A cynical person might deride Mario Kart 8; they might describe it as the eighth version of an outdated franchise, running on a console that few people bought, which largely ignores that machine’s unique attributes. But even the most egregious of malcontents must disown such thoughts once they actually strap in and take this kart for a spin.
The Mario Kart games have always exemplified what makes Nintendo great: utterly irresistible to young and old, casual and hardcore alike. Their cutesy visuals and jolly atmosphere masks gameplay that mixes simplicity with downright brutality, creating an entity that is easy to learn, hard to master and above all, infernally addictive. And Mario Kart 8 may just be the best Mario Kart game yet. It addresses criticisms that have been levelled at previous instalments – doing a vastly improved job of conveying the sensation of speed, for example – and adds some great new elements to the formula, such as the tracks’ many gravity-defying stretches. Plus it looks fantastic: crisp and high-definition, with identifiable textures, despite the typically cartoony art style.
Mario Kart 8’s 32 tracks are impeccably realised, at once comfortingly familiar – the vast majority are inspired by classic tracks of yore – and fresh, thanks to the anti-gravity mechanic, which adds an unfeasible vertical swoopiness, plus underwater and airborne sequences in the manner of Mario Kart 7. There are more shortcuts than ever, including delineated vertical ones on what were previously walls. There are new characters, vast numbers of vehicle components and a handful of new power-ups. Of the latter, the best is the Piranha Plant, which handily chomps everything within (a short) range, including rival drivers and course hazards. The blue and white boomerang, familiar from Super Mario games, also joins the racers’ arsenal.
The familiar Time Trial, Battle and VS Race modes feature (the latter giving you fine-tuned control over designing your custom races), while Mario Kart 8’s online modes are pleasingly fuss-free, letting you set up races with friends or random opponents. There’s a great highlights-editing engine, too, and the super high-res nature of these victory clip-reels unexpectedly evokes the spirit of Gran Turismo.
Subtle tweaks have made certain aspects of the core gameplay slightly more forgiving – if you fall off a track, for example, you’re returned to the fray more quickly and blue shells feature slightly less frequently than before. But that’s balanced to an extent by the extra power-ups and when you step up from 100cc to 150cc, the AI, as it should, ratchets up the intensity massively, while the karts (and bikes plus ATVs, which are new), become much trickier to handle. It’s marginally less punishing than previous outings but you’ll still find yourself getting pulverised thirty yards from a winning finish with some regularity.
Mario Kart 8 is a glorious, pulsating triumph that takes the best aspects of its illustrious predecessors and remixes them into something that is fresh yet reassuringly familiar, accessible yet teeth-grindingly challenging, amusing yet tough on the psyche. It’s a lesson in how to hone a simple formula to near-perfection over a number of decades (although the retro-style music could do with updating). If only it had been ready for the Wii U’s launch, surely Nintendo wouldn’t now be afflicted with so much woe. As it stands, Mario Kart 8 resembles a master artwork locked up in some reclusive billionaire’s vault, destined never to be seen by the audience it deserves. But for Nintendo-heads, at least, this is the first game to provide unequivocal justification for buying a Wii U.