It’s been a while since Nintendo rolled up their sleeves, stuck their head under the hood and gave the Mario Kart series a much-needed tune up. The last few Mario Karts have added the odd new mode and gradually improved the series’ online component, but the core karting gameplay hasn’t significantly changed since Mario Kart: Double Dash over a decade ago. Aside from perhaps slight differences in course design philosophy Mario Kart DS, 7, Wii and Double Dash are all more or less the same when the rubber (and turtle shells) hit the road.
In terms of modes and features, Mario Kart 8 strips the karting experience to its bare essentials. Basically you have grand prix, time trials and online. Balloon Battle returns, but custom battle arenas have been replaced with futzing around on regular tracks, so honestly it may as well have been excluded. Really, the only new feature is Mario Kart TV, which allows players to share little highlight videos with other Mario Kart 8 owners, or post them directly to YouTube. It’s neat, although a more honest title for the feature might be “Hey, promote Mario Kart 8 for us for free, Nintendo fans!”
So yes, when you boot up the game and shuffle through its menus, a sense of disappointment may creep in. This is all there is? That feeling will quickly evaporate once you start your first race.
This is an all-new, supercharged Mario Kart. The game is absolutely gorgeous — from a technical standpoint it’s far and away Nintendo’s best-looking game ever, and from an aesthetic perspective, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with most of the stuff on the PS4 and Xbox One. The game also sounds great, with Mario Kart’s underappreciated catalog of backing tunes getting the live instrumental treatment. For the first time since the SNES original, Mario Kart feels like a premium, triple-A production.
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.