Mario Kart 8 review: up to speed

Putting a number on the Mario Kart series may have been a mistake. Nothing makes a game franchise feel long in the tooth as a high number at the end. Mario Kart 8 naturally raises the issue of its age, and with it come questions of whether the series is just driving in circles. But while this entry doesn't reinvent the wheel, it shows a playful spirit, refinement, and attention to detail that has been missing in the last few entries.

Hi-Def Karting Hijinks

As in the case of Super Mario 3D World, the most noticeable change is to the cast of characters. Wii U isn’t as powerful as the other consoles, but Nintendo's first HD games are showing how far good art design can carry a presentation. The models are given a soft edge, like vinyl figurines. They’re also much more expressive than ever before, moving their heads and eyes as they pass each other and keeping a watch on items scuttling across the tracks. While that could be shrugged off as a mere convenience of horsepower, the tracks are also much improved. In this area it doesn't come down to art design--though the tracks are nicely animated and colorful--but rather to the track design. The new set of 16 tracks has only a few clunkers among them, and many more instant classics. The anti-gravity concept lets Nintendo toy with perspective and branching routes, but traversing upside-down or sideways never feels disorienting. Even the older tracks are given a new life. In weaker MK entries like Mario Kart Wii, the retro track line-up felt like an admission that the newer ones couldn't stand on their own. Including far better, iconic tracks came off as a make-good for the unpleasant filler of the new ones. Instead, MK8 makes a case for why it included each of the older tracks by giving it a new anti-gravity twist or visual flourish.

Big Changes for Little Weapons

Items, which have decimated many friendships in past games, are slightly more balanced here, but not much. A new Super Horn item serves as a much-needed counter-measure to the dreaded Blue Shell, but it comes up infrequently in any position, and especially first place where it’s really needed. Being in the lead often gets you a coin, which is arguably even more useless than a banana peel. While the items themselves haven’t undergone much change, how you deploy them is much more drastically revised. Items now stay in your queue until they are entirely spent. So, for example, rather than dragging a green shell behind you while you pick up a second item at the next item box, it will stay active even if you’re using it for defense. This significantly changes play and makes the decision of when to deploy an item more strategic. It also makes for a cute animation opportunity, since characters now physically hold onto their items with one hand while irresponsibly steering with the other.

Connected Karting

Online is more robust with the addition of customizable online Tournaments. These ongoing competitions set special conditions, ranging from region to team play and item selection. Connecting and finding a match is a breeze, and the family-friendly Nintendo has made sure to include a series of pre-approved phrases you can say to your racing companions while waiting in the lobby.

Baby Daisy can make for a mean adversary

Social networking is making its first appearance here too, with the addition of MKTV. At the end of every race, the game automatically saves a highlight reel that can be edited within a set of criteria like which character to follow, or whether to emphasize action shots or drifting. You can keep some as your favorites, or check out popular selections from other players.

Conclusion

Although Mario Kart is on its eighth game across 22 years and eight consoles, this entry doesn't feel like it’s content to retread old ground. Instead, it shows how Nintendo can put its experience, even with some dips in quality, to use making a standout game. With the addition of new visual capabilities, stellar track design, and a continued slow march toward modern online functionality, this is the best the series has been since the GameCube era. If Mario Kart 8 is showing its age, it’s a spry octogenarian if I ever saw one. Final Score: 8 out of 10.
This review is based on a downloadable Wii U code provided by the publisher. Mario Kart 8 will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on May 30, for $59.99. The game is rated E.