The Wii U’s been out in stores for over a year now, but many will consider this game its first killer app: Mario Kart 8. It’s a franchise that’s held the crown for arcade-style racing for years, and after the massive sales of the last console release, Mario Kart Wii, 8 builds on the formula that made the last game so successful. With new vehicles, tracks, items, and racers, it still maintains the fun, frantic Mario Kart feeling. At 1080p running 60 frames per second, it graphically shows off what the Wii U is really capable of, but does the gameplay live up to the hype? In most cases, yes; Mario Kart 8 is a fantastic follow-up to its predecessors, even though in some places its attempts to innovate fall flat. Even so, it’s sure to inspire the same fun-yet-rage-filled shouting matches between friends the series is known for.
8 has single-player, local multiplayer, and online multiplayer modes; veterans will be happy to know that this version lets up to two players go online from the same console. But choosing a mode is only the beginning; Mario Kart 8 offers more driving customization than any other game in the series. For the controller, 8 offers the Wiimote and Wiimote/nunchuk driving configurations from Mario Kart Wii, as well as the Wii U Gamepad, Classic Controller, and Wii U Pro Controller. Most control schemes allow either use the analog stick or tilt controls to steer, this can be switched in the pause menu. Unfortunately, the mini-map and match standings only appear for the Gamepad player. If the gamepad is used as a second screen, then the minimap and match standings are completely unavailable. Still, it’s great having less clutter on the screen, particularly when taking in some of the tracks beautiful landscapes.
Before driving you’ll need to customize your ride. 8‘s driver selection is huge, including all 7 Koopa Kids, Metal Mario, Baby Daisy, and more. You’ll then choose from one of three vehicle types: the steady and reliable kart-type, the fast and maneuverable bike-type, or the heavy, off-roading ATV-type. You’ll also choose your wheels and sail, both of which affect your vehicle’s traction and acceleration. Hitting the + sign on the controller shows individual stat bars for vehicle performance, but the driving still boils down to the basics: light combos have fast acceleration and low top speeds, while heavy ones have the opposite. Choosing various vehicle parts feels cosmetic sometimes, but that’s for the best; every 50 coins you collect while racing on the track unlocks a new part, and with as many parts as there are to unlock it feels overwhelming to try and craft just the right vehicle for a casual race with friends. Still, there are tons of entertaining and fun body designs and gear, and it’s fun to see the various combinations out on the track.
Speaking of tracks, they’re without a doubt the stars of the game. The 16 new courses designed for Mario Kart 8, as well as the 16 redesigned retro courses, shimmer with fantastic graphics, challenge, and stellar track design. Each track tinkers with gravity a bit, combining the use of gravity sensors and speed ramps to make players glide through the air and stick to walls. Bowser’s Castle is more intimidating than ever as you dodge a giant Bowser statue and glide through fountains of lava, while both Rainbow Roads take color and vibrancy to a new, gorgeous level. It’s also worth noting that the soundtrack is better than its ever been, with mixes of electronica, Middle Eastern, and parade march influences all making their way into the fold. Two highlights of the track list are the Electrodrome and Mount Wario: the Electrodome’s soundtrack changes as players hit different phases of the track and drive over piano keys and synthesizers, while Mount Wario is one giant downhill course, complete with a dam and slalom-style course at the end. Most every track in Mario Kari 8 shows off its own personality and the graphical prowess of the Wii U while keeping the focus on the action, action which stays on the level of the visuals, save a few hiccups.