Mario Kart 8

Around the Bend with Mario Kart 8

Mario’s worn quite a few hats throughout his career: Hero, plumber, doctor, partier, and seemingly everything in between, but it’s on racetrack that’s got his motor running for this spring. Debuting in high definition in all his finest, Mario looks to be fine-tuning his latest racing crash course with May 30th’s Mario Kart 8 and it’s promised nothing but fun in recent weeks. Trying my hand at the game’s hands-on demo, Mario Kart looks finer than ever in more ways than just a new paint job.

It’s on that note that Mario Kart 8 spares no expense as what’s easily the series’ best looking entry to date. Making the most out of the Wii U’s graphical capabilities that’s been seen thus far, Mario and friends drive on, around, and under what can be described as the most inviting and polished tracks the series has achieved. Driving through a selection of eight tracks, the game is simply a joy to gaze at. By day or by night (neither is cycled), each course is beautifully lit with a wonderful degree of texture and design. Whether it’s the game’s glittering water basins or brilliant neon, Mario Kart once again highlights the best in art and visual acuity, from the tangible depth of its green pastures to the way drivers’ parasails now blow in the breeze. High quality karts and character models compliment the scenery in tune to the game’s lively big band jazz melodies with all but the closest of inspections revealing a grain or two out of place.

Better still, the game runs like a dream. Outputting in 60 frames per second in single-player rather than its 30 fps in 3-4 player matches, there’s no noticeable lag or frame-rate drop to speak of amidst Mario Kart 8‘s smooth-sailing.

Mario Kart StadiumWhat Mario Kart 8 delivers in driving meanwhile it does so in spades. Akin to its company’s motto, the game offers more ways to play than ever, allowing for the gamepad, pro-controller, Wii-motes, and classic controllers. Though the two former mentions were the only available at my particular game kiosk, both controlled splendidly with each of their own strengths. As the default controller for menu selection and single-player racing, the Wii U’s gamepad is used sparingly but practically. Shying away from any real racing touch-screen functions beyond honking your horn, it mostly devotes itself to the device’s optional tilt-controls, granting you full motion-control over your chosen vehicle.

This works perfectly with turning tight corners akin to Mario Kart’s age-old Wii-wheels, maybe better, and it’s difficult going back by comparison to the very functional yet less immersive control sticks and D-pad. Wii-motes meanwhile feature no title-controls, but instead offer just as much navigability nunchuck in hand or without, and quick air tricks with a flick of the wrist are a cinch. The gamepad again offers the standard off-screen play and split-screen free co-op, and while nothing revolutionary, its tilt controls should definitely give it a comfortable edge.

Meanwhile, the real stars of the show are the game’s stunning tracks. Playing host to a total of eight courses including Electrodome, Mario Kart Stadium, Sunshine Airport, Water Park, Toad Harbor, Sweet Sweet Canyon, Cloudtop Cruise, and the ever famous Mario Circuit, the demo possessed a fair feel in visual variety and track design alike. While the Water Park track features something out of Wild Waters Adventure Parks on steroids with dizzying loops and winding pathways, Toad Harbor is a stylish New York/San Francisco USA mash-up. Limited to a mere two laps each within each track’s modified demo version, most won’t likely win over folks intent on complexity. Sunshine Airport is mostly a combo of tarmac and terminals with Mario Circuit and Sweet Sweet Canyon likewise being simple street designs. Even so, each are filled with their own shortcuts and jumps just enough to offer some amount of strategy, if still not championing it.

More important are each of course’s antigravity segments. Somewhere in each of the tracks mid-race, you’ll be propelled upwards and onwards onto the course’s mind-bending skyward tracks dangling in the air, traveling like a rocket-propelled magnet up a refrigerator. Though I was more or less aware of the change in scope as I raced through each section, the initial transition is certainly entertaining if not at all game-changing even at the Electrodome and the Water Park ultimately took center stage for the best of them, with the sight of your wheels changing position in tandem to the curving track ahead of you is an amusing distraction if nothing else.

500px-MK8_WarioUpsideDownMost in line with its predecessors is the game’s returning kart customization. Mario Kart 8 boasts a fair amount of options to players keen on the swankiest ride they can find, sporting such doo-dads as Mario Kart 7‘s selection of wheels, kart bodies, and various hang gliders. Rollers, monster, wood, off-road, and standard tires composed most of the demo’s available wheels with its car bodies consisting of the usual buggie, hotrod, and the new horse-headed prancer frames. None were limited by character class and all were available regardless of weight, with even Bowser and his seven Koopalings taking a ride in the most ridiculously outfitted blue baby buggies. Only a few given options made a difference beyond speed, the real difference lies in the bikes. Whereas the game’s ATVs and karts were nearly indistinguishable, what motorcycles were available definitely boasted a much more maneuverable drifting, bobbing and weaving more than a simple side to side.

Most revealing is the game’s full roster, including the game’s newest candidates of Rosalina, Metal Mario, Pink Gold Peach, Lakitu, and the seven Koopalings. Though each of the latter Koopa lackies all seemingly act as interchangeable clones of one another not feeling particularly weighty, others like Peach’s metal incarnations have more distinct advantages, wielding a heavier bulk at slower speeds while still being harder to hit. Any given class always seemed to have a fair shot at taking the lead whether thanks item accessibility and jostling to first place might very well be its fairest.

Classic items also return to players in the forms of typical shells, bombs, and banana peels, but also the long previewed Piranha plant, Super Horn, Super Eight, and upgraded Blue shell in what’s arguably the most well balanced selection of items Mario Kart’s offered so far. Though a sapphire shell never came my way, my Piranha plant predictably chewed up the competition very nicely while gobbling up coins for a tidy speed boost. Better still were my trusty horn and Super Eight, both granting me some noisy interference and extra ammunition, and both enough of a refreshing rarity not to be overpowered.

Lastly, the nature of the demo build’s online multiplayer and battle modes were expectedly unavailable at the time of playing, but with only so much time to go, it won’t be long before that racetrack bursts onto the scene in its own way.

Dashing down memory lane with as many new features as old, Mario Kart 8‘s already shaping up to be another fine title in the Wii U’s garage. Graphically and mechanically, Mario’s racing stripes are more promising than ever, especially so for a system banking on more success than it’s ever needed. I’m one to hope more than a few cash in on that potential payday, because from where I’m standing, Mario Kart 8 looks to be one of the series’ finest laps yet.