Wii U review: Mario Kart 8

Following up on the new underwater and flying elements introduced in the 3DS release of Mario Kart 7, the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8 adds a new kart transformation into gravity-defying hovercraft. Now racers can ride along walls and up steep inclines, while riding right up alongside a rival racer will grant a mutual speed boost, thanks to the horizontal position of the wheels. Each of the sixteen new tracks incorporates all four of these race styles quite evenly throughout, while reimaginings of tracks from Mario Karts of yesteryear tend to focus on implementing one or two of these newer features. The 3DS tracks see the least change, as that was the title that first properly introduced these kart transformations, but the DS Wario Stadium sees a brief wall-climbing section added to the familiar dune hops, and the simple act of widening the paths on tracks from Mario Kart 64 benefits the experience greatly.

New items include the Piranha Plant, which behaves in a vaguely similar fashion as the Chain Chomp previously did, though this potted monstrosity will provide a few gradual speed boosts as it nips at rival racers and reaches for coins that are just out of its user’s reach. The boomerang grants players three tosses, while a new horn item – despite being a rare pick of the bunch – ends the legacy of the blue shell being the end-all be-all solution of taking out the racer in first place. All in all, these new items fit well with the classic shells and banana peels, and the item blocks tend to respawn faster than in previous Mario Kart titles. Also sped up is the recovery time from falling off the track. This, combined with the less extreme ‘rubber band effect’ of the AI suddenly catching up to player-controlled racers at the front of the pack, makes for a more enjoyable experience overall. At the end of the day, it really is about racing skill and item management more than the CPUs getting lucky at the last possible second and stealing first place.

That’s not to say that the tracks are a cake walk (or Sunday drive, as is perhaps the more appropriate metaphor) – there are plenty of cool design features implemented, such as wavy walls in a Boo-infested mansion, and rolling stone wheels within a temple that takes more than a bit of inspiration from Indiana Jones. There are times that Mario and friends will be upside-down, and paying attention to how fast you’re headed around that next turn is crucial. Graphically, the game is a sight to behold, with lighting effects that cascade over metal track portions as convincingly as they do through snow-covered pine trees. The soundtrack, while still classic Mario Kart fanfare, takes a notably more jazzy approach this time around.

The aforementioned coins do nothing to benefit players in the midst of a race, but rather are the means for unlocking new vehicle option parts, including bike and kart frames, wheels of varying sizes, and colorful gliders for the flying portions. Earning gold in the three Grand Prix difficulty settings will reward players with new characters. Admittedly, a decent portion of the roster is represented by the Koopalings, and while they have been brought back into the limelight in recent Mario titles, including half of them in Mario Kart 8 would have sufficed. There are a couple of surprising additions to the roster, but for the most part, it’s the usual suspects – though there certainly isn’t any shortage of weight classes and racer styles to choose from.

This Wii U Mario Kart allows players to use literally any controller setup they so desire, from the Gamepad, to the Wiimote (with or without the nunchuck), to the Classic Controller and Pro Controller. It’s a pretty ingenious strategy Nintendo has adopted with the Wii U, and allows players the freedom to control this new Mario Kart in a fashion either more akin to the previous Wii title or even older Gamecube and N64 incarnations. The battle mode is, truth be told, rather weak when compared to just about any other version of Mario Kart. The fundamentals remain intact, but there are no battle mode-specific stages in Mario Kart 8. Instead, the game has you and your friends duking it out with CPU characters on the regular race tracks, and while the three balloon life system works just as well as before, the insanely large areas of these tracks robs the battle mode of much of its strategy and fun factor.

Despite this one significant misstep, Mario Kart 8 is an otherwise solid entry in the long-running series. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, and frankly, many of its successes are owed to the 3DS and Wii titles which preceded it. But it builds off the groundwork enough to feel the part of a worthwhile addition to the series. And it is a lot of fun, which is really what a good kart racer should be.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

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