From the very first track I played of Mario Kart 8, the change in kart mechanics was palpable; Karts were much faster. Everything in the new installment feels fast and fluid. Karts are more responsive. They hug corners tighter during slides and speed boosts give a very rewarding sense of G-Force. Even Lakitu is faster, plucking you out of water or off course and slapping you right back into the action with less wait than previous installments.
It’s very clear Nintendo wanted to freshen up the gameplay and keep Mario Kart 8 from feeling like a refresh of its previous Wii installment. The coin mechanic carries over but feels more meaningful this time around, especially for lighter karts. For those new to the series, a racer can collect up to ten gold coins on the track which will ultimately improve the racer’s top speed. Take a hit from a shell? Slip on a banana peel? You lose three coins. It might not sound like much but once a racer gets out in front in Mario Kart it can be hard to stay there (we’re all only one blue shell from second place after all). So, increasing top speed can make all the difference for the Yoshi’s and Baby Mario’s out there that lack the speed to stay out in front.
Speaking of blue shells, Mario Kart 8 introduces the new “super-horn” power-up which, when used, bursts into a short radius attack around a racers kart, not only effectively throwing nearby racers around but also any projectiles thrown at the player. This marks the first time in the franchise a player can stop the dreaded blue shell (a heat seeking projectile that hunts down the player in first place faster than Justin Bieber hunts down bad press).
Mario Kart 8 definitely makes you feel more confident leading the pack thanks to these additions. In previous titles I would frequently roll my eyes and wait for some projectile to knock me back to 4th place miraculously before victory. Now I feel much more in control of my fate on the course.
Vehicle customizations add further control. You can choose new chassis, wheels and gliders for your karts before starting a circuit. Each piece tweaks stats on your racer’s kart. Want to play as Bowser but want a faster accelerating kart? No problem. Trade out your wheels for skateboard wheels. Love Yoshi but have a need for speed? Switch to a heavier kart and you’re good to go. The customizations also come in some very creative karts. I recall laughing as I unlocked an adorable Teddy Bear kart during a play session at home.
Speed isn’t the only thing that’s changed. One of the top billing features in Mario Kart 8 is the new anti-gravity sections. Areas of the courses now cause karts wheels to pop up and gravitate over the ground (Think Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future). And, while you do still need roads (sorry Marty) you’ll be able to swing your car up walls and on ceilings.
Some levels utilize this feature extensively. Toad’s Turnpike lets you run your kart up the walls on each side of the course to avoid traffic and pick up speed boosts. The electro-dome frequently allows you to race on the ceiling above other players. Other areas allow the racer to briefly fly over segments with an attached glider on the top of their kart. The results can be exhilarating and a bit dizzying. This gets to be a bit of a polarizing feature. I personally had a blast with new mechanics. They’re easy to use, anti-gravity sections are clearly marked in blue and the karts still feel responsive on-air. The downside however is that some players with less digestive fortitude may find the courses a bit jarring or even downright nauseating. There were segments that froze my girlfriend in her tracks from disorientation and sickness. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the inertia and dazzling courses, it may prove polarizing for some players.
Another big shakeup for Mario Kart 8 is the roster. It boasts a playable thirty characters to choose from. Most are returning favorites (Mario and Luigi, Peach, Wario, Daisy etc.). The big addition this time around comes from the Koopa Kids. To be honest, however, I never found the roster to really offer much different; most of the playable characters are either baby versions of other characters, returning characters or Koopa Kids. And who want’s to play as a Koopa Kid other than Iggy, Right? In addition I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Pink Metal Peach is simply disturbing. Regardless, it’s a well-rounded roster that lends itself to some statistically interesting combinations of racer stats and kart modifications.
Mario Kart 8 is a fun, frenetic racer that frequently breaks the rules of physics for some very gratifying results. The improvement of kart speed and response adds a very welcome shot in the arm to the series as it helps define the Wii U gaming console. While the roster could have included some better choices, plenty of fan favorites give you reasons to keep tweaking your kart and racer to find the perfect fit. Anti-Gravity segments freshen up the gameplay further and give a fun twist on familiar gameplay.