Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) Review

We're smack dab in the middle of E3 week, but that isn't stopping SuperPhillip Central from reviewing some big games! Our second review of the month is the much anticipated Wii U racer, Mario Kart 8! Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Gravity Schmavity!


Since 1992, Mario and the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom have raced against one another through tracks of all shapes, sizes, and complexities. Now, after seven prior installments, Mario Kart 8 takes the franchise into uncharted territory-- anti-gravity. Is racing upside-down, alongside walls, and every which way all it is cracked up to be, or is it an unnecessary gimmick that does nothing to further the series?

The biggest and most obvious addition to this installment of Mario Kart is how the tracks feature an abundance of anti-gravity sections. Tracks now twist and turn through the air, drivers can race on specially marked walls, and it can very common to wonder which way is up or see the entire environment upside-down! The camera stays on top of your racer, so there's no need to worry about the camera showing a confusing view of your racer or having your controls become impaired due to a shift in perspective. The sections themselves aren't just for show either, albeit them being decidedly awesome to race on. When two vehicles bump into one another while in anti-gravity, both get a boost of speed as they unleash a flashy spin maneuver in the process.

I sure hope Mario took his
motion sickness pills!
The sixteen new tracks aren't the only ones which feature anti-gravity sections. No, the majority of the sixteen retro tracks, returning courses from past Mario Kart games, include various anti-grav enhancements, as well as underwater and gliding portions that were introduced in Mario Kart 7. Most of the retro tracks actually almost feel brand-new in how much they have been altered, and none feel shoehorned in or forced. Whether you're soaring and gliding past rotating gears in the much improved Mario Kart DS track Tick Tock Clock, driving vertically on the wall of Mario Kart 64's Toad Turnpike, or speed through the partially submerged ending section of Mario Kart: Double Dash's Dry Dry Desert, each retro track gets a breath of fresh air added to it.

A returning track from Mario Kart 64,
this is the lovely Royal Raceway.
It is extremely common for me to find a track or two in a Mario Kart game that I do not enjoy racing on. It's especially common since Mario Kart DS introduced retro tracks, doubling the amount of total tracks in the game to 32. With Mario Kart 8 I can safely say that all 32 tracks are highly enjoyable. There really isn't one that I dislike. In fact, many of them are now favorites of mine from any Mario Kart ever. The design is just impeccable for each track. Some favorites include racing from the summit of Mount Wario, driving down the icy paths before entering a cavern, driving sideways across a dam, speeding through a coniferous forest, and finally racing through slalom gates towards the finish line.

Lakitu is never too busy in a race
to say hello to his mom in the stands.
Then there's the San Francisco-inspired Toad Harbor, a perfectly designed city course full of trolleys and places to trick off of. Then again, I'm a sucker for city-themed courses! How about the incredible new version of Bowser's Castle where you need to choose the right path with the right timing to take so a giant molten rock Bowser statue doesn't slam its massive fist into you? I can't forget Sunshine Airport, where you glide under the takeoff a gigantic plane! It's absolutely amazing how well each track is designed and how many unforgettable moments and novelties there are to be found.

Toad Harbor is such an inviting place.
I wonder how much condos go for there...
Grand Prix mode is the main attraction for offline play. For the first time since Mario Kart: Double Dash, multiple players can participate rather than the mode being exclusive to solo players only. In addition to this nice and most welcome change of pace, star rankings, how the Mario Kart series scores your skill level in a given cup, are now determined by how many overall points you've earned instead of being tied to time and other miscellaneous and nebulous factors. Getting a perfect 60 points, that is, winning all four races of a cup, nets you the perfect three star rating. Doing this in all eight cups of all four difficulties is no easy task even with this requirement alteration, as the AI can be rather vicious.

Cloudtop Cruise is surely not a pleasure cruise.
Rosalina has gotta earn this victory!
Thankfully, though, the item balance of Mario Kart 8 has been made for the better to make cups feel fairer and slightly less aggravating. No longer will you see three blue shells in one race. Heck, you might not even see a blue shell in a race at all, and you'll rarely see a blue shell twice in the same race. That said, there's still some problems to be found in Mario Kart 8's distribution of items. For one, first place often gets a coin item. This item when used gives the player two coins. However, when you're up in the lead, you'd like to have some insurance from things like red shells, so it can be frustrating trying to hold your place and getting no help from the game due to always getting coins instead of something that could defend attacks from players in places behind you.

More coins... Just what I always wanted...
The item rules have been altered a little in Mario Kart 8. In past games you could hold an item behind you, and then pick up another item in the process. In Mario Kart 8, you can only possess one item at a time, regardless of whether or not it is held behind you.

In addition to these new item rules, Mario Kart 8 throws in three new items into the mix. The Boomerang Flower allows the item receiver to chuck a boomerang forward or behind them, having it spin, hopefully hit any opponent in its path, before returning to the user who can throw it two more times. The next new item is the Piranha Plant, offering the user an offensive item that chomps any nearby drivers, also giving the user a small burst of speed in the process. Finally, the Super 8 item is very similar to the Lucky 7 item from Mario Kart 7. It's just that instead of seven items circling the user, eight items do. The new items are great inclusions to the lineup, and they don't feel overpowered or obnoxious at all.

These items aren't just used in traditional races either. The series's long-running Battle Mode returns in Mario Kart 8 but with a significant twist. Instead of specially made battle arenas like those seen in past Mario Kart games, in Mario Kart 8, item wars are waged on entire tracks. The eight chosen tracks have plenty of space and room for 12 players to unleash unbridled havoc upon one another with. It's a big change to the Battle Mode formula. Either you like it or hate it, but we're in the camp that absolutely adores it.

You must be very proud to beat
up on a baby, Koopa Troopa.
Mario Kart 8 includes a plethora of kart customization options, allowing players to choose a body (whether it be a kart, bike, or ATV), a set of wheels, and a glider, in order to get a finely tuned vehicle that suits their play style. Whether you prefer great speed over sufficient handling, good acceleration over a heavyweight vehicle, each vehicle piece influences one of five unique stats for each vehicle combination. As coins are collected in races-- these also give players a higher maximum speed and a brief boost upon getting a coin-- new vehicle bodies, wheels, and gliders are unlocked. From karts in the shape of a Wiggler, to ultra sporty bikes that make even Toad look like a bad ass riding them, there's a grand amount of things to unlock which will offer a lot of customization options, moreso than Mario Kart 7.

Pick your vehicle, set of wheels, and
glider to suit your play style best.
In addition to vehicle parts, an addition to the character roster can be unlocked too. What is required to randomly unlock a given character is to complete a cup in first place. However, you can't simply win the 50 cc Mushroom cup over and over to easily unlock the entire roster. The most notable new roster additions include the Koopalings, playable for the first time in any game. However, the lack of veterans like Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr., and Birdo is incredibly glaring as an omission, especially when the roster has a metal version of Peach thrown in. This is without question a throwaway character which serves no purpose and has no business even being in the game other than to pad the roster size. Here's hoping some downloadable characters will be offered in the near future.

Roy is but one of the seven Koopalings
Mario Kart 8 players can race as.
By far the bullet point of Mario Kart 8 that will get the most entertainment and game time from players is what is offered for online play. Races are smooth, available for up to 12 players, and it's an incredibly fast and frenetic feeling of action that takes place online. Oh, and those days of players always picking the same track over and over again? Long gone. At the start of each racing round, players choose from a selection of tracks to race on, ensuring that one track will not have more playtime than any other online.

There's also online functionality in the form of Mario Kart TV. This simple highlight tool allows players to upload and share short clips from a past race to YouTube. While this is very limited in scope, only offering options such as which characters and what kind of action to focus on, it's still nice to be able to show the world those unforgettable and seemingly impossible moments that happen in races. Now you can have proof that they happened instead of hearsay!

Despite being a new vehicle type,
there's but a couple of ATV bodies in MK8.
In the presentation department, Mario Kart 8 absolutely astounds, showing that the Wii U is more than capable of producing high quality visuals that do more than just impress. Tracks come to life with so much to glance and gaze at, characters have a slew of animations, and little things like a racer staring up at an approaching blue shell or a character giving a stern look to the player he or she just passed by further hit home the amount of polish and level of detail Mario Kart 8 possesses. I haven't even gotten to the lighting effects, which are drop-dead gorgeous. The Wii U can definitely unleash some graphical intensity for sure!

Now you're just showing off, Mario.
Additionally, Mario Kart 8 has one of the greatest soundtracks in any kart racer. Performed mostly by real life instruments, Mario Kart 8's music is a mix of rock, jazz, and awesomeness. Sure, that last one isn't a musical genre, but it fits this game soundtrack to a "T."

Mario Kart 8 is one of the best entries in the long-running racing series to date. It just doesn't stand near the top of the heap of Mario Kart games, it actually races with the leaders of the genre. With extraordinary and imaginative track design, stellar and tight racing controls (whether it's with the Wii U GamePad, Wii Remote and Nunchuk, Wii Remote by itself, Wii U Pro Controller, or whatever else), and fantastic online play, Mario Kart 8 delivers a must-play experience for anyone with the need for speed and the desire to race upside-down, sideways, diagonally, and any other way you can think of.

[SPC Says: 9.5/10]

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