For all of its sales success, Mario Kart Wii sure was a disappointment to play. Developer Nintendo EAD, with its sights set firmly on the Wii’s homegrown casual market, took all of the fine tuning that went into the superlative Mario Kart DS, threw it out the window, and crafted a new interpretation of the franchise that was so laser-focused on making “everybody” a winner that any display of actual skill was almost invariably punished by the game’s spastic AI and monumentally unbalanced assortment of items. Mario Kart 7 — the series’ 3DS entry — was such a fine return to form that it was hard to believe it was made by the same team. The tracks were better, the online multiplayer was patchable so it couldn’t be ruined by the hackers who had run amok on the two previous installments, and a new cart customization system meant there was an abundance of strategy for racers looking to engage in a higher level of play. But most importantly, the balance between “fair” and fair was restored. Nearly every victory in the game felt earned, and every loss a chance at improvement. Sure, inexperienced racers still had plenty of opportunities to get a leg up on veterans — that’s the heart of the Mario Kart experience — but save for the unavoidable tyranny of the dreaded Blue Shell, I never once felt cheated when I lost.
Mario Kart 8 takes everything that was good about Mario Kart 7 and makes it even better. The 16 brand new tracks reward deft vehicle handling and a willingness to experiment with branching paths that cater to each of the game’s three vehicle types. The new anti-gravity gimmick — a carryover from F-Zero, sure, but also a natural extension of Mario Kart 7’s gliding and underwater segments — has led to some of the most unforgettable course design the series has ever seen, including a breathtaking vertical climb up and down a waterfall in Shy Guy Falls, a cannon blast into the heart of a storm cloud in Cloudtop Cruise, and a breathless rush across the face of a dam in Mount Wario. A selection of classic courses have been retrofitted with new features and obstacles, breathing new life into forgotten favorites like Yoshi Valley and Wario Stadium, and giving a second wind to love ’em or hate ’em locations like Toad’s Turnpike.
Mario Kart 8 uses a modified version of the Mario Kart 7 engine, and as someone who’s been playing the 3DS game steadily since 2011, I felt immediately at home with the new Wii U version. A number of tweaks have been made in order to close the gap between power players and first-timers. Most significantly, racers can no longer hold two items at once by keeping the first item armed, and while some longtime players might take issue with these modifications, they’re certainly a better solution than the cheap tricks like the Mega Mushroom employed by Mario Kart Wii.
Speaking of items, Mario Kart 8 introduces two of the best new pickups in series history: the Boomerang, which works exactly as you’d expect and can be thrown up to three times, and the Super Horn, which finally gives lead racers a chance to avoid Blue Shells. Can we all just take a moment and be thankful for that? Mario Kart 7’s Lucky 7 — a collection of 7 random items that flagging players can use to make headway against the rising tides of defeat — returns with a plus one, and is now called the Crazy 8. If you haven’t played the 3DS game, it might sound like an easy way to win, but it’s hardly a game breaker: if you’re not careful with it, it won’t get you anywhere except stalled in a roadside ditch.
Mario Kart has always been Nintendo’s multiplayer crown jewel, and the trend continues here, with an abundance of modes making Mario Kart 8 the best argument yet for good old-fashioned local multiplayer on the Wii U. Continuing the standard set by the Wii game, two players can race either competitively or cooperatively, alone or with up to ten other online players, all without a single hiccup in the game’s gorgeous 60fps action. The beloved Battle Mode returns as well, though it can feel oddly empty at times as the series’ typically boxy battle arenas have been replaced by an assortment of race tracks, making for long stretches of downtime between encounters. I imagine seasoned road warriors may be disappointed by this change, but Battle Mode has never really been my cup of tea so it’s hard for me to care too much.
Two player matches are a ton of fun regardless of your preferred game type, but Mario Kart 8 truly shines in its four-player split screen multiplayer, which harkens back to those epic Mario Kart 64 ragers we all used to engage in during the late ’90s. The frame rate takes a noticeable hit to 30fps as the Wii U struggles to render four quadrants at once, but it hardly matters when everyone in the room is knocking back drinks and screaming with laughter. That might sound anachronistic for those of you weaned on Xbox Live and party chat, but there’s something so magical about getting a ton of friends together in the same room, trash talking each other and letting off steam at the end of a long week. Just make sure you’ve got enough controllers for everybody, or at least enough drinks.
If local multiplayer isn’t your thing, worry not: online play is back and better than ever. Once again, up to 12 racers can duke it out for online supremacy, whether on individual tracks in versus mode or competing in one of the game’s eight cups in Grand Prix mode. New to the series online offerings is a community feature called Mario Kart TV, which lets players upload customized video clips of their best races to Miiverse and YouTube. It’s an excellent showcase not only of your superb racing skills but of the Wii U’s technical prowess; Mario Kart 8 is a gorgeous game already, but its cinematic replays are simply stunning, and I can’t wait to all the crazy footage that will start hitting the net once the game is released. Having said that all that, I can’t help but wish there had been some sort of implementation of live streaming in MKTV, but it seems pretty obvious that such a feature would’ve been included if the Wii U could have handled it.
Mario Kart 8 is a near perfect culmination of everything that Nintendo has ever done right with the series, with all of the great high level play of the recent portable entries and none of the casual kowtowing that ruined the Wii version. But it’s more than that; it’s also a gorgeous reminder that as long as there’s an audience for it, Nintendo will keep putting out the kind of games that bring people together. If that sounds like the kind of world you want to live in, you don’t want to miss this.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Mario Kart 8 is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game launches on Friday, May 30th, 2014.