Technology - 80%
Presentation - 92%
Design Theory - 89%
Gameplay - 90%
Story - 54%
Value - 92%
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the Mario Kart series is practically blushing. So many derivative kart racers have vied for pole position but for the most part have stalled in the first lap. Oddly though, with Mario Kart 8 Nintendo seems to have become an imitator itself, clearly taking inspiration from its only real rival – Sonic Racing Transformed.
Under the hood however, the basics remain unchanged from the excellent Mario Kart 7 with unlockable parts to tweak your performance and coins on track granting improved handling and speed once ten are picked up. What’s immediately noticeable though is that the game has received a serious speed boost. It runs a lot more quickly than previous versions which made racing in anything less than 150cc feel like a slow motion sprint. This is also the case in respect of the previously misguided underwater sections. Instead of slowing the game to a crawl, they now zip along just as much – albeit requiring different handling in the same way as Sonic. Indeed, dare we say it? These sections are actually fun.
The glide sections are also present and correct yet seem less developed. It’s almost as if in fixing the issues with the underwater sections Nintendo forgot about the gliding. For any thoughts of using the glide to cut corners by catching updrafts are mostly in vain. This is odd given that there are clearly points on the tracks which look like they would permit this high risk strategy but instead will unceremoniously send you plummeting off the track. That’s not to say that gliding is pointless – just that it was better implemented in Mario Kart 7.
The biggest change however is weapon retention. Fall (or more likely get knocked) off the track and you won’t lose your weapon or power up. In fact, as long as you haven’t actually started using it, even a Blue Shell isn’t enough to deprive you of your arsenal. When combined with far speedier track resets after getting knocked off, this keeps you in the game and ready to dish out righteous revenge.
Yet it comes at a cost. Taking inspiration from Sonic again, it’s no longer possible to hold a weapon behind you and then pick up another in reserve. Whilst this neatly removes the overused situation whereby a lucky player can chain six Red Shells in succession or even a double invincibility, it can make being in first rather fraught.
For it’s far from uncommon for a race leader to be brought down by three red shells from second place because every single power up they themselves obtain has been the speed boosting coins that offer no form of defence whatsoever. Likewise, the Blue Shell cancelling Super Horn might be a great defence but you’re unlikely to pick it up in first place. Which means that if you are in first, your best option is to hold onto the first defensive item you get which if you’re half a lap ahead can make things a little dull since partaking in the traditional Mario Kart strategy of laying traps behind boxes leaves you wide open to attack. And whilst Red Shells can be dodged by a last minute lane change or especially tight corner it’s a far from reliable strategy – especially when compared to Sonic’s masterful boost escape mechanic.
Yet these problems disappear when racing against a group of equally skilled opponents since one player is rarely that far ahead. And it certainly isn’t as bad as the practically snapped rubberbanding in the Wii version which saw good players relentlessly punished for their competency. It’s also true that Blue Shells aren’t nearly as common as they have been in previous versions . That said, there will still be curses flying when one hits the race leader inches from the line.
The new powerups are also interesting without being overpowered, allowing for some real chaos when the racers are bunched up together. The Piranha Plant is already a firm favourite even if it is reminiscent of the old Chain Chomp. Mario Kart 7’s lucky seven has gained an eighth item to match the title and is even more chaotic since anyone running into you could just as easily detonate the bomb as steal your invulnerability. It’s a shame though that despite the triple mushrooms now rotating around a player in the same fashion that the same is not true here. You can’t drive into someone and steal their speed boost which feels like a missed opportunity. Especially given that the tracks are filled with bottlenecks which would make this a viable strategy.
Indeed, the tracks seem to have been purposely built for chaos whilst the new zero gravity sections allow for some impressive courses where racers can be on one another’s ceilings. It just feels like the idea could have been taken a little further though. Some Mario Galaxy inspired leaps across sections to play around with the concept or even some WipeOut style vertical drops would have been welcome. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with what’s on offer. They just lack the imagination on display in some of the better Sonic tracks. Something which Nintendo are clearly aware of with their DLC.
Mute City for example flawlessly marries F Zero X speed to Mario Kart handling having multiple speed pads linking into drifts to create continual boosts. It’s tremendous fun, yet still pales next to the Hyrule track. A Master Sword short cut that has to be activated, Rupees replacing coins and Zelda music replacing the weapon pick up sound effects. It’s a wonderful love letter to Zelda fans and an absolute stand out track.
Excite Bike’s course is conversely an absolute misfire, reminiscent of Baby Park in terms of it almost always coming down to luck. Yet it nevertheless shows that Nintendo are finally willing to push the envelope and allow tracks and characters which aren’t limited to the Mario and Donkey Kong family. The thought of Metroid and Pikmin themed tracks and characters is certainly an interesting one – especially given how tired the current roster is looking. Indeed, a Smash Bros style mash up of disparate styles could be exactly what the series is crying out for instead of Metal and Baby versions of existing characters.
In truth, the only real problem with the game is that it is still Mario Kart underneath it all. Getting turned over on the finish line after a perfect race and coming an undeserved fourth is bearable in splitscreen but just doesn’t translate as well to online play. When a complete stranger has just trounced you due to nothing more than luck it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The law of averages might even things out but it’s not as much fun as commiserating with (or more likely insulting) someone actually sitting next to you. Purists will argue that this is part and parcel of the Mario Kart experience but the fairness of Sonic will therefore always see it nudge just a little further ahead in this arena.
And this is one place where Nintendo haven’t emulated Sega’s mascot nearly as well. There’s no doubting that it’s speedier, more aggressive and more varied than any previous Mario Kart game but it still doesn’t do quite enough to pull ahead of Sonic. That said, it’s practically a photo finish.