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Polygon's Games of the Year 2014 #5: Mario Kart 8

Many of the games on our Games of the Year list pushed the art form forward in some way, or even caused us to argue about whether they could even be considered a game.

Mario Kart 8 may seem like a banal choice for this list by comparison, as it does very little to improve the state of the art, or to show you something interesting and new. It's a sequel to a long-running series, and its success has been hamstrung by the relatively low performance of its home hardware.

Mario Kart 8 meets your expectations and then some, and the amount of content and depth of strategy takes some time to become apparent. It's also the first entry in the franchise that is rendered in high definition, and the track design makes a case for Nintendo employing some of the best artists in the business. It's a racing game that can often feel like a ride, and each race has its own tempo and moments of grandeur. You don't play it as much as you drink it in.

Everything from the music to the design of the vehicles and characters is tightened and polished almost to the breaking point. There are complaints to be had here — a lack of dedicated Battle Mode tracks is a particular bummer — but this is a fine example of what happens when a developers knows a game so well it can focus on mastering the essence of the game.

And that essence is a style that often relies on luck, but does a great job of giving the players the necessary skills to compete at the higher levels. You don't need to know much to do well on the lower difficulties, but the game forces you to learn the best use of each item and to master the art of boosting and drifting if you hope to get anywhere as you progress.

This is a game that's easy enough for your children to play, almost no matter their age, but there is enough strategy and higher-level techniques that competition can get brutal as you continue to master your skills.

Nintendo has also begun to offer a series of for-pay content packs that add characters and tracks, but you get a good assortment of content for a fair price. The music for the game is so good that Nintendo can release what amounts to a music video for one of the best songs and the fans go crazy.

Mario Kart 8 is Nintendo at its best, and while that may feel familiar it doesn't diminish the fact that most companies wish they could create games that look this good and feel this effortless. It's a series that, along with Super Smash Bros., seems to defy demographics to appeal to damned near everyone. Mario Kart 8, along with a few other first-party games, made the Wii U a must-have console in 2014, and that's reason enough to put it on this list.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.

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