The Mario Kart franchise holds a special place in my heart, as it does for most gamers, because of the magical way this game brings people together. From after-school N64 races in grade school to drunken Mario Kart Wii parties in college, these games are the pinnacle of multiplayer fun in my opinion. Mario Kart 8 continues this streak of quality party-game goodness, while also managing to upgrade the single player experience into something that really increases the overall value of the franchise.
From the start, everything screams "MARIO KART, BUT SEXIER". The variety of kart customization options, the gravity-defying courses, the graphics that actually show off what the Wii U is capable of. This game is polished, well designed and built to be explored again and again. It takes the best parts of what made each previous installment work, and mixes them together into the perfect package.
A month in and I STILL haven't gotten to try every possible combination of karts, parts and riders. Even so, it doesn't take long for you to find a combination that suits your play style. ATV's join karts and bikes as a vehicle type, with a wealth of different wheels and gliders available to help you traverse many different environments. The size/weight of the driver you choose plays into these factors as well. Once you've chosen your ideal set-up, it's time to jump into the courses.
Mario Kart tradition at this point seems to dictate that every game will include an even mix of old and new courses. The new ones feature some dazzling new course designs that play into previously seen themes: courses based off individual characters, a "Bowser's Castle" level, a haunted house and so on. Still, even when Nintendo hits familiar beats, they manage to present them in a way that makes them seem brand new. In particular, Toad Harbor and Mount Wario stood out as my favorite of the new tracks. While some could claim that the 16 old-school courses are short-changing the customer on new gameplay, the way in which the old courses have been updated nullify any complaints. The anti-gravity and gliding aspects have been inserted into these old tracks in a way that compliment their original design. Some of the updates surpass the originals by leaps and bounds, with Yoshi's Valley being my pick for the best retro course overall.
The controls handle very smoothly, although the emphasis on drifting has never been stronger. Veterans will be able to jump right in, but newer players might be overwhelmed by the amount of precession it takes to finish in a top spot on some of these tracks. Being the best driver doesn't always mean you'll be placing first, as every race can easily be upturned by the use of a well-timed item. The availble items are mostly the same, but a few classics such as the Decoy Item Box have been scrapped in favor of newer weapons like The Piranha Plant, an item that gives you a few bursts of speed while also attacking fellow racers. Perhaps the biggest addition to the item line up is the Super Horn, an item that emits a shock wave that cancels the effects of any incoming projectile, including the infamous Blue Shell. Mario Kart 8 requires a careful combination of item usage and driving skill, but once you find that balance, you'll quickly become a force to be reckoned with.
The online options that have been slowly becoming more standard with Nintendo titles also gets a big overhaul here. Sadly, this gamers WiFi router was deemed inadequate by a Nintendo Support Rep, so I have not yet gotten to dive into the online features of this game. Oh well, that's life. That roadblock aside, I hardly mind the lack of online play when the local multiplayer is just as fun. Up to 4 players can get in on a race, and it's just as enthrlalling as it's always been. The one big issue I have here is how the battle mode has been completely changed for the worse. Gone are the uniquely designed battle arenas, replaced instead with modified versions of each track that you race around and attempt to eliminate your competition in. I sincerely hope Nintendo has plans for some kind of DLC, because I'd kill for a updated version of the N64 Block City arena!
Mario Kart 8 is the killer app the Wii U has needed, and I'm glad it came along when it did. My Wii U was basically becoming a Netflix machine, but now I can barely put the gamepad down. Despite a few hiccups, Mario Kart 8 is "excellence of execution", and it's a title I know I'll be playing for some time to come. 4.5/5.