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Mario Kart 8 made my kids put down their iPods, and that's worth celebrating

Last week my daughter asked if she could play some games on her iPod. We control gaming time with an iron fist in my house, it happens after homework, after dinner, after the younger kids are asleep and in limited quantities. So they take the time spent gaming very seriously. I told her she could have an hour or so on her iPod, but I also had the new Mario Kart and she was welcome to play that with me.

She looked down at her iPod for a moment and then looked at me. "Do I have to?" she asked.

This is the challenge

This is what Nintendo is competing against; pocket computers in the hands of children. My daughter likes to play games, listen to music, take pictures and sometimes chat with her friends on her iPod. It’s a whole package for her, not just a gaming device. Giving up time on that buffet to play games on a console, even one hooked up to a television, wasn’t attractive. I told her that it was her choice, started playing the game, and waited.

Here’s the thing: Mario Kart 8 is amazing. You need to go read the review for more details, but the track designs are some of the best visuals Nintendo has ever put into a game. They twist around themselves, you’ll find yourself racing upside down, you fly across certain sections and find short cuts and fun surprises … it’s hard to really oversell how bonkers it looks in action. It’s one of my favorite games of the year, for many reasons. If you purchased a Wii U JUST for Mario Kart 8, I wouldn’t think you were crazy.

So I played, and I waited. And I played. And I waited. And just as I was about to give up…

"Can I have a turn?"

My daughter stood behind my chair, her iPod forgotten in her hand, watching me play the game. I handed over the controller, and switched the controls so she could steer holding the game pad like a steering wheel. You just tilt it left or right instead of using the analog stick. It’s not quite as subtle in terms of movement, but it’s more fun. I showed her how to slide, and how to use items. And off she went.

Mario Kart 8 feels like the best rides at Disney World. The tracks always show you something amazing, and the high definition facelifts of the content from older games is nearly as good. I would put the visuals of Mario Kart 8 against almost all other games on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in a blind "taste test" with random people and expect Mario Kart 8 to win a majority of the time.

The game feels like an adventure, like a guided tour around spectacular things. Each environment is distinct and perfectly designed, complete with set pieces that draw the eye and things that change from lap to lap. It's a game that celebrates the joy of discovery.

It didn’t take long for my daughter to completely lose herself in the game, gazing up at the big screen and laughing along with the races. It was something we could play together, with enough options that it could be challenging for me but fun for a huge variety of ages; even my four year-old has a good time racing around the track and trying different things.

My children prefer their mobile devices for gaming and social interaction, and Nintendo has much more to fear from Apple than it does from Sony or Microsoft when it comes to its portable business. But this game was enough to get everyone to put down their phones and tablets and music players and become engrossed in a game that both looks and feels bigger than life. If your gut doesn’t take a dip across some of the huge jumps and tight corners of Mario Kart, you’re a better person than I am. Watching someone play is almost as fun as playing yourself.

Mario Kart 8 will be the worst-selling game in the Mario Kart franchise. The Wii U is on life support, and I’m not sure what Nintendo can do to turn the console around. The company itself is so flush with liquid assets that it’s not in any immediate danger, but its current console business is definitely either on life support or heading that way. Nintendo is going to be making some big changes in the next few years, and I doubt we know what those changes will be yet.

Nintendo has historically found success making fun, beautiful and accessible games

But whatever the company decides to do with hardware, I hope this never goes away. I want big, beautiful Nintendo games that play on a television. I’m not interested in what Nintendo may do on mobile, because mobile is handled. I want games that pull in my entire family, played around our television in the living room.

The sort of magic the company routinely pulls out of its hat with games like Mario Kart 8 is worth protecting, and its worth discussing. I don’t care if the company creates a new platform, or moves its games onto other systems, but I want to make sure that I’m somehow still playing Mario Kart on a big display when my daughter is 30.

I grew up on these games, and my kids are just now discovering why they’re so good. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I don’t want anyone to lose sight of Nintendo has stayed alive so long, and found so much success: Fun, beautiful, accessible games that draw people into a new world. As long as they keep delivering that, the future is going to look great.

This weekend my kids and I are going to be playing Mario Kart, and they won’t care about Nintendo’s financial problems. They’ll be too busy enjoying the game. I’m looking forward to the game’s launch so you can join us.

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