There is something wonderfully familiar about Mario Kart 8. It's a game that will satisfy fans of any generation of the franchise, yet it still manages to add enough new elements to make it a real step up for kart games in general, let alone those featuring moustachioed plumbers.
It's just a shame it's come about a year too late to reverse the fortunes of Nintendo's Wii U console. Ho well…
The first thing that strikes you about the game, from the opening menus and sequences to the races themselves, is just how good it looks. We've been impressed with Nintendo's legacy titles for the Wii U in the last few months, with Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze looking sumptuous in their HD splendour.
Mario Kart 8 trumps both, most likely because it moves more quickly and offers a better illustration of how capable the Wii U can be at ensuring action runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. Admittedly, it's been proven that it has to drop to 720p rather than 1080p to maintain the frame rate, but so do many Xbox One titles. When a game's playfield looks as good as this, what's an extra pixel or few between friends?
It's certainly colourful and crisp enough, and the track designs make use of the extra graphical processing power of the console. Regular Mario Kart players will see this more than most: the tracks have all made a thematic appearance before on other systems, in typical Nintendo style, but now you can wonder at elements never seen before.
The frame rate drops in local multiplayer, as more needs to be fitted on screen, but if you're spending time looking to see how smoothly your corner of the screen is moving, you're not really taking notice of the most important thing: the racing itself.
As is traditional, there are eight cup tournaments to conquer in single-player mode, with three classes of kart to play them with - something that's been present from the very first game on the SNES console all those years ago.
The top tier of events are based on classic tracks and the second tier are literally remakes of raceways that have appeared across other platforms in the past. They have all been altered in some way though as flying and underwater sections have been added to a home console version for the first time. They appeared in Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS and are more than welcome here.
In addition, Mario Kart 8 adds anti-gravity abilities to the mix, where the wheels of a kart of bike are changed into electric-powered hover pads and can therefore stick to tracks that appear on the ceiling, walls or run loop-the-loop style.
Sometimes during play you don't even notice, as the track is just unfurling ahead regardless of your orientation to the screen. But some tracks offer shortcuts or special areas that appear vertical to the main road, and it is fun to try and find alternative routes to the norm.
A huge cast of characters are available to play as and against, with many locked at the beginning of the game. However, it doesn't take much play to unlock them. Same too with vehicles, their wheel types and the flying mechanisms, each of which provide different benefits to speed, acceleration, grip and so forth.
You'll want to play through the single player modes as much as possible to ensure you collect them all, because then they will be available to all players for great local fun.
Local multiplayer in Mario Kart 8 is as fun as it was on the earlier Wii console. Indeed, it is similar. The Wiimotes can still be used solo or with steering wheel attachments, and the Wii U GamePad can double as a motion-controlled steering wheel too. Sadly, you can't play a game on the Wii U GamePad controller's built-in screen while your friends are playing on the TV, which seems odd, but it doesn't hamper the fun.
Online multiplayer is fairly basic, although 12 player races are great fun. Perhaps its biggest issue is that, unlike with other devices and platforms, Nintendo has strict family-centric rules about playing online games. And because of that, there is little interaction with your fellow gamers. You can only chat in lobbies and with friends, rather than during the game.
Mario Kart has always been a vocal experience, but considering some of our local multiplayer sessions and the fruity language that can be heard when a blue shell appears just as one of us was about to cross the finishing line, it's understandable.
Less so is the lack of any way to invite friends to a race online. All karts will be filled by random strangers, and while fun it feels incomplete.
But that's by the by really. While we love playing racing games against other human opponents, we can get more than enough of that in our own living rooms. And that's what has always elevated Mario Kart games above rivals. Yeah, it's good to know that the racer you've just spanked with a red shell is a seething living being, but it's better if you can nudge their elbow and laugh in their face too.
This applies to Battle mode too, but unlike with the original and great experience on the first Super Mario Kart in the early 90s, it does feel a little tacked-on this time around. Gone are arenas and instead you just race the same tracks but with balloons tied to your vehicle. Lose your balloons through hits and you're out of the race. To be honest, just about every other mode is more involving.
Nintendo has added a couple of other features to perhaps make up for some of the minor disappointments, such as stickers to post in Miiverse and YouTube uploading of highlight reels, but they aren't really necessary. The gameplay more than makes up for any foibles.
So that's Mario Kart 8 in a nutshell (or is that tortoise shell?): a gorgeous looking, incredibly fun racing game that lives up to its 20-plus years of heritage. It is almost as great in simple single-player mode as it is when you've got mates around to share the fun.
It retains that "just one more go" aspect that has made the series great many times in the past, and the characters these days are so diverse that you'll feel the compulsion to complete every track with every avatar and every vehicle combination.
It is a star game from Nintendo at a time when people are forgetting what it does best. Sadly, it is not enough to save the Wii U from becoming a side-note in the history of gaming, but it is a must purchase for the few of us out there that love our outcast machines.
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