If, like me, you are an unrepentant Nintendo fanboy, it might be best if you don’t play Mario Kart 8. If you care about Nintendo, it will just leave you with a mounting sense of frustration. Because it manages simultaneously to embody everything that made Nintendo great and everything that is currently wrong with the giant Japanese publisher. You could even argue that it’s too good: if Nintendo had sacrificed a bit of its quality to get it into the shops 18 months ago, Nintendo fans, at least, would have had one irresistible reason to buy a Wii U. But then, Nintendo has always refused to compromise.
Mario Kart 8, certainly, shows not even the slightest trace of the minutest compromise. The first thing that strikes you about it is how good it looks: sure, it has that familiar, cutesy art-style but, this time around, there’s a stunning crispness and clarity to its graphics. There are even textures: concrete, for example, looks like concrete, and sand behaves as it would in real life. Mario Kart 8 is not just the best-looking Wii U game ever; it looks better than anyone would have thought possible on the Wii U.
Throwing off the shackles of gravity
Major new versions of Mario Kart generally have a new mechanic, and Mario Kart 8’s is anti-gravity: you can carry on driving along beyond-vertical areas of track which, in real life, you would fall off. Once you go beyond the vertical, your kart or bike’s wheels rotate through 90 degrees to become some sort of magnetic hover-motors. Most of the bells and whistles added in previous iterations are retained, too: as in Mario Kart 7, you can drive under water and glide thanks to wing attachments at the back of your vehicle. It’s striking how well all those features above and beyond the original Mario Kart blueprint gel together, though. The anti-gravity idea opens up, for example, what were previously just walls as short-cuts, and the tracks have never been swoopier.
Mario Kart 8 has 32 tracks, the vast majority of which are extensively remixed versions of tracks from Mario Karts of yore and as such, they feel familiar, but thanks to the new features, they also possess a freshness. And the graphical quality, plus ramped-up resolution, mean that you have to attack them with more precision than ever. The Wii U Gamepad’s big right-hand bumper works beautifully as a means of executing those all-important corner-drifts, and you can play through the game on the Gamepad’s screen (or switch it to a circuit map), but otherwise, there are no concessions to the Wii U’s unique attributes.
Online, Mario Kart 8 works beautifully – it’s admirably fuss-free. You can choose between global or regional opponents, or easily set up races with specific mates. The Global setting is great, because you get to see where your opponents are from, adding a bit of national one-upmanship to the mix. And you can show off further by unlocking obscure characters, like Pink Gold Peach. Everyone starts off with 1,000 points online, which are added to or subtracted from according to whether you finish in the top three or below. The familiar Time Trial, Vs Race (which lets you set up custom tournaments with consummate ease) and Battle modes are present and correct.
Still fierce, but slightly less so
Gameplay-wise, Mario Kart 8 still packs a fierce punch entirely at odds with its kid-friendly appearance. As it incorporates more or less all the power-ups developed over the years – along with some new ones – you can still be reduced from sailing along blissfully in the lead to being hit by barrages of shells and banana-skins, knocking you back to, say, eighth place, in the blink of an eye. Those pesky blue shells still feature, although perhaps less frequently in the past (we have never seen more than two launched in a single race).
It is noticeably more forgiving if you fall off the track, though: the cloud-based pick-up truck arrives much quicker than in the past. And one of the new power-ups is a handy defensive device: a large horn, which releases a shock-wave that will destroy incoming shells if you time right. You can also get Piranha Flowers that latch onto your kart and chomp obstacles and opponents alike.
Make your own highlights reel
The final innovation is Mario Kart TV, a surprisingly sophisticated editor, which lets you create highlights reels of the best moments of your races. Improbably, Mario Kart 8 brings Gran Turismo to mind, as its highlights mode operates in super-high-res. Most of us will be content with the automatically generated highlights, but power users can post their proudest moments to the Miiverse.
All of the obsessive (and unfortunately time-consuming) work that Nintendo has put into Mario Kart 8 shows from the moment you boot it up. More than ever before, it nails the videogames Holy Grail of being easy to learn and difficult to master, and it is breathtakingly polished and incredibly well-balanced. As well as brutal in its intensity, especially when you take on humans online, or the pumped-up AI when you opt to drive the fastest 150cc karts.
It will win awards, and deservedly so. But it’s such a shame that the platform for which it was designed, the Wii U, has so signally failed to capture the public imagination. Committed Nintendo-lovers might just finally take the Wii U plunge in order to play it, and will be mightily glad that they did. But you have to wonder whether it’s enough to tempt the less committed gamers – unless Nintendo finally swallows its pride and drops the Wii U’s price.