Video game sequels stifle innovation and suffocate the industry. Or so it’s been said. Nintendo has always been one to challenge this opinion, however, and Mario Kart 8- the latest addition in their beloved racing franchise- is a fantastic example of how sequels can still push the gaming industry forward.
Mario Kart 8 hit the shelves in May of this year, and with two new DLC expansions for Mario Kart 8 recently announced it’s once again on everyone’s mind. On the face of it, sure, Mario Kart 8 is just another Mario Kart game, visually similar and with little overall game-play differences when compared against previous titles in the series such as Mario Kart 7 or Mario Kart Wii, and to some extent that’s what we want from it, but Nintendo have always pushed the envelope when it comes to making sequels so we’ve learned to always expect a little more. Nintendo makes a lot of sequels, they rely on brand recognition to stay afloat, and while some of their attempts to make their games stand out in the past have come across as innovation for innovation’s sake, Mario Kart 8 is different, it is innovation for the sake of improvement andit’s subtle but it shows.
Visually striking, I can’t lie, the first thing that I noticed when starting up my own copy of Mario Kart 8 is the graphics. I used to think Mario Kart would never need HD, but that was before I experienced it. Now my eyes are open and what they’re seeing is truly marvelous- the detail and vibrant colour in the title screen alone was enough to leave me in awe (although I giggle like a schoolgirl every time I see Peach and Yoshi).
Fast forward to the race tracks and the high-definition graphics add a sense of wonder to each and every course. The animation department for this game did a fantastic job, adding things like sidelines of cheering fans and birds on the track that fly away as you get close. It’s those small visual things, as well as the addition of unique background music, that make each course feel unique and fun in its own right.
The graphics don’t only add to the scenery, however, they also serve to genuinely improve the game-play, rendering landmarks in astounding detail and allowing you to see rival racers with better precision than ever before. In addition, the improved graphics are almost essential for the inclusion of one of Mario Kart 8’s new features: Mario Kart TV, which allows you to rewatch previous races and even upload them to YouTube.
There’s nothing so gratifying as passing into 1st place just seconds before the finish line, all thanks to a well-placed shell. Nothing fills you with pride as much hitting the racer in front of you mid-air with a skillfully thrown banana. Nothing is as satisfying as enacting your revenge with a blueshell and watching your nemesis go up in smoke. Except, of course, watching those feats over and over again in slow motion. Mario Kart TV makes this and more possible, with a wide range of custimization options available for creating and sharing videos of your favourite racing moments. Through Mario Kart TV we’re able to see some of the finer details added into the game that we may have otherwise missed during the fast-paced races, from adorablecharacter animations when performing jump-tricks, overtaking or being hit with a shell to hidden easter eggs that include adverts plastered across billboards for Mario Kart TV itself. It also gives you a chance to see things from a different angle than during the race, allowing you, for example, to see Luigi’s point of view after you’ve overtaken him. The murderous look on his face has already become a meme and it alone is enough to gain hours of enjoyment out of Mario Kart TV.
While new features like HD graphics and Mario Kart TV add a breath of fresh air to this decades-old racing series, they evidently didn’t draw too much of Nintendo’s attention away to distract them from working on what makes racing games fun: the racing. Four new items, nine new racers, sixteen new tracks and a wide range of vehicle customisation options accompany a whole host oflittle improvements to the racing itself, all working together to make the overall Mario Kart 8 experience one of the best in the series.
Some of the racers added to the franchise were a long-time coming, but I’ll always bemoan the continued use of baby characters to bulk out the roster at the expense of a more diverse line-up. Dry Bones, King Boo, Diddy Kong or R.O.B.-any of these charactersand more would have made welcome additions in exchange for yet another baby. There is a bright side to the racer line-up in that the addition of extra characters through DLC suggests that the character roster could cotinue to grow over the years, even if it’s at the expense of our wallets. Nintendo’s new Amiibo’s are coming out soon as well, a line of figures that can interact with multiple Nintendo games including Mario Kart 8, and there’s been some speculation that their effect in Mario Kart might be to unlock new racers. I, for one, remain skeptical, but only time will tell. The fact remains that, for the first time outside of an arcade release of Mario Kart, Nintendo will include characters from completely separate game series, namely the Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing. It’s a bold move that brings the series closer to other Nintendo cross-over games like Super Smash Bros., but it’s one that may help to draw a wider audience to the series.
Vehicle customisation makes an appearance in Mario Kart 8 as well, with unlockable vehicle parts available to pimp your ride. Each new part is unlocked after a certain amount of coins are collected, unlocking linearly and without any choice by the player in what I feel is a wasted opportunity by Nintendo. I would have much preferred some sort of shop feature where players could buy the parts they want, either saving up and buying one really expensive one or choosing to buy a few cheaper ones instead. In the absence of a shop feature I feel that the parts and racers should have been made more difficult to unlock, instead they are unlocked at the end of almost every Grand Prix, completely destroying any sense of challenge and achievement.
Beyond the different racing styles of bikes, karts and the brand-new all-terrain vehicles, racers and vehicle customisation have always been more of a cosmetic choice than a practical one. Of course each racer has their own stats (shared with other racers in the same group), and each vehicle part has an effect on those stats, but most people who play the game will choose the karts or bikes that look the best or feel the best to them. For time trials the kart and character choice can make a big difference depending on the track, but when playing against other people it really all comes down to personal preference, and racing skill wins out more often than not. The racing is, of course, the real meat of Mario Kart 8 after all, it’s what the whole game is all about, and after all the new racers and karts have been taken into account it’s the changes to the driving experience that really make Mario Kart 8 stand out.
The flow of Mario Kart 8’s racing feels seamless, it’s no longer stop and go as in older games in the series. Being hit with a shell doesn’t stop you in your tracks for quite as long and slipping on a banana peel can mess up your race but it doesn’t ruin your day. Importantly, falling off the edge doesn’t feel like a death sentence anymore, as Lakitu carries you forward while rescuing you from the abyss, making your loss of momentum less of a burden. The controls feel more fluid as well, with sharp turns and jumps integrating well into the straights and gentle bends of the course, and overall small changes like these all add up to some pretty huge improvements in Mario Kart 8’s racing. Drifting, as always, makes a return to the scene, though, and it can be daunting for new players to get the hang of racing at all let alone learning how to drift. Fortunately Mario Kart 8’s reliance on drifting, especially at the lower speed levels, isn’t as much as you might think, and you can still come out on top in almost any race even without knowing how to drift. If you’re new, practice racing at lower speeds, learn the tracks and the items and once you’re comfortable you’ll be able to start picking up drifting. In a matter of days you’ll be drifting like a pro, trust me.
On the subject of controls, however, the difference between the Wii U Gamepad and a Wii remote is more than a little noticeable. Racing a Wii remote against a Gamepad is always going to be an unfair match-up, and even if you’re using a Wii Nunchuk the button layout and less-than-ergonomic grip can really affect your ability to drive. Because the Gamepad has gyroscopic steering as an option, it may be fairest for whoever has the Gamepad to use that as an option, at least until you get enough Wii U Pro Controllers to balance gameplay. I only hope that the upcoming GameCube controller peripheral for the Wii U will be compatible with Mario Kart 8.
All the returning items from previous iterations of Mario Kart remain balanced and fair, adding to the experience that we’ve all come to know and love, and for the most part the new items each add something worthwhile to the game, never feeling forced or gimicky. The Boomerang Flower acts like a three-use returning shell and the Piranha Plant speeds you along while chomping up enemies and obstacles alike. The Super Horn in particular is a revelation, allowing you to destroy any incoming shells about to ruin your day: no longer are players haunted by the dreaded blue shell in their darkest nightmares, Super Horn has come to the rescue! This addition is inspired, allowing strategy and skill to win out over luck all the more. The only item that feels a little forced is the continuation of the Lucky Seven from Mario Kart 7 in the form of a new Crazy Eight item. The Crazy Eight provides the racer with eight items circling around them for them to try to use. I say ‘try’ because it’s hard to get right at the best of times, having to wait for the item you want to use to be at the front of your kart. Overall it seems like an unnecessary complication in such a fast-paced game already filled with great items, give me a single Red Shell or Mushroom over Crazy Eight any day.
Arguably the most important feature of any racing game is the race-tracks, and Mario Kart 8 has thirty-two to choose from, half of which are new to the series as per usual. It’s the standard number for all Mario Kart games within the last decade, and it’s a number that works well, providing a decent mix of diversity and familiarity to allow players to feel comfortable. Each track is rendered in breathtaking detail and balanced for a game-play experience that differs between each cup. My personal favourites are the long, single-lap tracks such as the new Mount Wario or the retro N64 Rainbow Road. New additions, like the tracks Cloudtop Cruise and Shy Guy Falls, help showcase the anti-gravity feature new to Mario Kart 8 in a way that feels right for those courses, and even redesigns of such classic tracks as Mario Circuit feel natural with an anti-gravity spin.
Revolutionary to the series, and a relatively new concept for Nintendo as a whole, comes two DLC packs- one scheduled for release in November of this year and the other in May of 2015. Among these will be a total of eight new tracks in each making a total of sixteen additional tracks. With the bundle to buy both DLC packs coming in at £11.00 it isn’t a bad deal for what you’re getting, especially considering that even a single new track would provide hours of further enjoyment out of the game.
With the addition of Mario Kart TV and the extensive work done to refine the racing in the game, however, some things have been left to slip below the standards I would have expected from such a highly acclaimed series. I mourn the lost potential for local 5 player with the Gamepad, and the linear unlocking mechanic for both new drivers and vehicle parts feels constrained but by far the biggest issue I have is with the complete lack of effort put into the battle system. When selecting battle mode you’re faced with an inability to select knock-out over timed battles and on top of that there’s a shocking lack of diversity in the types of battle available, with balloon battle being the only option. But one irredeemablefeature of the new battle mode stands out above the rest: battles are fought on repurposed tracks from the racing mode rather than their own dedicated stages. Above all else, this is what ruins battle mode for me.
Instead of balanced arenas with wide spaces for drivers to roam around in, instead of clever pitfalls for the unwary to fall into or the clever play to lure a victim, instead of blockades to climb up, roam around and duck under for the last minute escape, the player is presented with tracks of road that feel so linear and confined that ‘battle’ becomes a matter of throwing shells at whoever is driving past you. There’s no freedom of movement to chase, escape and lure your opponents, and for the most part you can’t even see your opponents until they’re right in front of you and by that point you literally have mere seconds before they’re behind you again. On the one hand the tracks are too small, with little room to maneuver and allow good driving to make the kill or save your balloons, but then on the other hand they’re far too big, with so few players in such a longstretch of road that you can drive along for over a minute (especially in team battles) without seeing a single opponent.
The lack of dedicated battle arenas and different types of battles beyond team and free-for-all makes the entire battle system feel more like a last-minute thought than an alternative mode of play, and for those players who liked the battle mode of previous games more than the racing itself, the version presented in Mario Kart 8will be a real diappointment in an otherwise spectacular addition to the series.
Overall Mario Kart 8 is a step forward for Nintendo’s most recognisable racing series and, while a few notable flaws let the game down, the inclusion of Mario Kart TV and the updated seamless racing controls allow it to live up to and even surpass many of the previous inclusions in this beloved franchise, earning it a solid.