart 7 just wasn’t doing it for me at all. As you already mentioned, unlocking characters is an almost Herculean feat (score first place in a 150cc grand prix? Are you smoking crack?), but I also hate the asinine control scheme (heaven forbid Nintendo let anyone reconfigure buttons on the cramped 3DS), and the hang gliders add up to a whole lot of nothin’. Is there any strategy involved in using these? You might as well just let go of the circle pad for a few seconds until your kart lands. Being airborne can work in a kart racing game- just look at Diddy Kong Racing- but here it just feels like window dressing, a hollow feature that gives the game the appearance of variety without actually changing anything.

    The levels are kind of interesting, give or take. Some are more entertaining than others, but overall there’s more sense of depth here than there was in Mario Kart DS. Still, ick. I was hoping this would be one of those games I could play in small bites whenever I’m away from home, but it hasn’t worked out that way. It just sits there on my SD card unloved while Kirby Triple Deluxe and the Streetpass feature get all of my attention.

    • I liked parts of Mario Kart 7, mainly being able to change out different car parts from the word go, and some of the courses. The roster felt a bit lacking, though, and of course, that was made worse by the requirements…

      I find the air thing works in some levels better than others, but you can gain a nice bit of ground, weave around obstacles, reach some shortcuts, and pick up an extra cluster of cash on your way down. It’s not a game-changer the way it is in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (especially when it’s just redressing the already-existing cannons), with actual differing vehicles types that handle differently, but it’s an okay twist.

      Truth be told, I like being able to go underwater a bit more– especially in places where, say, falling through the ice would have called for Lakitu before, but now you have an alternate route.

      Oh, and totally hear you on the control scheme. Other games have spoiled me.

  • Billy Raymond

    I unfortunately see the Wii U’s gamepad to be a desperate gimmick to attract sales, bringing nintendo into losses because of it. Sorry nintendo, I’ve gone onto the highway and that highway is Gran Turismo!

    • I don’t know if I’d describe it as “desperate,” since it was introduced at the outset of the system as they were riding high off the success of the Wii. I think they just thought they had the next big thing, similar to how motion controls took off, and… it just wasn’t, as you pointed out.

      That said, Mario Kart 8 is still a fun game in its own right, whether you use the GamePad (far from required) or not. And that’s not taking anything away from Gran Turismo, either, though to me, they’re just two entirely separate types of racing game (I’d love to give the latest one a shot). =)