Chances are, most of you reading don’t really need to read a review to decide whether or not you want Mario Kart 8. It’s flipping Mario Kart. At its worst, this series is a minor, albeit fun distraction. At its best, it’s akin to an addictive substance, always urging you back in to try that 150cc grand prix just one more time.
Nevertheless, I’m here to put a score on the game because that’s what games journalists do. The game has been out for more than a week now which has given the world ample time to play through each track forwards, backwards, online, and offline. So I’m here to discuss what is and isn’t working.
Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 1
Release Date: May 30, 2014
This installment of Mario Kart comes with 16 new tracks and 16 old ones. The selection of old tracks are a pretty enjoyable selection for the most part, specifically representing fan favorite Mario Kart 64 with a whopping 4/16 tracks. My only complaint about the old tracks is that they brought in three from Mario Kart 7, which is fine with fun courses like Music Park, but disappoints with hard-to-maneuver courses like DK Jungle. Double Dash gets two levels, but they’re easily the two worst levels from that game: Dry Dry Desert and Sherbet Land. Still, there’s the Mario Kart Paradox: even the worst levels are still fun to play.
It also helps that the new tracks stand out phenomenally. My personal favorite is Mount Wario, one long downhill track that feels like an Olympic ski layout. Each cup has at least one track guaranteed to stand out, featuring plenty of twists, turns, and shortcuts you can exploit to beat those pernicious staff ghosts in time trials.
The big gimmick of the character roster this time around is that you can unlock all of the Koopalings as drivers. While it might have been nice to have other lower tier characters get some much needed recognition, it’s still a nice touch to get the Koopalings involved for once. There’s a lot of representation for the light-weight class in this game, but with the car customization options you can pretty much build any character the way you like. I’m just waiting for the explanation on why Rosalina is a heavyweight.
Item spread is pretty good in this iteration, though it may need some patching. The new items are a Boomerang Flower (which you can throw at enemies and catch to use it again), Piranha Plant (bites other racers and items for a short duration), Crazy 8 (generates 8 items around you), and the Super Horn (damages nearby racers and destroys nearby items–including the dreaded blue shell). While the Super Horn is nice in theory, it almost never spawns in first place, and if you get it in any other ranking it’s not very useful. In first place you’re most likely to get a coin item which has so far proven to be the ire of anyone who plays online since it leaves you utterly defenseless.
I say that item spread needs patching because, sadly, the online game is somewhat unbalanced. This is not to say that it’s broken, or that it’s not fun. It’s perfectly playable and fine, but the problem is that if you can secure an early lead in first place, it is very difficult to fall behind. My observation has been this: 12th place and 11th place are pretty much screwed. 10th place to 6th place is a bloodbath. 5th place to 2nd place is a strategic warfield where each player tries to get ahead of the one in front of them and defend from those behind. 1st place is smooth sailing.
The problem is that 2nd place rarely gets red shells, and though speed boost items are fairly common, they tend to take so much abuse from the 3rd and 4th place racers, that they’re not so much playing “catch up” as they are playing “stay here.” There are, of course, exceptions to this rule–but generally whoever’s in first has to royally screw up in order to fall behind (or get struck by lightning mid-glider).
And battle mode’s kind of lame. But I’ve never been too fond of it to begin with.
Overall, I can’t complain about the balance issues too much, because the game controls like a dream and the item issues just bring to light how much harder you have to work at honing your skill and strategy to stay in the race. Drifting feels comfortable. Boosting over off-road sections feels gratifying. Each method of control is slick–I daresay even the harshest detractors of the GamePad would be hard-pressed to find issue with the flawless button scheme.
Mario Kart 8 is a good, old-fashioned arcade reminder that games can be fun. Racing with friends has never been so enjoyable. In the grand scheme of kart-racers, Mario Kart 8 definitely comes in 1st place.