Mario Kart 8 Hands-On Impressions
Mario Kart; a series as consistently frustrating as it is addicting. Going strong since 1992, these games have seen action on consoles, handhelds, and even the arcades for quite some time. The Mario series is so expansive and has so many iconic and long-standing characters and locations that it’s not really a surprise to see that Nintendo’s always capable of turning them into a diverse range of playable characters and tracks, but it’s still so delightful to see these ideas captured in motion. Mario Kart 8 is, from everything I’ve seen, the strongest example of this so far in the series.
I recently had the pleasure of going to Nintendo’s “Mario Kart 8 Test Drive” event at GameStop! A lot of people were there at first but after the first couple hours most of them left, so I had about 2 hours to explore all the content in the demo while talking to my local Nintendo representative. There were 8 tracks available and I played each of them several times and tried out most of the playable characters (I at least made it a priority to pick one from each weight class) and kart options.
It reminded me of my childhood.
The first thing I noticed was just how incredible the new tracks are. Maybe this is the case in every Mario Kart, but the HD graphics and unique themes make everything pop out so much more than before. Mario Kart Stadium seems to be this game’s introductory track, but it’s got a very cool aesthetic and is fun to play. You’re in the middle of a nighttime city with a huge crowd watching you, helicopters going around, lights shining into the sky… it makes previous beginning courses like Luigi Circuit look very underwhelming. On top of looking pretty it does a solid job of introducing two major mechanics, the zero-gravity (more on that soon) and hang-gliding segments. Seriously, this track left a very good first impression, and I went back and tried it several times just because it was so fun, something I very rarely did for the first track in previous installments.
I got to try 7 other tracks and they all left an impression in different ways. Sweet Sweet Canyon has a very fun design and won’t hesitate to punish you if you haven’t mastered your drifting, while Electrodome’s awesome neon-lit nightclub theme is just a pleasure to look at or race on. All of the tracks have so much personality in them that it becomes hard to pick a favorite. I wasn’t able to hear much of the music, but I’ve heard nothing but positive comments about it and I did catch a bit of an excellent Gusty Garden remix on the Cloudtop Cruise course. I really have a feeling that this game’s tracks will make for some of the most memorable and atmospheric ones we’ve seen in the series to date.
The character roster leaves a bit to be desired. The Koopalings are cool, but the only other newcomers are lame recolors like Pink Gold Peach and Baby Rosalina. This wouldn’t be so bad if series staples like Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr., Birdo, Dry Bones, and King Boo weren’t given the boot. At the end of the day character selection in a kart racer may not matter that much, but it is a little disappointing that so many fan-favorites aren’t going to make the cut. However, going by Nintendo’s character DLC in Mario Golf: World Tour, I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question for this game either, and my Nintendo rep told me I could very well be right. That said, the characters in this game are more detailed and full of personality than ever before. There are so many cute little animations that weren’t in previous games; characters’ reactions to being passed up or being struck by a shell are so cartoony and lively that it’s hard not to find yourself smiling as you see them.
These animations are especially noticeable in this game’s new and ultra-dynamic replay mode! At the end of each race played a mash-up of highlights from the race I had just completed, with awesome camera angles and slow-motion effects making every moment pop. The boost I got that decided my victory, the messed-up turn that cost me 1st place, the moment I was struck by a blue shell and screwed out of a victory, they’re all made to look so cool and exciting in these replays, and I’ve heard there’s a bit of customization and editing involved in the final product that will elaborate on these even further. Every race I played I found myself watching the replay afterward to see the deciding moments in stunning detail.
And “stunning detail” doesn’t begin to describe this game’s graphics. Arguably one of the best-looking games Nintendo’s ever put out, every character and track is made with such detail and color that it’s hard to look away. I began playing in four-player races where the game definitely looks good, but eventually I got to play by myself in full-screen 60fps, where things were taken to the next level. Everything is so characterized and fun to look at! It’s such a step up that in a way it’s difficult to go back to older games in the series like Mario Kart Wii because it’s just such a bland-looking game in comparison. Mario Kart has always obviously had a lot of personality, but the HD graphics make everything pop in a way that’s so fresh and new!
Mario Kart 7's hang-gliding and underwater segments are BACK!
The racing has been adjusted to what is, in my opinion, the best in the series by far. Items have been balanced! Blue Shells are so rare now that I only saw a handful the entire time I was playing or watching, and even then the time you’re stunned by them has been decreased greatly and the new Super Horn item allows you to shatter them before they can hit you. Other new items are totally fun and very effective, like the Piranha Plant that lunges forward and protects you from shells, or the Boomerang Flower that you can use three times and hits opponents on the way back as well. You can’t stockpile items in first place anymore, so you have to be more clever when it comes to defending your position. Coins from Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 7 return, and while I found myself getting an unhealthy amount of them when I was in 1st place, they’re still a cool mechanic that add at least a little bit of depth. Overall, it’ll still happen, but it doesn’t feel like items are the deciding factor of the race quite as often anymore. It’s more about making good use of what you’re given than just relying on certain items to do all the work for you.
The big addition to the racing is the zero-gravity mechanic, which works… interestingly, at least. It won’t blow you away after the first couple times, but you do definitely need to make some adjustments to your tactics to stay ahead during these segments. Bumping into enemies propels you both forward, which is in a way difficult to get used to, but also means you have to make some tough judgments and be careful not to let others around you take advantage of you. It definitely takes some on-the-fly thinking. Other notable changes include Lakitu saving you from falls much more quickly (but at the cost of some of your coins) and bikes no longer being able to perform wheelies, meaning they’re on a much more even ground with the cars. Their drifting still works differently though, so you may want to change your choice of vehicle depending on what course you’re about to race on. You’re also able to customize your wheels and glider just like in Mario Kart 7, so you have a lot of options at your disposal.
I think I’ve touched on just about everything noteworthy from my time with the game. I’ve heard complaints about certain things, but I wouldn’t know any of it from my demo. Gorgeous graphics, the tightest racing the series has seen, and memorable tracks with creative designs… there’s really not much else to ask for from this kind of game! But of course there are elements that I didn’t get to try out. I don’t know about online mode, battle mode, or the unlocking system, all of which could be make-or-break for some players, so I’m as eager as you all to see how these areas turn out. Look back after the game’s release for our Mario Kart 8 review.
Categories: Previews, Wii U