Mario Kart 8 review: shell game

Game Info
Platform Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development
Release Date 2014-05-30

With Mario Kart 8, Nintendo has mastered the easy-to-pick-up, fast-paced fun that it's been developing for over 20 years now.

It would be easy to write off that accomplishment, because not a lot has changed, even going back to the original Super Mario Kart on SNES. Nintendo has added tons of characters through the years, increased vehicle customization options and even tried a couple of weird experiments such as the co-op focused Mario Kart: Double Dash. But through it all the core of high-speed racing and drifting around corners for boosts has remained the same.

It's a damned good core, though, and it's as good as it's ever been in Mario Kart 8. Though it lacks hooks to hold players in, Nintendo's years of experience perfecting this style of game are mixed with the HD visual capabilities of the Wii U for the best pure Mario Kart experience yet.

the core of drifting around corners for boosts has remained

Before getting into the races, you'll need to choose a driver. Mario Kart 8 is packed with 30 characters to choose from (around half of which are locked away until you complete certain objectives). After picking a driver, you piece together a vehicle, choosing the body, tires and glider individually to create the ideal blend of speed and handling.

The depth to Mario Kart 8's otherwise simple formula is found here. Even after tens of hours, I was still toying with different character and vehicle combinations, discovering what felt right to me, what was too slow to keep up and what moved so fast that I could hardly control it. It made some races disastrous, but I relished the satisfaction of finding good combinations.

Whatever my customization choices, victory came down to my abilities on the track. In particular, the Mario Kart series has always emphasized the importance of drifting. In Mario Kart 8, this process is simpler but more key than ever: Tap the right trigger when headed around a corner and your driver will careen toward it at an angle, shaving milliseconds of time off while also building up a boost.

Those boosts — and others that you can get by tapping a button when you come off of a jump — seem minuscule, but they add up quickly. While I often won races on the lowest difficulty setting without boosting much, switching to the medium difficulty immediately required a keener eye toward analyzing track layouts to figure out where I could pull off a great drift. Each boosting opportunity I missed was a chance for another player (or the fairly competitive computer-controlled opponents) to catch up and overtake me.

While the intricacies of drifting and boosting are rote by this point for long-time Kart players, Mario Kart 8 drives home the brilliance of this system. It's simple — you're just pressing one button and adjusting your angle to make sure you don't run off the track — but it looks cool and made me feel skillful when I pulled it off. It also forced me to constantly be engaged with a track. I couldn't just memorize a layout and be safe; I was constantly tweaking and improving my approach to each lap.

Mariokart8_review_a_530

In addition to gold medals and trophies, I was rewarded for paying attention to tracks with the best-looking game that Nintendo has created thus far. Whether I was driving along underwater or through an oversized haunted house or in a giant music-themed stadium where each surface produced new sounds, I was constantly grinning at the beautiful, colorful worlds presented here. When I looked carefully — how couldn't I? — I also found all sorts of little bonuses, from utilitarian stuff like shortcuts or hidden item boxes to fan service in the form of cameos from lesser-known Mushroom Kingdom characters.

Mariokart8_review_b_1280

What about local?

While online multiplayer is undoubtedly the focus of Mario Kart 8, the series' history as a popular party game means some people are likely to stick with the local multiplayer options. In our tests, two-player splitscreen mode worked with more or less no problems.

However, upping the game to three and four players had a noticeable impact on the framerate. On top of that, Mario Kart's always divisive Battle Mode seems like even more of an afterthought this time; it sticks you on the same tracks used in racing rather than unique arenas. Fans of playing with friends in the same room might be disappointed with the offerings here, but the strong online options more than made up for these problems for me.

The tracks that are new to Mario Kart 8 especially benefit from this added level of detail. Of the 30-some tracks in the game, half are heavily remade versions from older Mario Kart releases, and half are debuts. The new tracks tend to be much longer and hide more shortcuts, alternate routes and constantly shifting level design. The denser track layouts are a welcome direction for the series to build toward.

However fresh the track, some moments in Mario Kart 8 are going to feel perfectly familiar. There has always been a contingent of Mario Kart players annoyed at the element of luck at play when it comes to items — specifically, the blue shell, an item that will hunt down and briefly knock out whoever is currently in first place. That still happens. More than once I found myself hurtling toward the finish line on the last lap, ahead of the pack, when suddenly a blue shell smacked into me and I lost my position. But Mario Kart 8 introduces a new defense tactic against this randomness.

Mariokart8_review_c_585 online is a bigger part of Mario Kart 8 than ever

Amongst a number of debuting items that you can pick up and use during races is the "Super Horn." This big red box floats alongside you and, when used, emits a shockwave. You can use this shockwave to knock away other racers, but you can also use it to push incoming shells out of the way, adding a layer of security to your current position. Many of the items in Mario Kart 8 require a similar sense of timing in choosing the best moment to deploy them. I loved that added layer of strategy in the midst of tight races.

Figuring out those tactics against computer-controlled opponents is fun enough, but it really shines against other people, which makes online multiplayer a bigger part of Mario Kart 8 than ever. While we weren't able to test Mario Kart 8 with large groups of players, with smaller teams spread across the U.S. it worked flawlessly. There was no lag, tracks loaded quickly, and the game offered tons of freedom in designing tournaments. At one point, I did a friends-only room with no-item races and mirror mode tracks. Later I switched to a public event in frantic mode, which causes the rarest and most powerful items to show up more frequently, creating chaos on the roads.

Beyond letting me have fun however I wanted, Mario Kart 8's multiplayer also helped me remember those good times with a simple, fast and functional replay editor. Rather than showing off a full race, this editor creates highlight reels. I was able to choose whether it focused on specific drivers, moments when players got hit by shells or a handful of other entertaining possibilities.

Once done the saved clips can be uploaded to either Miiverse or (more importantly) YouTube. YouTube uploading was not working yet as of review time, so I wasn't able to test its speed or quality, but the simple fact that Nintendo has thought ahead enough to implement it as an option is a good sign.

Mariokart8_review_d_1000

All of the online multiplayer functionality in Mario Kart 8 is fantastic — on par with what I'd expect from any online game these days rather than the sparse showings of Nintendo's recent past — but I'm still concerned that there might not be enough here to keep players racing long-term. There are eight cups of four races each to unlock, and you unlock characters by winning each of those cups across three different difficulty levels. You also get new vehicle parts by collecting coins as you race.

But these unlocks came rather quickly for me, and once I had them, there wasn't much left to the game. Beyond a small collection of Miiverse stamps, there aren't further bonus unlockables. There isn't a fleshed out leveling or ranking system to encourage continued online play. Those weaknesses don't take away from the incredible design on display here, but the game could only be better if they were improved upon.

Wrap Up:

Mario Kart 8 doesn't mess with the formula much, but it left me smiling

Then again, "You might only be able to have tons of fun for a month or two" is the closest thing to a complaint I could level against Mario Kart 8. It doesn't bring massive innovations to the formula, but it's overflowing in that Nintendo magic that makes it so easy to forget about minor shortcomings. Its gorgeous looks and tightly developed sense of speed ensured that I was never left unhappy after a race, even when I blew it and came in near the end. What more could I ask for than a game that keeps me smiling even when I lose?

Mario Kart 8 was reviewed using an early "retail" download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

About Polygon's Reviews
9.0 Wii U
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