Review: Mario Kart 8

Originally published on May 29, 2014 on

+ Enjoyable tracks | Fantastic HD sheen | Robust online mode

- Rubber banding AI | Disappointing battle mode

I know what you’re thinking. Mario Kart 8? There’s that many of them?

With the Mario Kart franchise reaching its 22nd anniversary this year, you’d think it would look and feel stale by now. But in typical Nintendo fashion, Mario Kart 8 rejuvenates the series, this time debuting in high definition.

And it sure looks pretty.

It’s no lie that Mario Kart’s first foray into HD is a welcome upgrade, but a bigger question has been lingering in my head since its reveal at E3 2013 last year. Does this new iteration shake things up in a novel way a la Double Dash!!, or does it settle for its track record (pun fully intended) of enjoyable yet decidedly safe and unwavering design?

If I had to compare Mario Kart 8 to previous games, it’s like a combination platter of the things I enjoyed about Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7.

Like those games, you’ll be drifting to engage in mini and super turbo boosts. You’ll speed away with the motorbikes, the in-the-air boost tricks of Mario Kart Wii, the customizable hang-gliding and underwater karts of Mario Kart 7. 

It’s still comprised of eight cups. You’ve got the four main cups, the ever familiar unlockable retro cups and a mirror mode. Overall, it’s a wonderful mishmash, even if the motorbikes still feel like they’re a little too fast when compared to the go-karts.

That being said, it’s disappointing to see the infamous rubber banding AI in MK8. Expect the dreaded spiny blue shell to smash into you at the most inopportune time, and get ready to rage on 150cc when your CPU-controlled opponents get insanely faster and more aggressive with their onslaught of items during the final lap.

Nevertheless, you’ll still get a shot at nabbing some new items to get yourself ahead. Some fun ones include a Piranha Plant that automatically chomps at nearby players and eats up nearby coins for you and a homing boomerang. The game also expands on Mario Kart 7’s “Crazy Seven” with the “Crazy Eight,” in which a lucky racer gets eight random items in one package.

Despite the aforementioned rubber banding, Mario Kart 8 does alter the way players will approach items. For one, item hoarding has been negated. In previous entries you could nab a second item box while priming your green shell or banana, but in this one you’ll have to use that weapon before you can collect something else.

While I missed being able to strategically stack items in this way, I fully understand why it was scrapped. Every racer becomes a little more vulnerable and it eliminates unfair advantages like having a double dose of overpowering items.

But the newest feature worth mentioning is the addition of anti-gravity tracks.

Heavily touted by Nintendo, they are exactly as described. Small segments of the course allow your kart to drive on walls and ceilings, with players being able to bump into each other to get a spinning speed boost that propels them ahead. While the wall riding can be disorienting initially, the anti-gravity speed-boosting is a fun mechanic that gives the races a more strategic edge.

These new segments have also been added to the game’s retro courses, which include fantastic recreations of Mario Kart 64’s Toad’s Turnpike and Royal Raceway. MK64’s Rainbow Road, however has been disappointingly shortened.

With so many opportunities given for boosting, increasing your speed feels even more crucial than ever before. Collecting coins to increase your top speed a la Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 7 has returned, and collecting the full ten of them was essential in getting ahead.

It’s like a metaphor for life, if you think about it.

Nintendo is keen on upping the online social aspect of MK8, giving players the ability to edit video highlights of previous races and subsequently upload them to Miiverse and YouTube. Replays and highlights are also saved in “Mario Kart TV,” where players can share these with each other.

MK8 lets you use nearly every Wii and Wii U controller imaginable, but I found the most comfort with the Wii U Pro Controller. The GamePad’s touchscreen featured a few neat doodads, such as a button for instant Off-TV play, a car horn for trolling fellow racers and a toggle for enabling gyroscopic tilt (I don’t recommend this).

If there’s one little nitpick I have with the game’s off-TV play, it’s that the GamePad’s screen will still show a split screen even if you’re playing multiplayer; clearly a missed opportunity for the game to utilize the TV and GamePad screens separately.

Once you’ve unlocked the full hodgepodge of vehicle parts, ridiculously huge character roster (thanks, Koopalings) and unlocked those four nostalgic retro cups, there’s always the worldwide 12-player multiplayer mode to fall back on. Barring one significant exception, Nintendo has delivered in this regard, adding the option to create custom tournaments.

I experienced no noticeable lag while playing online, and had a blast playing the game alongside a family member in online split-screen mode. Nevertheless, I still would have liked to see four-player split-screen co-op support or at least an option to go through Grand Prix mode with online players.

But now, onto that significant exception I was talking about: battle mode.

Those expecting the battle mode of previous games will be sorely let down. The game’s three-balloon popping battles have woefully taken a large step backward, thanks to a lack of specially-designed arena levels. Those have been replaced by the game’s standard racing courses, which means you’ll spend more time racing back and forth on the narrow tracks trying to actually find someone to attack. It’s as annoying as it sounds.

Despite these quibbles, Mario Kart 8 still oozes with charm. Little details like Mario and Luigi’s mustaches fluttering in the wind and your horn causing nearby AI racers to frightfully jump in their seats are small, albeit fun touches. The use of live jazz-infused music and the new renditions of retro tunes adds to the atmosphere.

In terms of shaking things up for the series, I can’t say that it revolutionizes the kart racer, but the anti-gravity aspects are certainly a step in the right direction. Regardless, Mario Kart 8 is a decent continuation of the series (minus its treatment of battle mode) and a game that Wii U owners shouldn’t pass up.

When all is said and done, that heart-pounding feeling of trying to stay in first on the last leg of the race is still there, even 22 years after the release of Super Mario Kart.

(Editor’s note: A publisher’s copy of the game was provided for this review. Review copies are provided as a courtesy, and do not influence the opinions of Pixelitis.)