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Hands-on: Why Mario Kart 8 is fast becoming the most exciting Nintendo game in years

By Chris Scullion on Thursday Apr 3rd 2014 at 12:01 AM PDT

If ever there was a single game that could turn around the Wii U's fortunes and change its story from that of a GameCube-type disappointment to a 3DS-style revival, it's Mario Kart 8.

Smash Bros and Zelda may be the other games hardened Nintendo fans are keeping their eyes on, but Mario Kart is the one that transcends the hardcore/casual divide.

That's why, with an astonishing 35 million copies sold, Mario Kart Wii was the fifth best-selling video game of all time. It's why the latest 3DS offering, Mario Kart 7, shifted another 9 million units. And it's why the eighth game is the one that, if marketed as well as it plays, could finally be the Wii U's golden mushroom Nintendo is so desperate for.

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Thankfully, after spending five hours with the game's Grand Prix mode in single-player and multiplayer, it appears Mario Kart isn't just back, it's back with its accelerator pressed right after '2' in the countdown.

The initial feeling when you start up Mario Kart 8 is one of familiarity, with an eternally overjoyed Mario hollering the game's name with unrestrained glee and a brand new version of that classic SNES Super Mario Kart title theme.

As well as your typical single-player and multiplayer, there are now two further options for online racing - solo or two-player - and Mario Kart TV. While the latter was unavailable to us at this preview stage, aspects of it find their way into the game's replays... but we'll come to that.

The character roster is as you would expect with a healthy selection of Mario characters to choose from. The headcount is expanded this time with the inclusion of the seven Koopalings (Bowser's kin from Super Mario Bros 3 and subsequent platformers in the series).

This may seem a little like a cut and paste job - particularly if you aren't a fan of the Koopalings and feel those seven character slots could have been taken up by more unique characters - but Nintendo has done a good job of ensuring each Koopaling feels different enough and brings their own personality to the fore.

While we've yet to see the entire roster, a number of other characters who debuted in Mario Kart 7 also return here, including Lakitu and Metal Mario. Once you add the usual cast of heroes and villains to this list it's clear there's already a pretty sizeable cast to choose from, even at this unfinished stage.

Previous Mario Karts have dabbled with different 'gimmicks' and add-ons to make their vehicles more interesting, but Mario Kart 8 is the first to bring them all together. In a move that will no doubt divide purists, the bikes from Mario Kart Wii have returned, but joining these are the generally loved glider and underwater propeller add-ons from Mario Kart 7, letting players take to the air and sea with bikes for the first time.

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While this means there are no ground-breaking changes in the vehicle department, the same can't be said about the tracks, mainly thanks to the new anti-gravity sections. These replace parts of the track with magnetic fields which allow karts to race up walls and upside-down.

Naturally, every major addition to a Mario Kart game results in fans of the series gnawing nervously at their nails for fear that their favourite game may be 'broken' by an unwelcome new mechanic, but the anti-grav ideas are more cosmetic than anything else.

Indeed, some will argue that the anti-grav overall isn't quite the F-Zero homage they imagined, as the effect is so subtle in some tracks that were it not for your wheels glowing blue and flipping up Delorean-style you may not even realise you aren't the right way up.

In some tracks, however, the effect is a sight to behold. This is particularly evident in the Twisted Mansion track which, with its multiple routes, sometimes has you racing the right way up while your opponent drives past on the ceiling. Also particularly striking is Shy Guy Falls, which makes startling use of a pair of waterfalls (see the Falling In Love panel below).

All this would be for naught had Nintendo dropped the ball regarding gameplay, but thankfully Mario Kart 8 retains that modern 'feel' which made the DS, 3DS and Wii versions a joy to play. Very little has been changed to the basic handling and Nintendo has once again opted for the newer drift mechanic introduced in Mario Kart Wii, in which holding a drift for longer builds up the power of the resulting speed boost.

Tricks also return, utilising the 3DS version's method of hopping just as you leave a ramp to perform a stunt that grants a small burst of speed upon landing. You can hold the analogue stick in different directions to pull off different tricks, but at this stage these seem fairly superficial and, as before, it's impossible to 'fail' a trick once you pull one off.

Mario Kart 8: The Track List So Far

There's also new tweaks and additions that can affect your race, some of which involve the way you interact with your rival racers. One example is the new Spin Turbo move, which can be executed any time you're on an anti-gravity section of the track. By bumping into an enemy, your wheels will clash with an opponent's and, since both sets of wheels are lying sideways, you'll roll off them and gain a speed boost.

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Another new trick relies on the game's new triple mushroom mechanic. If a racer receives the triple mushroom item, it now makes three mushrooms rotate around the kart in a similar ilk to the triple green or red shell. This means, just as the triple shells could cause damage if you bumped into them, it's possible to drive alongside a foe and run into one of their mushrooms, nabbing its effect and boosting off into the sunset.

Not that mushrooms and shells are the only weapons this time around, of course. A number of familiar items return, including the star, the Bullet Bill and that ever-infuriating Blue Shell (which now slides along the ground, taking out numerous enemies, before rising into the air and slamming down on its first-placed target).

The lightning bolt also returns, albeit as a much rarer item (we only saw it once in five hours of play), but gone is the POW block from Mario Kart Wii, which has seemingly been retired much to the disappointment of nobody.

Replacing it are a handful of new items, of which we've seen two so far. The boomerang is an interesting alternative to the green shell, offering three throws. Each throw sends it off in a straight line, taking out enemies, before it returns to you, with the third and final throw sending it off for good.

"Once you hear the Moo Moo Farm theme played with a real fiddle you'll be sold entirely"

What makes the boomerang different from the triple green shell is that it doesn't disappear when it hits an enemy, instead passing through them and doubling back. This makes it useful if you're racing behind a pack of players, because when you effectively have five shots (throw, return, throw, return, throw) that can cause chaos in front of you.

The other new item we've seen is the Piranha Plant pot. Driving near an opponent or coin not only makes the plant reach out and eat them, it also gives you a speed boost when it retracts into its pot. This extra speed and its 'destroy everything in its path' properties make it similar to the star power-up, but it does have its own unique strengths and weaknesses too.

Unlike the star, the Piranha Plant's reach means you don't have to worry about driving directly into an enemy to damage them. However, as it doesn't make you entirely invulnerable, you're still susceptible to attacks from behind and still slow down on grass.

Once a race is over you're treated to a replay, which is actually a bigger deal than it sounds this time. In previous Mario Kart games, replays have felt like an unnecessary evil, a customary extra that incited little emotion save for the urge to skip.

Here, for the first time in the series, replays are a joy. This is mainly down to two things. The first is the ability to edit a replay, with the game providing a set of menu options you can tweak to create your own highlights package.

We aren't exactly talking Adobe Premiere here, but these options do at least let you focus on the moments you want to see again. You can choose up to four characters for the replays to focus on, what sort of action you want to highlight (be it drifts, weapon attacks, big jumps, etc) and pick a duration - 30 seconds, one minute or the full race - before watching your custom package and, if you're happy with it, sending it to a friend.

"If marketed properly, Mario Kart 8 could finally be the Wii U's golden mushroom Nintendo is so desperate for"

The other reason replays are so entertaining is the option to slow videos down to near-Matrix bullet time levels. At the slowest of speeds, Mario Kart almost looks balletic, giving you time to view the countless tiny details you don't notice when you're bombing it down the road.

Mario's moustache flapping in the breeze. Toad's face changing from unbridled glee as he drifts round a corner to unending terror as he drifts right into a stray banana skin. The comedy roadside ads for the likes of 1-Up Car Insurance that you didn't have time to read while you were playing. It's here where Mario Kart 8's true level of detail is best served.

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It's also here, more than anywhere else, that it becomes abundantly clear Mario Kart 8 is the real deal: a top-tier Nintendo offering with production values that outweigh the vast majority of other games.

Its consistently stunning HD visuals run at a solid 60fps in single-player and two-player splitscreen (dropping to 30fps with three or more players), with a level of colour and vivacity that may make some troops in the next-gen resolution war take a minute to wonder what they're fighting for.

The soundtrack - which is given a similar orchestral overhaul to that of the recent Super Mario 3D World - is just as impressive, with a wide range of musical styles providing us with catchy new tunes as well as brilliant new versions of classics. Once you hear the Moo Moo Farm theme played with a real fiddle you'll be sold entirely.

Providing there's no surprise broken online multiplayer mode, or some yet-to-be-revealed tracks turning out to be uncharacteristically dull, from what we've played it seems certain that Mario Kart 8 will be another exceptional entry in one of gaming's most popular series.

But Nintendo's real battle was never really making a great Mario Kart: such is the company's pedigree that most have expected nothing less since the second its existence was confirmed.Instead, the challenge now lies with Nintendo's marketing department to convince people that not only is its latest offering a fantastic game, it's also enough of a must-have that you really should go out and buy a Wii U so you can play it.

If any game has that power, it's Mario Kart.

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