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Review: 'Mario Kart 8' defies gravity to become the best 'Mario Kart' yet

Mario Kart 8
Mario Kart 8Photo courtesy of Nintendo, used with permission.

Mario Kart 8 - Nintendo Wii U

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Having started 2014 off with Retro Studio’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Nintendo set the groundwork for what the year would signify Wii U owners. What is that, you ask? Quality fun. By turning to one of the company’s most popular franchises over the last twenty years, Nintendo will be able to further push this philosophy of entertainment with the highly anticipated release of Mario Kart 8 for Nintendo Wii U. Just as Super Mario 3D World took the best attributes of past 3D Mario titles, Mario Kart 8 expands and perfects the series’ core fundamentals while introducing new features to excite players.

With gravity defying karts, cleverly designed tracks, sound online and tournament options, and striking visuals, Mario Kart 8 is the best Mario Kart ever.

Although the antigravity mechanic is the main new addition made to Mario Kart 8, other subtle changes fine-tune the overall experience and in turn help make this the best Mario Kart on the market. Immediately upon starting the game you’ll find that everything is more streamlined with a basic user-interface menu that clearly details the game’s modes and available options. This sense of clarity is further found in vehicle customization and online tournament options.

Just like navigating the menus, the gameplay of Mario Kart 8 is sped up when compared to previous entries. Kart and race speeds feel faster - even on the lower circuits, controls feel tighter, load times between courses take only a few seconds, meanwhile unlocking additional vehicle parts follows collecting 50 coins – which can easily be accomplished during a single-play of a Grand Prix tour, and Lakitu will recover and turnaround your character near to immediately.

What really makes Mario Kart 8 standout from its predecessors is the antigravity kart transformation. This new gameplay idea really expands the awe and wonder that is Mario Kart as it allows the tracks to become more interactive and the races to be more intimate. Bumping nearby racers can give you a speed boost, though if it’s not done at the right angle your opponent will receive the speed increase. It may sound like a simple addition, but gaining a boost off an opponent on the turn is a strategic maneuver that will come in handy in your pursuit of first place.

Antigravity also opens up new possibilities in how the player interacts with the course itself. Retro course Toad’s Turnpike was a fan favorite on the Nintendo 64, but the course has been reworked on Wii U and it demonstrates some of the awesome possibilities that antigravity brings to the Mario Kart franchise. Players were once confined to the road, but you can now ride up along the side wall, launch to your glider, land on a truck and boost off of the roof.

Pretty awesome, right?

As you play the game’s many courses, you will notice and start to feel that the antigravity concept provided the development team freedom and inspiration to create and craft course designs that weren’t possible in other Mario Kart titles as a sense of verticality has been added.

Although antigravity is an exciting gameplay mechanic, the development team doesn’t overuse it or force it on every track. Many of the original tracks found in Mario Kart 8 have an antigravity section – like split paths, shortcuts, or massive vertical U-turns – but retro tracks such as Royal Raceway and Yoshi’s Valley are entirely grounded.

Mario Kart 8 has some of the most creative track designs in the franchise’s long history. One of the highlight courses of Mario Kart 8 is Mount Wario. This course seamlessly incorporates antigravity sectors with traditional kart racing to create one of the best courses ever found in a Mario Kart game.

You can find a gameplay video of Mount Wario here.

There are plenty of modes offered to play in Mario Kart 8. Once finished with the Grand Prix mode, players would be well advised to try their hand at the Time Trial game mode to see how well they stack up against other players. You can search for other players’ times and ghost data, which can then be downloaded and raced against. Competing against the best players and their ghosts creates addictive scenarios as you try to best the top time and boast about your achievement on Miiverse.

Online racing has been a big success for Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 for Nintendo 3DS. Supporting up to 12-players, Mario Kart 8 offers an impressive range of online options, though lacks some important online basics. Joining an online session of Versus, Battle, or tournament is as easy as selecting the game mode. Puzzlingly, Nintendo has opted to restrict voice-chat to lobbies with friends, and there is no available option to invite friends to a worldwide lobby while playing. Though a formal invitation cannot be sent, you can view your friends list and join the match a buddy is playing, if an opening is available.

Additionally, you can create a private friends-only game lobby. In a private lobby you may invite and message friends to join. If you want to play with friends exclusively, it is best to create a private tournament or game lobby and setup a daily/weekly time for all of you to get together.

More disappointingly is how Mario Kart 8 approaches Battle Mode as it is no longer an intense battle in thrilling, restrictive arenas. Essentially, the game mode has been reduced to a standard race with three balloons strapped to a kart as Battle Mode now takes place on standard courses. There is still some fun to have while playing online, but the appealing, hectic and chaotic nature of the mode is now removed.

The Wii U GamePad can be used for Off-TV play, which is always welcome and much appreciated feature. The GamePad also houses the one and only viewable map as there is no map on the TV while playing. Furthermore, those who prefer motion-controller steering can elect to use the GamePad’s gyro controls to control their kart in a race. Those that prefer a Wiimote have that option available in addition to using the Wii U Pro Controller, Wiimote and nunchuck combo, or Wii Classic Controller Pro.

New items have also found their way into Mario Kart 8. The most notable is the super-horn - a rare item that has the power to vanquish the dreaded Blue Shell. That's right; the super-horn can destroy a Blue Shell, allowing you to race unharmed. Of course, getting the super-horn is rather infrequent, but getting it will give you a certain sense of dominance. Another curious change is that players can now only hold one item at any time. In previous entries, a player would be able to hold a banana peel, red/green shell behind them prepped for use and hold onto a secondary item. This is no more. Holding a banana behind you for protection will now take-up your item inventory slot.

Social interactivity may be lacking when it comes to online racing aspect of Mario Kart 8, but the game encourages players to share their racing achievements with others. Mario Kart TV is one of the best new additions found in Mario Kart 8. This in-game application lets players upload and share gameplay clips on Youtube and via Miiverse so that other players may watch and comment. You can share any racing footage you desire, whether it is from an online race, local multiplayer match, or Grand Prix mode. Players may also edit and tweak the focus of the video so it only highlights one particular character or impact shots.

Mario Kart 8 feels like it pushes the genre and franchise forward in a new direction of exciting possibilities. The use of antigravity makes courses fun and exhilarating, while local and online multiplayer will keep players entertained for hours and months to come. There is a great sense of community and social interaction with the use of Miiverse and Mario Kart TV as you showcase your favorite races with other players.

There is no reason to wait any longer. Get a Wii U and buy Mario Kart 8.

Pros:

+ Antigravity gameplay is new and exciting

+ Some of the best visuals available on Wii U

+ Mario Kart TV and online racing

Cons:

- Disappointing Battle Mode

- Lack of basic online features like lobby invites and notification system

(Editor's Note: A digital copy was provided by Nintendo for review purposes.)