Everyone's favourite Mario Kart is the one they spent the most time with. Among my peers (ie. jaded 20-somethings) that's usually Mario Kart 64. That actually probably holds to people about a decade older than me as well, considering they would have played it in college, but you're probably going to find some Super Mario Kart fans in those numbers, especially when you skew older. Younger fans might love Double Dash, DS or Wii. Nobody loves Super Circuit, because Super Circuit was a crime. The point is, the difference between Mario Karts is often so minute that it all comes down to personal preference. But, that also means when a game personally drives you crazy, it becomes a serious object of ire. All this comes down to an anecdote: the last time I played a Mario Kart game was 2008, when I fell asleep playing Mario Kart Wii.
That's not even a joke. My friend and I dozed off during an online race. The tracks were wide enough to drive five trucks though, side by side, and still leave legroom, while the karts moved so slow the finish line seemed an interminable distance away. You never actually saw other racers on the course, everyone had enough room to breathe that no turn was ever too tricky, no one was ever having too much fun. It went too far in the classic Mario Kart balance of fairness vs fun. In the interest of fairness, the racers in the back have a higher chance of getting items that could turn the tide of a race. In the interest of fun, good, disciplined racing should still be able to win the day. Of course, it wasn't, and combined with the series' traditional rubber banding AI, Mario Kart Wii was an unfun, boring mess of a racer. I swore of Mario Kart, and stayed away for six years, until it was time to do this review. Instead, I played other arcade-style racers, like Split/Second, and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed.
So take it to heart when I say that Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular racer, it's just inside of a disappointing package.
In case you've missed it over the last 22 years, Mario Kart is a series of games that puts Mario and his pals (along with some of his more amicable enemies) in go-karts and motorcycles to race each other across cartoon environments lifted from their adventures. But, in a Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races style twist, they can pick up items and weapons along the track to use against other racers. This time around, the karts have been upgraded to have anti-gravity features, which gives them a sort of F-Zero-in-slow-motion twist on certain stretches of the tracks.
It sounds like a cheap trick on paper, but it really works in practice. In anti-grav mode, bumping into other vehicles gives you a speed boost, which is great on straightaways, but can kill you on a turn. In what has to be a response to MK Wii, 8 features significantly narrower courses, meaning bumping into other racers (the whole point of a go-kart) becomes a significant part of the strategy. On the ground, it mostly just punts them off the road and on to the acceleration-killing grass. But in anti-grav mode, racers can take the calculated risk to slam into opponents on turns, and send them flying off of the track entirely. Of course, this means they themselves then have to survive the turn with the speed boost, a mechanic largely borrowed from Mario Kart's faster but forgotten older brother, F-Zero. In that game, hitting other cars can slam them off course, but drains your energy bar, which acts as both your health as well as fuel for your boosts. It's the biggest change from previous games, and it's a welcome change of pace from the regular racing mechanics, but it's not exactly earth shattering innovation.
The other major change 8 brings to the table is HD graphics, which, while not a gameplay shift, are undoubtedly impressive. Nintendo continues to be one of the few companies to use HD to its fullest potential, with bright colours and eye-popping designs. I found myself wishing for a way to just view the tracks without a race going on, so I could appreciate how much design effort went into things that usually whiz by during a race. But, at the same time, it's hard to claim like it's a genuine step up for the series. It doesn't impact gameplay, other than making split-screen a teensy-tiny bit easier to read on smaller screens, and the general crowd for HD graphics is looking for photo realism, not a perfect cartoon. But that's neither here nor there, it's undeniable that the game looks incredible.
Similarly, the music is great. Nintendo keeps wheeling out the same live jazz band they seem to be using for every Mario branded game lately, but I'm not complaining. Just like Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Super Mario 3D World, this return to Mario's ragtime/big band musical roots sounds spectacular. A few of the retro tracks from previous games have a slightly more rocking take on the source music, but overall there's a lot of brass next to those electric guitars. The Electrodrome course music specifically is a standout no-brass track, with a really rad techno beat that fits the Shy Guy rave going on in the background.
But while those parts of the presentation seem fantastically high budget, everything else feels like corner cutting. After two weeks of playing the game, I can't find an options menu anywhere. Not that there's anything I necessarily want to change, but it's odd that there's no option to tweak volume or display settings. Similarly, it's odd that the traditional post-grand prix ceremony animation is gone. Instead, it's been replaced by a rotating graphic of the trophy you won, and a list of who placed where. It's not a big deal, especially considering most people tend to skip those, but again, it's a weird tiny corner to cut that leave the game feeling a little cheap at times. Compared to other kart racers, like the criminally underappreciated Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, the single player portions of the game are lacking. Mario Kart has never really had a robust single player mode, but even a small mission mode would have been something. It looks strange that Mario Kart, the premiere kart racing series, and Nintendo's current great hope for the WiiU has a totally bare bones single player when compared to Sega All-Stars, a game that is by no accounts a top budget title, but has an hours long career mode. Admittedly, that career mode gets bogged down with boring missions that get far too difficult on higher levels, but it's something.
Having not played Mario Kart 7, the kart customization features are new to me, and they're a welcome level of complexity, but again, it's nothing that hasn't been done before. Similarly, the return of coins from Super Mario Kart is a nice strategic addition, but mostly just highlights how the series is just borrowing from its past to keep itself moving now. In that vein, pretty much every retro course brought back from the earlier games is spectacular, including the three best Mario Kart 64 tracks (Yoshi Valley, Toad Turnpike, and Rainbow Road). In fact, the only standout dud is Moo Moo Meadows, a course lifted almost directly from MK Wii, and less said about that the better. New tracks are similarly great, aside from super simple ones like the basic Mario Kart Stadium. One of my favourites is Mount Wario, which has no laps, instead featuring a three part race to the bottom of the mountain, with completely different challenges in each leg of the race. Nothing really stands out as bad when you're in the races.
It's all the stuff that happens outside the races that irks me. The main menu is as barebones as it gets, with options for single player, multiplayer, online, and Youtube uploads. When I was looking for players online and I couldn't find any, the game wouldn't let me quit searching without shutting off the console. Battle mode has been killed without remorse, changed from fast-paced arena battles to slow plodding circuits around massive tracks, desperately looking for another racer to fight. it all comes together to feel like a game that had a limited budget, and poured it all into what the designers felt mattered. I don't think they were wrong, but it certainly leaves the game as a whole feeling a little lacking when compared to its predecessors and contemporaries.
But again, there's no denying that Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular game, it's just a worrying package. It's the best console Mario Kart game in more than a decade, but it still feels lacking when compared to the previous games. It's bare-bones outside of races, where it's lavish and fun and Mario Kart at its very best. Mario Kart 8 is gorgeous, with tightly designed courses, frantic gameplay, and a spectacular soundtrack you'll never hear over people shouting at Baby Daisy for lapping you AGAIN. But the death of battle mode and the low-budget presentation set a bad precedent. Mario Kart DS was the spectacular return to form before the dreadful Mario Kart Wii. Mario Kart is totally worth it again, but how long will it last this time?
Then again, I’m doing time trials while I edit this review, so maybe we don’t have to worry about that just yet.
Verdict: Thumbs Up!
(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money in this medium we cherish. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)