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EGM Review: Mario Kart 8

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Posted on May 16, 2014 AT 04:15pm

This impressive new model needed more time in the shop

When Mario Kart debuted on the Super NES in 1992, it was a sport. It was a slick, sleek Formula One–esque racer with power-up items sprinkled throughout the racetrack—yet it still genuinely tested driving skill.

Somewhere along the line, Mario Kart became sports entertainment, something more akin to the Presidents Race at Washington Nationals baseball games—ostensibly a test of athletic superiority between mascot versions of five of our nation’s greatest leaders, but in reality a rigged contest complete with obstacles, fan interference, and comedic pratfalls.

At its core, Mario Kart 8 is a solid overall entry that takes advantage of the almost-foolproof series formula. The action is as smooth as it’s ever been, particularly due to the solid, consistent 60 frames per second, and the controls are appropriately tight, perfect for maneuvering those trademark hairpin curves. These are the same kinds of visual and gameplay upgrades we’ve seen from other classic franchises in their jump to the Wii U, and it’s great to see that remain true here. But for players who hoped that Mario Kart would transition back into its original racing pedigree with its Wii U debut—well, at this point, it looks just as futile as hoping WWE chairman Vince McMahon does the same thing with his own “sporting” endeavor.

Every Mario Kart entry tweaks the racing formula in some way, and similarly to how Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS added underwater racing for the first time, Mario Kart 8 includes F-Zero–style antigravity elements. When you encounter blue strips on the track, the wheels on your kart will transform, and you’ll engage in some hoverboarding à la Marty McFly—sometimes at insane angles that really test your ability to keep a straight line on the racetrack. What’s more, you can even use these antigravity areas to take clever shortcuts through the course, but you’ve got to keep some sharp eyes out for them—they’re not right in front of you to exploit. It’s nice to see a Mario Kart element actually revolve around clever observation instead of blind luck for once, and in this way, Mario Kart 8 flashes back to the more skill-based original at times. The antigravity portions are some of the more enjoyable sequences you’ll find, but it also feels like the game rations these segments unnecessarily, lessening their overall impact.

Recent Mario Kart offerings have included a mix of new and classic courses, and that formula returns: 16 new tracks make up the Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special cups, while 16 classic tracks make up the other four competitions. The two standouts? Sunshine Airport, an Isle Delfino–themed track that sees players racing around the tarmac while jets take off around them, and Mount Wario, which is in the vein of an Olympic downhill skiing course (and, in a Mario Kart rarity, it doesn’t include any standard laps—just a straight shot down). The rest mostly come off like reworked versions of familiar tracks—and, in the cases of Rainbow Road, Bowser’s Castle, and Mario Circuit, they are.

In Mario Kart tradition, the racing feels fast and fluid—and also horrendously unfair. One particularly absurd instance—verified in person by fellow EGMer Chris Holzworth—illustrates the ridiculousness of where the series’ notorious rubberband AI now stands. Mere inches from the finish line, a Blue Shell came hurtling toward me. Knocked upside down, I’d only just righted myself…and a Lightning Bolt came from the heavens above and shrunk me down. Just as I was about to rev my engine and maybe salvage 4th place, a Red Shell homed in on me and left me bruised, battered, and utterly beaten.

Or, as that purple purloiner Waluigi so truthfully puts it when a race doesn’t go his way: “Everybody cheating!”

Of course, that was an extreme, and not every race will end in an almost-parodic manner. At least the new Super Horn power-up, which emits a circular shockwave, offers the chance to turn back a Blue Shell, but the chances of actually having one in your possession when this notorious Egalitarian Equalizer of Doom ominously rockets your way are incredibly slim. In fact, during all my time with Mario Kart 8, I never acquired a Lighting Bolt or Bullet Bill, even during 150cc races when I’d fall behind. Why tantalizingly offer so many weapons and then still saddle me with Banana Peels and Green Shells even when I’m back in the pack?

At the very least, the Super Horn, along with the three other new power-ups—the Boomerang Flower (a classic Mario attack good for up to three uses), Piranha Plant (chomp at rivals and incoming items for a few seconds), and Crazy 8 (which grants eight items that you can them unleash on opponents one at a time) don’t feel like rehashes of the same two-decade-old formula.

The same can’t be said of the 30 racers—29 Mario characters along with your Mii (interestingly enough, you’re the only racer who bothers to wear a helmet). The main draw is the Koopalings, the classic Super Mario Bros. 3 antagonists who’ve seen a resurgence in recent years. To Nintendo’s credit, these seven used-to-be-Bowser’s-kids aren’t just cookie-cutter clones of the same model, and they’re a welcome addition to the roster. Outside of them, though, the lineup is disappointingly lackluster and more of the same. I don’t care about Princess Peach as the T-1000′s liquid-metal cousin—and adding Baby Rosalina to the ever-growing roster of shrieking, pacifier-sucking combatants is unacceptable. For those keeping track, Mario Kart 8: Now one-sixth babies!

While I can perhaps forgive toddler terrors on the raceway, I can’t overlook some curious design decisions. Perhaps the most glaring is the now-gimped Battle Mode. Back in the day, this was a favorite pastime with friends even more than the core racing itself, with areas specifically built for showdowns with buddies. Mario Kart 8 eschews battle-specific courses in favor of bland rehashes of classic and new tracks. Who thought including Toad’s Turnpike—an N64 track where you must dodge oncoming traffic on the freeway—was a suitable option for Battle Mode? In the EGM office, we spent our time weaving through traffic and trying to avoid reckless drivers, and I don’t believe any of the four competitors ever actually found each other on the course. That’s not a Mario Kart battle—it’s called driving on the 405!

When it comes to the interface, there’s a decided lack of useful information for players to peruse, and the problems start on the character-selection screen. Racers come in various types and weights, but you won’t get specifics in-game—you’ll have to consult an online guide if you want to make any sense of which characters bring specific strengths to the table.

But the biggest sin in this area comes with the onscreen map. Every single Mario Kart game has included a map on the main screen, and it’s not exactly some outlandish request to expect the same here. Mario Kart 8, however, places the map on the GamePad—and only the GamePad. What’s great about the typical Mario Kart map is that you can glance at it while still keeping an eye on the road. There’s a reason looking down at your phone on the highway is illegal—it’s because you can’t keep track of what’s on the road if your head is down. That’s the only way to access the map here, and it’s utterly asinine. And if you want to try out Off-TV Play, you’re left with no map at all, unless you want to try squinting at an inch-high version of the race with no sound in the right corner.

This is particularly brutal in local multiplayer on the players who aren’t using the GamePad. Anyone using a Wii U Pro Controller has to go mapless, while anyone using the Wiimote has to go mapless and has to use the atrocious motion controls, even though there’s a perfectly good D-pad right there. Considering how much of Mario Kart is based around playing with others, the lack of options and personalization is stupefying.

The user-unfriendly decisions sting all the more due to Mario Kart’s long-awaited upgrade to HD. Like other Nintendo franchises that have made this transition, the action looks awesome and runs incredibly smoothly, and the music, whether it’s new themes or reworked takes on classic tunes, really shines through, too—I just wish there were a more spectacular game to go along with all of this, since I know Nintendo’s capable of much more.

Mario Kart 8 is a rarity for Nintendo in that regard—it looks better than it plays. It’s certainly an enjoyable time out at the racetrack, but it can also be an underwhelming one. After a series of spectacular takes on venerable franchises over the past year in Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I expected more from Mario’s nitro-infused debut on the Wii U. In spite of its sports-entertainment trappings, I’ll always be a fan of Mario’s karting, but some of the design oversights here are stunning. It’s a Nintendo game that’s somehow less than the sum of its very impressive parts—and I can’t recall the last time I felt that way about one of their titles.

Developer: Nintendo • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 05.30.2014
7.5

Mario Kart 8 looks spectacular, sounds impressive, and delivers solid racing action worthy of the series. But it’s also that rare Nintendo game that manages to be less than the sum of its impressive parts thanks to some ill-advised design choices, half-baked ideas, and gimped Battle Mode.

The Good Spectacular HD visuals; intriguing new antigravity elements.
The Bad Laughable rubberband AI returns; new tracks mostly underwhelm; Battle Mode is a sad shell of its classic self.
The Ugly Every damn baby on the roster. Yeah, I said it!
Mario Kart 8 is a Wii U exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo of America for the benefit of this review.
Andrew Fitch, Managing Editor
Andrew Fitch, a proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, has been attending E3 for close to a decade now. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth. Follow Andrew’s adventures in avoiding cursed furniture at his Twitter feed: @twittch. Meet the rest of the crew.

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