The Wii U has been a real bummer of a console, that’s no secret. Fans keep saying not to write it off just yet — there’s another game coming just around the corner that will be so great, just you wait. They said that game was Super Mario 3D World, a pretty cool Mario game that sometimes felt like a retread of old ideas. The same with Pikmin 3, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze… (Is that actually it? That can’t be all of them.) New Super Luigi U? NES Remix? — Seriously, what else was there? Oh, The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker HD, right, yes, of course. That’s a killer lineup worthy of any console. The point is the Wii U is stagnating. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what that GamePad is for besides maps and other trinkets that unclutter the TV screen.
Mario Kart 8 is not the game that will get you to buy a Wii U — in fact, I’m not sure what a “system selling” Wii U game could be at this point. If you’ve got one of these dusty Wii U consoles anyway, you might as well buy Mario Kart 8. It’s a pretty rad Mario Kart game, if not suffering from the same static formula problems as most current Nintendo games.
Let’s start with the most pressing issue: fuck the Blue Shell. It is a piece of garbage item that will ruin all manor of relationships. The Blue Shell is designed to take out the driver in first place, no matter what. Victory can be snatched away inches from the finish line. You know this. You’ve played a Mario Kart game before. Even worse, you can’t trick the Blue Shell. Because you were in first place the Blue Shell targets you even if you slam on your breaks and wait for another driver to get ahead. No, that shell wants revenge. For what? Most of the time the Blue Shell comes from an 8th place lameo who won’t benefit from the explosion anyway.
At least now Nintendo has wised up and included a countermeasure to the madness of the Blue Shell: the Super Horn. The Super Horn sends any item within a certain radius of your kart flying. So if you’re unapologetically good at Mario Kart and can stay in first place, you want to hold onto any Super Horns you might get.
While I’m fuming, I’ll talk about the Battle Mode which sees a drastic and very poor change from past iterations. No longer are you and a few other karts set inside small arenas to battle for balloons. Instead, Nintendo has decided to make regular racetracks the battlegrounds for chaotic nonsense. You still have three balloons and you still use items to remove balloons from other players, but now there’s the added layer of trying to find the players you’re battling with. It ruins all sense of competition when you and your friends try to battle on a linear racetrack that hardly gives you the room to turn around, much less get an attack off before you wait another 30 seconds to find each other.
There was a purity in previous Battle Mode iterations. It was about forming quick alliances and eliminating one of your friends because they won the last three rounds in a row. It was about the chase, having someone hot on your tail with a green shell right before you make a sharp right turn and go up a ramp. Instead, you just race along the track and hit each other with items. Or race in opposite directions before hitting each other with items.
But at this point you know exactly what you will get from a Mario Kart game: more Mario Kart. More tracks with interspersed item pickups that you’ll use to knock down your enemies or dash ahead of them with greater speed. It’s a tried and true formula that works. Mario Kart 8 may be just more Mario Kart, but this iteration boasts some of the best track design the series has seen to date.
Before heading off to the races you’ll have to pick from a variety of drivers from across the Mario canon, around half of which are unlocked by completing objectives. After that you need to customize your kart to get maximum driving efficiency. I was constantly trying out new drivers and kart combinations to find ones that worked with a good balance of speed and handling. Turns out the new bike models aren’t very good at drifting around corners, a necessity for expert racing. By drifting effectively and doing tricks on jumps, you pick up little boosts that can drastically change the outcome of a race. Without getting a good number of these boosts, harder tiers of races will be much more difficult to win.
At the end of each race you’re given the opportunity to watch a highlight reel of events. If you don’t like the highlights shown, you can choose to focus on big hits or contentious moments and the game will quickly create a new set of clips for you. From there you can post your highlights to the Miiverse or (more importantly) to YouTube. These highlights have brought me quite a few laughs from the quirky character expressions. I especially enjoyed messing around with the slow motion mechanics in the editor, it’s just a shame I can’t add those effects to my uploaded videos. The upload is pretty quick — obviously depending on your internet connection — and the video isn’t so compressed that it takes away from the game’s fantastic look.
Mario Kart 8 is the best looking game I’ve played on the Wii U. Detailed character models show off Mario’s bouncing mustache and how light bounces off Bowser’s shell spikes. Tracks pop with vibrant color and gorgeous locals. Each track takes on an entirely different aesthetic from Isle Delfino’s airport to a musical track that changes the tune based on the section you’re driving. They’re all incredibly stunning and really fun to drive around. Even the heavily modified tracks taken from older Mario Kart games look great.
All of the meta information like player position and the mini-map are relegated to the GamePad, which you can customize to put the information you want at the forefront. If you don’t, you’ve got a big button right in the middle of the GamePad you can press to honk your kart’s horn — the majesty of the Wii U GamePad at work.
You’ve also got your standard item useage, shortcuts, and other features that make up a Mario Kart game. Mario Kart 8 is a complete package in that regard, but lacks hooks to keep players without a few friends from sticking with the game for very long. Kart customization parts and other driver unlocks come relatively quickly and after that there’s no real leaderboard or other unlockables (besides Miiverse stamps) to keep me going for much longer.
Mario Kart 8 has a simple but effective online modes that quickly put you in a room with other racers. I had no real lag to speak of and it all works especially well considering many of Nintendo’s other stabs at online. If you’ve got a bunch of friends with Wii U’s (ha), then Mario Kart 8 is a great game to play online. It also supports up to 4-player local multiplayer which works really well, but can impact the framerate a little on some tracks.
Nintendo’s core franchises have stagnated over the years, and this game is no different. The game has some of the best tracks the series has produced and it looks absolutely fantastic, but Mario Kart 8 doesn’t do much to change the formula of the series. The Battle Mode is now pretty much useless, and that’s kind of upsetting. Mario Kart 8 will not be the game for you to finally go out and buy a Wii U, but hey, it’s a solid entry in a pretty cool franchise.
And seriously, fuck the Blue Shell.