You’re lucky I’m even taking the time to write this blog entry. If I had my way I’d be playing Mario Kart 8 right now instead of telling you why you should also be playing Mario Kart 8. Normally I wouldn’t feel like I’d need to tell you how good Mario Kart 8 actually is, but given the international shoulder shrug that has greeted the Wii U I feel like I at least need to tell you that it’s got some pretty great games. Super Mario 3D World is terrific, as are Windwaker HD and Nintendo Land. But at the moment I can think of nothing I’d rather be playing than the newest iteration of Mario Kart.
We’ve all played Mario Kart at some point in the last 20 years, so there’s not a lot of point in telling you about the broad strokes of this, the eighth installment. In spite of varying degrees of quality for the series, it’s been awfully dependable. My favorite is probably Mario Kart 64, though the one I played the most was certainly Double Dash on the Gamecube. I think it might be one of those things like Zelda, where your favorite is the first one you played to death. But Mario Kart 8 is I think the new champion for a few reasons:
- Track selection is terrific. The new tracks are just about flawless across the board. There aren’t any tedious ones that are just big loops, and they are filled with little shortcuts and ramps that aren’t always obvious, and that represent a big risk/reward decision. My favorite is probably Mount Wario, which is just a huge downhill ski slope that doesn’t actually make you do laps as such. The zero-g moments are a little understated, but it’s fun to see people driving above your character’s head, or to turn a corner and realize that you’re seeing everything outside the track upside down. It’s also a cool opportunity to make Mario Circuit into a giant Mobius strip. The classic track selection is mostly solid, but it’s made better by the fact that they’ve integrated a lot of the new mechanics into the old tracks, making them seem less like throwbacks and more like equals. But why on earth did they need to represent Double Dash with Dry Dry Desert? I mean, honestly.
- The item mix is just about perfect. Something I didn’t notice until I played the classic tracks was that there were fewer item drops. There’s Royal Raceway, but half of the item drops are now occupied by the little coins from the very first Mario Kart game on the SNES. If you have 10 of them, they bump up your top speed, so that’s a fun feature. It also means that this is the first time in a while where I don’t think I can depend on the items to bail me out. There’s still a blue shell, but there’s weird airhorn that can actually stop it. Read that part again: there’s a way to combat the blue shell. I also think that big monster items like the blue shell or lightning bolt are rarer, even when you’re at the back of the pack. You’re much more likely to get some combination of shells or banana peels. You also can’t drag an item and carry another one, so it’s preferable to use them instead of saving them. It now feels like the balance has been tilted just a little toward the racing instead of the insanity of an explosion every 20 seconds.
- They’ve removed little irritations. One problem I had with Mario Kart Wii was how you had to essentially learn to drive all over again when you switched between bikes and karts. Now there isn’t any kind of wheelie system like there was on the Wii, and the vehicles have a far more mix-and-match approach that I find really fun. (I believe this was also done on Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS, but I haven’t played that.) It’s a lot smoother to just pick up and drive. This also extends to wrecking and falling off. It’s not that it isn’t damaging to your racer, but it no longer feels like it’s breaking the tempo of the whole game. Flying off the edge isn’t some long animation and the character shouting in despair. Lakitu catches you and sticks you back where you were. It’s a much smoother transition and keeps the game from becoming a process of stops and starts. Not that getting hit by a green shell is any less infuriating, but hopefully you get the idea. The game just feels like it’s moving at a much higher speed
They also had the good sense to not mess with what works. Multiplayer races are still sublime, and the online implementation is solid too. It’s still hard to ping a friend to see if they want to play, but the random matchups worldwide are still great, and setting up a room to play with friends is a snap as well. It’s more a case of an improvement instead of something that is totally perfect.
Some might express dismay that Battle Mode has been heavily deemphasized, but I’m not sure it’s ever worked that well since Mario Kart 64. Either way, it’s never been my preferred way to play. I guess some people are also annoyed that a lot of the characters are either the baby versions of the main ones, or the Koopa kids. Fair point about the baby characters, but that’s been there for a couple of games now. But come on, who doesn’t want to play as Lemmy Koopa? Killjoys, that’s who.
So yeah, Mario Kart 8 is terrific. It’s basically how I want to spend all of my free time, and it’s even something that my son has wanted to play with me. He mostly spends his time driving in circles and seeing that “wrong way” sign, but he doesn’t seem to care. It’s the same basic fun model that Mario Kart has always had, but it’s been polished and concentrated to a point where I honestly think it’s the best Mario Kart ever.