Thursday, July 03, 2014

Mario Kart 8 review

The Mario Kart series has been a favourite of mine and my family ever since the original game appeared on the SNES in 1993.  I remember spending many an enjoyable hour racing and battling my brother, and now here we are in 2014 and not much has changed.  The latest in the series has arrived on the Wii U, and it looks and plays better than ever.  It may have taken a while to get here, and Nintendo have struggled quite a bit in the meantime, but it was worth the wait.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Seeing and playing a Mario Kart game in full HD for the first time is a fantastic thing, as not only does Nintendo's flagship driving series really pop due the imaginative settings and primary colours, they've also managed to cram an incredible amount of detail into the game.  You may be hurtling past too quickly to catch a lot of it, but the dynamically generated highlight reels via MKTV allow you to slow down the action, and notice such things as Mario's moustache quivering in the breeze, one of the annoying baby characters getting blasted by a well-timed green shell, or one of the many clever billboards for imaginary mushroom kingdom businesses. 

The game doesn't quite manage to run at a consistent 60 frames per second, as Digital Foundry pointed out in a recent report, but most players won't even notice this fact or care, and it doesn't significantly impact the gameplay, at least in single player.  Even with two players in split screen the game still runs smoothly, but play with 3 or 4 people on the same console and the quality drops significantly, both in terms of detail and frame rate.  The game is still quite enjoyable like this, but it's not the most optimal way to play.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Ever since the first Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo have produced fully orchestrated soundtracks for their flagship titles, and Mario Kart 8 is the latest game to receive this special treatment.  The music is absolutely fantastic too, from the slightly cheesy sounding yet entirely appropriate Sunshine Airport theme, to the surf rock sounding melody of Toad Harbor and then the techno laced stylings of the Electrodome.  The music is expertly crafted and helps elevate the sound of the game to another level.  Even old favourites like the theme to Moo Moo Meadows have been redone with real instruments, and they sound better than ever as a result.

The music is of course backed up by the usual array of sound effects and voices. Some voices, particularly those belonging to the squeakier characters like the babies, can be a bit grating, but generally it's competently done.  The sound effects don't really sound all that different from those used in other recent entries in the series like Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7, but at least they are consistent.  Overall, the sound is very high quality.

Mario Kart 8 looks absolutely lovely and really shows off what the Wii U can do in the right hands.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The basic structure of Mario Kart 8 remains the same as it has been for year - 3 difficulty levels split over 50, 100 and 150cc with four cups consisting making up 16 tracks that are brand new to this release, and another four cups featuring 16 retro tracks selected from previous games in the series. This is all capped off by a mirror mode once you've managed to beat everything else.  So far, so standard.

The new element that Mario Kart 8 brings to proceedings is anti-gravity - there are sections of track where your wheels will turn sideways, these usually being upside down, a complete right angle or twisting all over the place.  Through some kind of new-fangled magnetic technology (probably invented by Professor E. Gadd) the karts, bikes and ATV's are able to stick to the track without any trouble.  In these sections, colliding with other racers or specially placed pop bumpers will give you an extra boost.  These new antigrav sections don't radically change the gameplay in a significant way as the camera automatically centres itself so you don't get disoriented, though they still look really cool during the replays.

The underwater and aerial gliding elements that were added in Mario Kart 7 also return, and are generally better implemented this time around.  Most of the tracks feature multiple routes which give you more scope for trying out various tactics depending on which customisation parts you've chosen, which item your holding and personal preference.  Even the retro tracks have been overhauled, or at least most of them.  Some, like Melody Motorway are exactly the same as they were previously.  One of the best examples of this is Sherbert Land from the Gamecube, which has had a sizeable underwater area added. This transforms the track significantly. There are some really great track designs in this game - personal favourites of mine are Sunshine Airport, Toad Harbor, Mount Wario and Shy Guy Falls. 

It's not all good news, however.  In the past, the battle mode has been equally good as the racing.  Over the years though it's steadily become worse and worse, and this time is no different.  Instead of crafting special arenas that are a sensible size and layout for battling in, Nintendo have simply taken some of the tracks from the main game.  Not only do they feel too long, but some of them are also too narrow for you to be able to turn round easily.  This is sadly not the only negative thing I have to say about the game - the line-up of characters is also a bit weak, with far too many baby characters, koopalings and crappy pallet swaps like Pink Gold Peach.  After Nintendo recently unveiled their Amiibo figures at E3 and mentioned that they would work with Mario Kart 8 in some way, this gives me hope that there may yet be more characters and tracks locked away within the game.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The single player mode won't take too long for most players to complete if they're persistent, but then it never does.  Thankfully, local and online multiplayer is there to keep you coming back to the game for a long time to come, and is very well handled.  Nintendo have expanded the online offering this time around to encompass online tournaments, which work very well for the most part.  I got disconnected a few times when I entered a few tournaments, but luckily your score is kept between sessions. 

To try and keep things fair for all players, there are some options you can turn on, and I recommend doing so.  For starters you can define a certain number of races, set how long the tournament window is open, and decide whether you want CPU players to be present if there aren't 12 human beings in the lobby.  This last one is fairly important; as if there are only 5 of your racing for example you won't be able to score the maximum points and will therefore have no hope of winning.  By turning CPU players on this can be mitigated, and they can be set to Hard difficulty to try and keep the challenge level as close to that of a real person as possible.  It's still not perfect, but it's the best solution in the circumstances.  I would recommend trying not to take Mario Kart too seriously though - it's meant to be fun!

Overall: 9 out of 10
On the whole, Mario Kart 8 is one of the strongest entries in the series to date.  The racing feels great, the tracks are superb, and the presentation is first rate.  I can easily recommend this to long term fans and also more casual players who may not have tried a game in the series for a number of years. Hopefully the small issues I have with the game can be ironed out either via patches or DLC.  Until then, see you on the track!

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