So, another Nintendo console, another Mario Kart game. For many huge fans of Mario Kart, the wait for the series to appear in HD has been unbearable. And the wait is finally over. Was it worth it? Kind of.
Though other kart racers have come and gone (Crash Team Racing, Diddy Kong Racing, Kirby’s Air Ride, Sonic Drift, etc.), the Mario Kart series has stuck around since 1992. Though other racers may have had better features, more interesting tracks, and have found a way to shake up the formula somewhat, the ‘Mario characters + racing’ has always seemed to come up on top. However, in those 22 years, I’m not sure a Mario Kart game has ever been so thoroughly outclassed by a kart racer available on the same system. I’m of course talking about Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
In fact, that’s Mario Kart 8‘s biggest problem: there’s a more interesting racer you can play on the same system. One of the big new features of Mario Kart 8 is the ‘anti-gravity’ racing. When I initially heard of this, my mind came up with all kinds of crazy ideas, none of which are implemented here. When you hit a blue pad, your wheels fold down and you can now drive on walls or upside down. It sounds great, and it does add a bit more to the tracks, but it feels like there was far too much left on the table. I was excited about having to actually drive with Mario upside down on your screen, and your inputs being switched. This would have added a much needed level of complexity and difficulty to the game. Of course, this wouldn’t have been as accessible to a younger audience, so that’s probably why it was either scrapped or never implemented. When you do go upside down or sideways on the walls, your camera perspective shifts along with you to a large degree, so you never really feel all that disoriented. Some might prefer this, but I was hoping for more.
Another thing I was hoping for was a bit more depth to the air and water game play. It remains the same as Mario Kart 7, which is that in the air you are simply drifting with a parachute, and in the water you’re still driving on the bottom with slightly floatier handling. Contrast that with the actual flying and boating sections of every track in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, and you’re left wondering ‘what if’?
The same goes with the character selection. Yes, we have a huge roster, but the new characters are almost all relegated to baby versions of our heroes, and the Koopa kids. I’ve played every single game Mario has been in that’s available in North America, and the only Koopa name I can remember is Lemmy. I know these characters pop up at the end of worlds in Mario games, but I jump on them three times and then I forget they exist. It would be all right if there were one or two (fan favourites?) but there are seven of them! There are also now 5 babies. Where are Dry Bones, Wiggler, Bee Queen or any other Mario characters that have a bit of personality? In fact, why not make Mario Kart 8 into “Nintendo Kart 8” and include Pikachu, Link and Samus? If they’re willing to fight each other in Super Smash Brothers, I’m sure they’d be happy to spend some time relaxing with a bit of kart racing. That would help with some roster issues and allow you to have quite a bit of fun with some kart designs.
Speaking of kart designs, the kart designs here are well done, and the addition of ATVs is welcome. I don’t tend to use them as I almost never go off-road, but I have heard from others that they quite enjoy using them. The customization is taken straight from Mario Kart 7, and this is competent but perhaps a tad underwhelming. Again, it feels like there could be more there.
A couple of last complaints are the complete lack of battle arenas — a Mario Kart staple for 22 years — and the inability to hold an item while picking up another. The latter is something that will really only be noticed by veterans of the series, but it does make a marked difference to how you play the game. No longer can you hold a button to keep a green shell behind you to defend you, while still picking up items to try and find something better. The former, however, is sorely missed. Battling on tracks becomes more of a jousting affair than anything else, and the hunting and hide and seek of previous games is almost completely lost when you can only battle on full tracks. The battle arenas were always a welcome mix-it-up from racing, and that is mostly gone now.
I’m being nitpicky and harsh because I love the series, and there is quite a lot to love here. If you’re at all a fan of Mario Kart, you’re going to enjoy this update. The tracks, characters and particle effects all look gorgeous, and once again it takes Nintendo to really show you how to use their own systems. It’s likely due in part to the art style, but that doesn’t take away from just how great it looks. In many races in local and online multiplayer I didn’t notice significant slowdowns or lag; it was a fantastic experience and smooth throughout. Oddly enough, it was playing in single player where I experienced the odd drop in frame rates. I can only assume this is due to AI pathing, but I did find it rather odd. Of course this isn’t a game I’ll be playing much in single player after poking through all of the stages.
Thankfully, the online multiplayer works wonderfully well. I had no issues joining lobbies or friends and playing through a number of tracks, building rivalries and occasionally doing the classic 1st to 12th to 3rd that you so often see in Mario Kart matches. Your chatting to strangers online is limited to a number of canned phrases, but truthfully I didn’t really miss it. Most times these days I mute in-game chat in online games and choose to instead chat with my party, unless I’m playing something strategic. Mario Kart is many things, but strategic really isn’t one of them.
The new tracks are quite a lot of fun, but the remixes from classic Mario Kart games are almost better. Nintendo has here decided to add some vertical movement to old stages. My favourite has to be the original Mario Circuit from the very first Mario Kart. It’s an absolute pleasure to see what is to modern eyes a heavily pixelated track rendered in HD with some added elements. (Thanks to www.mariowiki.com for the great screenshot.)
So where does that leave us? It’s difficult to come to a conclusion, other than saying Nintendo played it safe. They are often accused of it, and many times I have found myself defending them, pointing out all of the brand new things you see in games that appear familiar. Here, though? It feels like an HD Mario Kart 7. If that sounds awesome to you, there is a whole lot here to love. If that sounds boring but you’re still looking for a colourful, imaginative racer, look instead to Mario’s arch-rival.
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