For the first time in years, Mario Kart feels fresh. And that’s not thanks to the new features — things like anti-grav karts, new items, or the Koopa Kids — but to the Wii U GamePad.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Wii’s Remotes. The motion controllers always feel imprecise and laggy, even after the Wii Motion Plus upgrade to the sensors. And the motion controls are especially cumbersome for Mario Kart Wii, even when you stuck a Wiimote into that damn Wii Wheel contraption. The wheel made the controller’s buttons hard to use. I couldn’t image a veteran player — and especially a little kid — dealing with it effectively. Motion controls sucked in Mario Kart Wii.
But with the Wii U GamePad, Mario Kart 8’s motion controls work great. And it’s going to be a fantastic way to not only get kids into the series — but into gaming as well.
Motion controls like a dream
When Erik Peterson of the Nintendo Treehouse development team first sat me down in front of Mario Kart 8, he gave me the Wii U GamePad. And I played it using the standard sticks and buttons. It felt good, it played good — yep, alright, it was Mario Kart.
Then he grabbed the GamePad and turned on motion controls.
You use the pad like a steering wheel, and you hit buttons to throw weapons like turtle shells and to brake or accelerate, just as you would when sticking a Wiimote into that piece-of-junk Wii Wheel. But unlike the Wii version, Mario Kart 8 controls smoothly and with little effort. Sure, I felt myself twisting-and-turning as Wario’s car (my only Mario Kart rule: Only Jason can play Wario) zoomed down the Mushroom Cup’s Mario Kart Stadium course, sometimes hitting other karts and sometimes hitting walls.
When the anti-grav came into play, the motion controls started to click. I found himself raising the GamePad up and twisting and turning. It felt immersive — something I’ve never been able to say of a kart game before. I was racing, not just controlling a kart and throwing stuff at others. It reminded me of my days of playing good space sims like TIE Fighter, when I would physically duck as I flew under capital ships like Star Destroyers and bobbed-and-weaved as I played. Every time I moved, Wario moved. Even with Wii Motion Plus, the Wiimote felt laggy and squishy with Mario Kart Wii. I never seemed to corner right, never seemed to make a turn when I made the proper motion to do so. I didn’t experience any instance of lag with the GamePad for Mario Kart 8. When I turned, Wario turned. Everything felt like the true 1-to-1 motion controls promised a generation ago.
A simple touch on the GamePad’s screen switches the motion control off — so it’s easy to swap from one to the other as you race.
I didn’t win any races — I never finished better than fifth — but considering that I hadn’t played Mario Kart since 2009 and never won many matches with my friends or against the A.I. in the first place, I felt the motion controls actually improved my performance.
And it truly felt easier to control than any version of Mario Kart I’d played before. And as I raced, I kept thinking — and talking about with Peterson — just how easy it would be for my 4-year-old kid to pick this up.
Dem kids today
Every morning, my oldest son wakes up and asks, “Can I play a game?” But he doesn’t want to play a console or even a handheld game. He wants the iPad, a system he can hold in his lap and tap away at while playing Where’s My Mickey? or Cut the Rope.
But recently, he’s discovered Mario, and he loves Super Mario Bros. Wii — but he’s had a hard time using the Wiimote.
Mario Kart 8 may just be the best gaming-entry point for him. The GamePad feels quite similar to an iPad, and I found it easy to steer with it, hitting just a couple of buttons as I raced. The pad felt comfortable as a wheel, and controlling my kart in this manner felt natural.
And it’s fun. The colors pop out of the screen in HD, reminding me just how drab so many other games look these days (pick your platform — if it’s not a kiddie mass-market mobile endeavor, chances are the game you’re playing right now tends toward dark and drab). I hooted and hollered as I played, something that doesn’t often as I game these days.
This ease-of-use could be a major selling point for Nintendo now. The Wii U is struggling, and one (of many reasons) is that younger folk are playing games on tablets and phones, not consoles. And easy touchscreen controls factor into this.
Nintendo has an opportunity here. Mario Kart 8 could be a system-seller when it comes out May 30, not just with older gamers but kids as well. All it has to do is help connect the dots.
And hope that Sony, Microsoft, and the mobile guys aren’t holding a blue turtle shell.