Mario Kart 8 throws just about every concept from the franchise into the mix, and then some. A single race during my demo contained carts, motorcycles, heavy cars, hang gliders — you name it, it was probably there.
It also contained the tight controls and frequent, arcadey drifting that the series is known for. Vying for first is a familiar process, tasking you with drifting around opponents, boosting off successful jumps and drifts and tactically launching weapons at those in front and behind you. Coins can provide a speed boost to a certain point, but can be easily lost when hit by an errant shell. Hitting a huge jump causes a hang glider to spring from your car, taking the race to the skies.
It's familiar territory that's turned on it's ear — quite literally — by Mario Kart 8's new antigravity course segments, which take the races upside-down or up a wall.
In one race, the track curved upward, with carts switching to hovercraft mode as they approached full upside-down-ness. All of a sudden, our tires were replaced with electromagnets gripping us to the pavement; magnets still capable of producing those sweet, sweet blue and red sparks upon successful drifts. The game looks terrific, especially in segments like this — looking up to see the racers behind you above you was one of the neater moments I've seen in a Mario Kart race.
In another race, a path diverged to form a ramp leading to a vertical wall, which your magnets can cling to, turning the race an even 90 degrees. There's little deference to physics instilled in these courses, as the player's still able to hop, drift and hit ramps without reverting to their original orientation. It just provides a different path through the course, and a fairly trippy view of the race below.
Antigravity isn't without its mechanical differences. Your cart behaves a bit differently when it's got magnets for wheels, and making contact with another player is a different affair entirely. Anything you touch will drop your top speed drastically, making diplomatic steering the best policy when you're on a ceiling or wall.
The GamePad's gyroscopes let you use it as a steering wheel, similar to the control scheme for Mario Kart Wii — though traditionalists can revert the controls to the original, analog stick-based method. The GamePad screen can also display a map, but its default setting is to display your particular's racer's horn. Horns, as Mario Kart fans know, serve no practical purpose on the race track, save for griefing those you're playing against — the streamlining of this function will come as terrific news for terrible people.
Nintendo was hesitant to reveal what the game's online multiplayer features would entail, but hinted that it would be similar to those of Mario Kart 7 — a surprisingly capable setup for the 3DS, featuring a number of matchmaking options and community tools. They also said that players would be able to capture and share video clips from their favorite races with their fellow players over Miiverse, but didn't explain how this process would work, either.
Hopefully the online features will be as robust as this franchise has always deserved — playing local multiplayer during this demo session was a blast, but one that's not so easy to recreate at home. Being able to do so online, at any time, might be the feature that makes Mario Kart 8 stand out among its predecessors.