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Review: Mario Kart 8 leads the pack

By Matt Sakuraoka-Gilman on Thursday 15th May 2014 at 7:01 AM UTC

Few companies in the world demonstrate the mastery of reinvention quite like Nintendo. From the conception of 2D platforming through to defining an era of 3D worlds, Mario is the epitome of the big N's ability to play with our expectations.

Stick his dungaree-ed rear-end in a go-kart and there's a sense that despite shifting gears a couple of times over the years, the Mario Kart series has been dependable, though not necessarily ground-breaking. That is about to change. Mario's latest vehicular powerhouse takes things to a whole new level. This is the reason you need a Wii U.

There's so much delight packed into Mario Kart 8 that it's actually tough to know where to begin. Let's start at the automobiles. While the simple controls make jumping into a race easy, Mario Kart 8's namesake vehicles have been subtly tweaked. Veterans will nod sagely when discussing the importance of a well-timed drift. Now you have to be much more aware of the tracks you careen through, as these slip-slidey manoeuvres come with a purposefully delayed response.

You need to tap the jump button slightly in advance of upcoming corners to pull off the most glorious of finesse glides. Different karts, from the insta-fave Pipe-Frame to the 'oh, go on then' Yoshi Bike, have differing delays too, throwing another serving of deceptively hardcore depth into the souped-up family-friendly mix.

You'll find yourself lifting your eyes up and drinking in the course ahead much more readily, partly due to this new necessity for pre-emptive drifting, but also because each and every location you motor through is a joyous celebration to behold.

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There are 32 tracks in total spread out across four cups and split into time-honoured categories of brand-spangly new and retro re-fits. Thankfully unlocking a fresh set of tracks by earning yourself a place on the podium for each cup is still giddy stuff, thanks to the new, series first anti-gravity mechanic.

Rather than simply go through the motions with this feature, which sees your kart passively shift between normal tyres and hover wheels as the need arises, Nintendo has gone all out. You'll speed up a torrential waterfall in Shy Guy Falls, before loop-de-looping in the air across a vast misty valley.

A few tracks later you're whizzing through Sunshine Airport terminals with Isle Delfino residents and Toad-shaped baggage handlers waving from the sidelines as you boost off neon-coloured hover bumpers up and into the clouds among the planes themselves. Next thing you know you're careening up and around the side of a tunnel in Toad's Turnpike, battering headlong into the oncoming traffic and then firing off ramps handily placed atop slow-moving trucks. Then you can take a breath.

And these aren't even the stand out courses. The less we say about the refitted anti-grav take on Rainbow Road the better, as you'll want to savour every ounce of its gleeful wonder yourself.

"You'll speed up a torrential waterfall, before loop-de-looping in the air across a vast misty valley"

And then there's Mount Wario, one of the few tracks not tied to repeating laps. The auspicious start sees you dive-bomb out of the back of a giant plane - like Nathan Drake, only happy about it - through powder snow slaloms and mogul-flavoured pine forests. You'll eventually arrive breathless at a huge ski jump to the finish line, gasping twinkly eyed at the sheer thrill of it all - before hitting 'replay' right away.

Additionally the musical score, now performed by an actual orchestra, undulates tantalisingly, throbbing with powerful refrains at all the right moments and battering itself into a frenzied crescendo as you screech over the line.

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All of this is delivered via sumptuous visuals which, while wonderful to behold, come with a niggling regret that only now, with the Wii U, is Nintendo starting to impress with the kind of technical craft we're accustomed to on other machines. Mario's 'tache wiggles in the breeze as he passes by and the underwater effects - which see bubbles issue from your kart's morphed propellers and explosions billow outwards - are simply beautiful.

And then there are the real-time lighting effects. Elongated drifts see individual sparks fly from your kart, with the reflective glare that goes with them. Motor through Moo Moo Meadows and those reflections ripple across the wet ground. We defy anyone to watch a slow-mo replay of a Fire Flower attack without oo-ing and ah-ing in delight.

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At the close of each race you have the opportunity to create your own highlight reel. Here you can sumptuously slow down time to oggle these visuals at your leisure. Wonderfully, these reels take mere seconds to make thanks to a robust custom reel creator. Select the riders and actions you want to see most from a list, set the length of the reel to 30, 45 or 60 seconds, or even the whole race, and then the reel forms all on its own.

There's an almost directorial hand at play, with an impressive automated mastery of comic timing to the system. An example. The camera follows as our man Mario motors along clutching a banana skin in his mitts (items are now held in racers' hands for all to see and respond to). He places it in the road and the camera snaps to a halt on it, zooming in lightly for a close up on the offending yellowy git.

In the background Peach comes gliding into focus, before inevitably banging straight into it. The camera pulls out to take in her spinning tearful remonstrations before snapping back to Mario, now three or four corners clear in front, as he jumps up in his kart and fist pumps the air. That there's no human hand guiding this editorial process is astounding.

Speaking of banana skins: all this greatness comes at a cost. Most single- and multiplayer game types remain either untouched or improved upon, but Battle mode has been gutted.

"Even the motion controls feel tighter and more responsive"

Gone are the encompassing arenas which force encounters between balloon-popping karters. They've been replaced with eight of the tracks from the main Grand Prix mode, only two of which, tellingly, aren't refitted retro versions. As a result, Battle mode is now a superfluous addition. Fighting across whole tracks feels lifeless, with whole minutes going by without spotting fellow riders.

And then there's the sad truth of frame rate issues when playing in local co-op. Two players can share a screen with no noticeable visual downgrading, but once four people get involved there's a very obvious dip in framerate.

These problems serve as reminders that while its ability to craft excellent experiences for its players can't be shunted, Nintendo leave a lot to be desired technologically when its hardware sits side by side with more expensive rivals. A glut of online modes, including the welcome addition of two-player split-screen while online, makes up for this, however.

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Aside from those two areas there's little else to cause grumbles. Even the motion controls, utilised by those seeking laughs rather than precision in past entries, feel tighter and more responsive. Importantly they are a blast to play with. If you already own a Wii U then chances are you are now everyone's best friend.

This is a multiplayer event showcasing Nintendo doing what it does best: bashing your expectations (which should already have been lofty) into dust and then rebuilding them anew into something bigger and better than you had imagined.

The verdict

This is Nintendo serving up unprecedented helpings of joy as only it can.

  • Each and every track is a delight to experience
  • The master of karting is a real looker to boot
  • Hardware limitations show in split-screen
  • The track-based Battle Mode underperforms
9
Format
Nintendo Wii U
Developer
Nintendo
Publisher
Nintendo
Genre
Racing / Driving

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