High-speeds, inspired items, breakneck hairpin turns… Mario Kart's always led with these genre-defining aspects, so I wasn't worried about Nintendo's ability to deliver that kind of experience on Wii U. In fact, Mario Kart 8 makes executing the formula look easy. Even with my brief hands-on time, it was obvious that changing nothing would still make for a fun and frantic kart-racer.
Thankfully, Nintendo hasn't rested on that, retaining Mario Kart 7's glider and underwater sections but adding magnetic wheels that give Mario, Luigi, Toad, Bowser, and Yoshi the ability to cling to wild tracks that twist and contort, rotating the field a full 360 degrees. Remember Luigi's Circuit on Nintendo 64? The simple track gets flipped and turned to let players put skid-marks on both sides of the asphalt, lengthening a single lap, all in the same space.
First impressions? Nintendo could have relied on a simple HD update. MK8's sharp, colorful textures fly by at a blistering pace, while karts and motorbikes flip over jumps and screech around turns with new found fidelity. It's like being in first place and still getting a lightning strike out of the iconic Question Mark boxes, but Nintendo knows you don't hold the lead without dragging a banana or shell to cover your ass. That's where magnetic wheels come in.
When you're playing the game, you might not notice the flipping track thanks to the lazer-like focus it takes to dominate other racers, but a waterfall flowing in reverse or the glowing blue tires that flip out to keep you stuck on the road will catch your eye. That first Luigi's Circuit-like track provided banking turns that never stopped banking, progressively flipping until I was racing completely upside-down. The show floor demo had three different tracks, ranging from straight-forward and simple to complex and winding. The first circuit in particular flew by without a noticeably upside-down moment, but a Delfino Square-esque track gave players a big wall to hover on, as well as a few glider moments.
I took a few left turns and stumbled over alternate paths and hidden shortcuts. Mario Kart's tracks have always focused on inventive and varied design, but the only track to take advantage of that heritage came in the form of Boo's Mansion, where an underwater sequence split into two separate tracks that flung players back into the courtyard from two different angels. Some players launch towards the finish line upside down, while others blast through with four wheels on the ground.
Longtime Mario Kart fans probably won't find much to complain about here, as Nintendo made sure not to break the experience despite the changes on-hand. Wiggling the stick back and forth gives you blue sparks, then red, and then a huge speed boost. I tried snaking (the game-breaking tactic from Mario Kart DS that involves side-winding across the full width of the track to maintain a constant state of boost), but the hop you'll use to start a slide doesn't allow for a wide leap or the corrective turn back towards the center of the track.
That means Mario Kart 7's level-headed approach to balanced gameplay continues in MK8, expanding online play with a full 12-man competition. My time with Mario Kart 8 was limited but it felt instantly familiar, maintaining approachable and deep mechanics with frantic fun, a catchy soundtrack, and hopefully a big mix of new and classic tracks. Don't you think a few of your favorite circuits could benefit from a gorgeous HD update on Wii U?