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Mario Kart 8 is beautiful, fast, and missing something (review)

The baby characters race in Sweet Sweet Canyon.

Above: The baby characters race in Sweet Sweet Canyon.

Image Credit: Nintendo

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I don’t expect the eighth entry of anything to maintain the quality and excitement of the original, but here we are with Mario Kart … and I’m still smiling.

Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U, as you probably already know, is Nintendo’s mascot racing game. It’s the latest sequel to Super Mario Kart, which debuted 22 years ago for the Super Nintendo. Mario Kart 8 is still, basically, the same game, and it will debut May 30 for $60.

If you’ve participated in the karting before, you’ll know what to expect. Mario, Donkey Kong, and other Nintendo characters battle it out with banana peels and turtle shells across a number of courses in the Mushroom Kingdom. While it’s all very familiar, Mario Kart 8 does do something new for the series: HD graphics.

But is that enough to justify an eighth time around the track?

What you’ll like

It looks and sounds better than ever

While fans of the recently released Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles continue to argue over which system can render the most pixels, Wii U continues to house some of the prettiest, most-colorful games on the market. Mario Kart 8 is another example of what Nintendo’s art team can do with HD visuals. This comes in the form of highly detailed characters and courses. Everything has a crisp, attractive vibe, and everything looks amazing in motion.

The controls

Nintendo brought back a number of control schemes for Mario Kart 8. You can use the GamePad, a Wii Remote, a Remote combined with Nunchuk dongle, or a pro controller. Many of those options also give you the choice between physical and motion controls.

Thankfully, whatever you choose will work.

Mario Kart 8 controls as tightly as ever, and the power slides from Mario Kart 7 — which prevented the snaking maneuver from the DS game — are back.

For instance, one course, Sweet Sweet Canyon, brings to life a world filled with sweets, candies, and baked goods. It’s not just about the gorgeous architecture and attractive optical filtering that gives the cupcake world an impossibly lifelike feeling, but it’s also about the subtle liveliness of the environment. Wafer windmills turn in the distance, gingerbread people jump with excitement in the stands, and sugary waterfalls tumble from a mountain made of cake. It’s ridiculous, and it’s gorgeously detailed.

This details extend to the playable characters as well. Take a bend at top speed and Mario’s mustache will bounce and sway. So will Bowser’s mane.

Another course worth calling out is Cloudtop Cruise, which will have you driving among big, puffy clouds. As you race along the stage, you’ll go from the sunny side of the arrangement to the stormy underbelly. The transition between the two — with its parting mist and the camera lens struggling to adjust — is 4 seconds of visual bliss. I want to build a home and live in that moment.

It goes beyond the gameplay action, too. The menus and presentation all have an interesting “Mario Motor Team” vibe that looks like it would fit in with the decals or decorations you would find in a gearhead’s garage.

The music also benefits from an upgrade.

Nintendo brought in a full, real band to record the soundtrack for Mario Kart 8, and it sounds unbelievable. The publisher’s games have always had great scores, but by finally using real musicians (as opposed to the MIDI recordings in previous Nintendo releases), its compositions are really starting to stand out as something special.

It’s still fun solo, but it’s a blast with others online or off

Of course, it doesn’t matter how it looks if the action is no fun. Well, it is fun.

I played and replayed all of the 4-race cups on the fastest setting until I earned a gold trophy for each one. I’m doing the same thing for the reversed mirror stages now. Mario Kart 8 has 32 courses overall, 16 of which are re-creations from previous tracks in the series, and they are all well designed. I also felt challenged enough in the single-player mode to have a fine time.

Multiplayer is where it’s at, though. Nintendo knows that. Players can do that locally or online, and it works pretty well in either situation. I lost a lot in my two dozen online races, but I enjoyed my time with.

As usual, the best racers have an advantage out of the gate, but the powerful weapons keep things close.

Mario Kart 8 - New Course: Mount Wario

What you won’t like

Where are the battle arenas?

Fans of the series will likely remember the balloon battle mode. In Mario Kart 64, this had players facing off against one another in arenas. The winner was the last person standing after everyone tried to bash everyone else with the various weapons.

Well, that’s still in Mario Kart 8 … sort of. While it does have a battle mode, Nintendo dropped the arenas. Instead, you fight it out on one of the 32 included courses.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s more difficult to find people on those long, linear paths than it was in the smaller, shooter-like levels in previous games. I wouldn’t hate having these courses as an option but not if it means omitting the arenas.

Conclusion

Mario Kart is typically the best racer for most people. That’s no different with Mario Kart 8.

Nintendo has combined its classic gameplay (finely tuned as ever) with beautiful visuals, and the result is something that I love playing — and so will most people.

Score: 85/100

Mario Kart 8 is due out May 30 for $60. Nintendo provided us with a code for a digital-download version of Mario Kart 8 for the purposes of this review.

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