The game’s new anti-gravity mechanic doesn’t radically alter the way Mario Kart plays, but then it’s not supposed it. Mario Kart’s core gameplay has never really changed and it probably never will, but Mario Kart 8 takes that core and makes it more exciting, fast and fun. Sure, being able to drive on the walls and ceiling gives Nintendo more options for packing tracks with shortcuts, but for the most part this is just Nintendo showing off, and hey, consider me impressed. There’s something undeniably thrilling about having a course twist around you until the castle you just drove past is now looming over your head. You don’t see Nintendo engaging in this kind of spectacle for the sake of spectacle often, but when they do, they do it well.
Of course all the spectacle in the world wouldn’t matter if Mario Kart 8 didn’t play well, and it most certainly does. This is the fastest, most tightly controlled Mario Kart by a wide margin. Mario Kart 8’s 50cc mode puts 150cc mode in most past games in the series to shame, and it’s 150cc mode is kind of insane.
The game’s 16 new tracks are uniformly brilliant. Beautiful, varied and packed with secrets without going over the top. Some recent Mario Karts (Mario Kart 7 in particular) have gone overboard, throwing so many elements into their courses that they cease to feel like proper racetracks — Mario Kart 8 can be mind-bending, but it also knows when to restrain itself.
At least half of Mario Kart 8’s new courses are serious contenders for the top 10 best Mario Kart tracks of all time, and none of them are any less than great. The game’s selection of 16 classic tracks falls just a bit short of the new ones — seeing classics like Donut Plains and Toad’s Turnpike in HD is great, but there’s a couple B-sides like Dry Dry Desert and Grumble Volcano mixed in. These are still good tracks (particularly with the tweaks Nintendo has given them), but they stick out a little amongst the great to amazing courses that otherwise populate the game.
Most developers today are preoccupied with packing their games with exciting, revolutionary features, but with Mario Kart 8 Nintendo ignores the back of the box bullet points in favor of the gameplay found within. Mario Kart 8 isn’t just a great racing game, it’s one of the most polished, rousing gaming experiences I’ve had in some time. Nintendo has been stuck in a bit of a Sunday driving stupor lately, but Mario Kart 8 just may signal they’re ready to rejoin the race.