Few games have managed to capture my attention and thumbs like Mario Kart. My aunt got a Nintendo 64 before we did and I remember volunteering to go down the street and water her plants so I could play, but it wasn't until Christmas morning in 1997 that my brother and I got our very first home console. I opened up a yellow M-shaped controller before discovering any games or the hardware itself. What kind of self-proclaimed Nintendo 64 kid ruins the surprise by blowing the order of carefully wrapped presents?
Of course, the real surprise was Mario Kart 64's unbeatable sense of speed and control, variety, and inventive track design. That game still stands the test of time with an overwhelming shine of nostalgic sugar-coating, one that proves harder to wipe away than even those Blockbuster stickers on old cartridges that wait for unsuspecting eBay collectors. Every subsequent karting game has been compared against that pinnacle of design and Mario Kart 8, the latest in the series and the franchise entry for Nintendo's first HD console, is already on its third lap and quickly proving just as playable, engaging, and multiplayer friendly as ever.
In fact, the first and second laps are such a blur you might not need any further critique on the game. If you've owned a piece of Nintendo hardware in the past 15 years, you already know how little pole position means in Mario Kart, much less what changes with each new release. It's what has stayed the same that satisfies most in split-screen and online multiplayer. Single-player racers can enter Grand Prix cups and race on either four brand new tracks or four throwback tracks in a series. In total, Mario Kart 8 offers 32 circuits for up to four players via split-screen or up to 12 online.
It's not the first time Mario Kart has taken to the Internet for expanded competition, but much improved net code also allows for two players on the same couch to race with others around the world. You’ll never want for multiplayer competition in Mario Kart 8, though the game’s menu screen belies the depth of racing action you might expect from the title.
With only single player, multiplayer, a Miiverse community outlet, and little else accessible from the main menu, you might think this Mario Kart incredibly shallow. It isn’t exactly chockfull of surprises, but the real value is in the roster of racers, the variety of race tracks, and just how easily you'll slip into old rivalries with friends and family (or time trial ghosts from developers and others online). All of your favorite Nintendo characters are available to choose from, plus a few you probably wouldn't waste a red shell on.
Joining Mario and Luigi is the usual cadre of baddies, baby versions of some of your favorites, metal versions of Mario and Peach, and a whole gang of Bowser's minions that I passed for favorites like Yoshi, Donkey Kong, and Shy Guy. Characters have different weights and speed ratings among other stats, but you'll be able to guess at base numerics just by looking at one of Nintendo's iconically designed racers.
After that, you get a huge toy box of kart pieces to play with which gets unlocked by completing Grand Prix cups and picking up coins on the track. You can open up a stats screen to compare each and every piece and the effect it has on your racer, but you might want to punch someone who scrubs over everything hoping to find the best possible combination. Even if you and a sibling come to blows before hitting the track, Nintendo's hardware should hold up. Slight increases in speed or weight make little difference against skilled racing and smart item use anyway.
Mario Kart Stadium, the very first track in the game, shows off how new anti-gravity magnet wheels let the franchise play with stale track design. Where Mario Kart 7 added gliding and underwater sequences, tracks now twist sideways, upside-down, and all around. The next track, Water Park, combines underwater sequences with a huge sideways loop into the air and back into the water. Magnetic sequences allow each track to play with how a race progresses in wild, new ways. The topsy-turvy track design doesn't really change how you race or how your controls work, but it does allow for interesting designs like Twisted Mansion where the safest path might actually be up the walls.
I also love the high-definition visuals in Thwomp Ruins, Electrodome, and many of the classic tracks. Every single game Nintendo releases for Wii U looks better than the last. Still, Mario Kart 8 takes the checkered flag despite a few nagging issues hardcore hardware nuts might have. Lines tend to look blurry until they get right under your kart and the framerate can drop, especially with four-player split-screen or heated online competition.
Fortunately, that doesn’t keep every cup from featuring at least one visual stunner. The Nintendo 64 Rainbow Road remake finishes a series of classic tracks with a few new twists and vibrant visuals while a remake of Tick-Tock Clock from Mario Kart DS features spinning gears and hardware that look summarily large and imposing in a way the DS top-screen could never capture. Bowser’s Castle in the Special Cup features an awesome-looking lava Bowser that punches vertically-oriented tracks on either side. You have to decide at the split whether you’ll be able to squeak under his fist or lose your lead position.
New items ensure even the most accomplished kart racers have tricks to learn. Players can get the Boomerang Flower and toss a fairly wide boomerang at rivals up to three times. The Piranha Plant might seem overpowered at first, but its range balances against chomping opponents and obstacles alike. Finally, there’s the Super Horn, easily the best new addition to a Mario Kart game… ever.
I’ve taken many opportunities to jab at Nintendo for relying on old tricks a little too often, but the Super Horn finally provides a defense against the much-lauded Blue Shell and gives conservative racers in first place an even way to counteract what has become a morose joke. It sounds like such a small addition to the formula, but Nintendo continues to impress me with a knowing awareness of what needs to be fixed in their games. Other seemingly minor fixes help to make Mario Kart 8 the most playable and balanced racing game I’ve ever laid thumbs on. For example, you will never wonder what item the racer ahead or behind you is carrying as everyone holds their item while they race. You can only hold one item, so you can no longer drag a shell or banana behind you to defend against incoming red shells.
Subtle changes to more beloved Mario Kart 64 tracks like Toad’s Turnpike and Royal Raceway prove endearing for fans like me. The music, sound effects, and sense of speed don’t feel like they’ve changed all that much, but some things should always stay the same. Despite a few Mario Kart games where rubber-banding and abusive item spamming often frustrated experienced racers, Mario Kart 8 has largely addressed where the series has slipped up in the past.
I’ve played enough Mario Kart in my life to know that this is the best version of the venerable kart-racer since the Nintendo 64 era. While I never owned Mario Kart Double Dash, this game will prove even more fun for multiplayer-focused fans thanks to expanded online options. If you’ve fallen out of love with the series or you’ve gone without a Wii U this long, you should try for a photo finish at checkout.
Code provided by publisher. Exclusive to Wii U.