The Wii U is in rather dire straits, and there's been little worth playing since the wonderful Super Mario 3D World. To slow the console's decline, Nintendo plans to trot out more of its classic franchises one by one—and Mario Kart 8 is its biggest release for the foreseeable future.
While unsurprisingly familiar, the faithful party favourite delivers with some of the series' best tracks to date and a lot of flash and fun for good measure.
Mario Kart 8 essentially combines the biggest tweaks from the last two very good (but not amazing) Wii and Nintendo 3DS entries by including customizable bikes and karts alike, plus underwater driving and aerial gliding moments. And then it adds wild looping terrain and wall driving, thanks to new anti-gravity segments and transforming rides.
While all of these represent nudges away from the very straightforward weapons-centric racing template, the end result feels like a quite strong culmination of the last decade or so of Mario Kart games—and weirdly, the freshest the series has felt since Double Dash on GameCube.
Surely Nintendo's run out of fresh locales for racetracks by now, right? Not quite, thankfully: Mario Kart 8 features a diverse array of new courses, and the looping, physics-taunting designs are really something.
Electrodrome spins and shimmers like a mirror ball, while Sweet Sweet Canyon's glossy taffy roads are a treat—even if it looks like it was yanked out of Disney's Wreck-It Ralph. Eight games deep into the series, the 16 original tracks here comprise perhaps the most diverse set to date, and as always, it culminates in a rather fun new incarnation of Rainbow Road.
Considering the new mechanics in play here, it's great to see that Nintendo didn't simply port over the older included courses. The 16 classic tracks from the earlier games—which bring the total count to 32—have been nicely reimagined to fit in well with the newer gameplay elements.
I especially love how the older 16-bit era tracks maintain the familiar color scheme and blocky barriers while adding some verticality via the anti-gravity mechanic. That said, while I welcome the effort to overhaul a track such as Toad's Turnpike from Mario Kart 64, the new version lacks the challenge that defined the original. In that case, especially, it feels more like a watered-down homage than a revival.
As ever, Mario Kart 8 is at its best in multiplayer, and you can hop online for frantic 12-player showdowns, or jump into the classic local four-player split-screen battles. You can even merge the two, with two local players and another 10 waiting to pummel you both over the interweb.
Single-player remains a rather straightforward and unexciting affair, however. It's a good way to get familiar with the tracks and quickly unlock characters and kart customization pieces, but some sort of campaign or array of challenges would have been appreciated—as in the great Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Sure, the Wii U lacks the power to render thousands of individual facial pores on an angry, hyper-realistic soldier, but system horsepower be damned: Mario Kart 8 looks downright spectacular. The glossy, cartoonish aesthetic is vibrant and fantastic, and it moves fluidly throughout.
It may not be pushing polygons the way games on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 can, but neither company is pumping out charming art design like this—and it's their loss. Mario Kart 8's vivid graphics are a surprising highlight. Forget realism: this might be the best-looking game on the Wii U, and it's one of the most attractive games on any platform of late.
Mario Kart 8 verdict
Nintendo says it plans to push the GamePad more as a defining feature of Wii U games, and frankly, Mario Kart 8 doesn't do much interesting there—nor does it mess with the usual play modes and cup-based structure we've experienced time and again. It's Mario Kart. We all know it well.
And yet it feels refreshed and exuberant. The twisty new courses are delights, the revised older courses are mostly stellar as well, and even the cheery soundtrack helps bring a grin to your face as you fling shells at rivals. Mario Kart 8 may not be the Wii U's singlehanded savior; it's not quite new and exciting enough to buy a system for. But if you already have the console, consider this essential.