Critical Consensus: Mario Kart 8 is a triumph of familiarity
Nintendo's series plays to its strengths, but what the hell is going on with Battle Mode?
Let's indulge in the collective recognition of a fundamental truth: The most interesting question around Mario Kart 8 is not, and never has been, 'Is it any good?' The Mario Kart games have set the standard in a genre it virtually created all the way back in 1992; in all the time since there hasn't been a single game to mount a serious challenge for its crown, and that dominance has been maintained not through bold new ideas, but through all of the things that stay the same. More than any other Nintendo franchise, this is the one where you pretty much know what you're going to get, and an awful lot of gamers don't mind that one little bit.
"Mario Kart 8's new tracks are consistently brilliant, the anti-gravity and gliders allowing a wonderful sense of verticality"
The Daily Telegraph
No, for readers of a site like this one, the real question dragging on the tailpipe of Mario Kart 8 is, 'Will this be the game to save the Wii U?' Since the first day Nintendo's latest console went on sale the company's rhetoric has swirled around a single, unchanging idea: the software sells the system, and nobody does software like Nintendo. More than 18 months on, the Wii U's lumbering sales have reduced that notion to what seems like an uncharacteristic mix of optimism and naivety. But there was always one more ace to play. There was always Mario Kart 8.
Here's the short version: pretty much everybody loves it, to a degree that makes even a 7 out of 10 review seem unicorn-like in its impossibility. Mario Kart 8 is as fast, fun and addictive as the series has ever been, only now it's in ravishing, colour-saturated HD.
But, as The Daily Telegraph points out in its 4.5 star review, while the true appeal of Mario Kart is its seductively immutable core, every game in the series tries to push at least one 'Big New Idea'. In this instance it's anti-gravity tracks, which allow players to shoot up walls and generally perform the sort of logic-defying feats that would break the work of lesser designers. Not so here.
"The first time your wheels fold in and engage anti-gravity, you'll keep your racing line without a slip, perhaps made giddy by the sight of your trailing opponents whizzing below you at a right angle, but nary taking you off your stride.
"The practical applications are rather more subtle, allowing the track designers to have some fun... Unlike Mario Kart 7, which had a few duffers, 8's new tracks are consistently brilliant, the anti-gravity and gliders allowing a wonderful sense of verticality. These aren't ground based circuits, but undulating, sprawling raceways. Sections break away to anti-gravity, with the right speed angle ramps can lead to suspended sections of track above the throng of the pack. There are alternative routes aplenty; not shortcuts, per se, but diversions that may lead to an extra item box or ramps to boost from."
"For the most part the hover-mode feels a bit forced"
Ars Technica is less generous in its appraisal of the anti-gravity racing that Nintendo has pushed to the fore of its marketing since the game was announced. The tracks may look different with their loops and ramps and sudden vertical turns, but the effect, Ars Technica argues, is basically cosmetic. "The actual mechanics of racing change very little," the review states, except, that is, for a "confusing" new impact effect on anti-gravity collisions, "that comes with an annoying lack of control."
"The hover-mode does allow for some crazy course extensions into the third dimension, though for the most part it's hard to fully appreciate these crazy twists and turns during the race itself. With the camera remaining welded solidly behind your kart the whole time (and tilted only slightly from normal flat racing), driving with your kart at some weird angle to gravity feels a whole lot like driving with the wheels appropriately pointed toward the original 'ground.'
"The developers take pains to make these sections a bit more exciting-forcing players to drive up a waterfall, for instance, or looping a track around so what used to be a retaining wall becomes an orthogonal raceway later in the lap-but for the most part it feels a bit forced."
At this point, it's worth reiterating that Mario Kart 8 has received nothing but positive reviews. Indeed, if you're a student of the series you could probably take a reasonable guess at its core strengths without playing a single second of the game. Even Ars Technica, which certainly offers one of the more negative appraisals, urges its readers to buy the game if they own a Wii U. In fact, it even concedes that, "this is still the kind of game that gets people to buy Nintendo consoles."
But there is one exception: Wired, which doesn't so much post a review as an essay about what it sees as a potentially game-breaking sin committed by Nintendo's designers. In the interests of balance, the review does couch its argument with plaudits for the "glorious" audio and graphics and the "still perfect" core driving gameplay, but if you, like Wired's writer, have always preferred Mario Kart's Battle Mode to its track races then Nintendo may have spoiled your party before it even started.
"Mario Kart 8 is a rare thing, then: the best entry in a series and the most exciting yet"
"For some reason I absolutely cannot fathom, Battle Mode matches now take place on the same lengthy, looping race tracks as the actual races themselves do. This made no sense in theory, but my wife (another lifelong Battle Mode fan) and I gamely jumped in to see if it actually worked out in practice. We literally spent the entirety of the first match driving aimlessly around the track attempting to find each other. We could not. Time ran out.
"We tried one more match, noticing that the customisation options didn't even allow us to turn off the time limit and turn the match into a last-man-standing affair. This time we just drove circles around each other near the start line, glumly firing green shells. Turned it off right after, never to be touched again."
In the final reckoning, though, lamentations over specific game modes and implementations of novel new features will likely do little to deter anyone from buying a copy of Mario Kart 8 - or buying a Wii U to join in the fun, for that matter. For the most part, the critics have swerved the question of whether Nintendo may finally have its sorely needed system-seller like a lingering banana skin on a victory lap; partly because it's harder than ever to see a happy end for Nintendo's console, and partly because, whatever flaws one might recognise, sometimes kudos on a job well done is the only appropriate response.
To that end, it makes sense to close with Eurogamer, which awards Mario Kart 8 a rare 10 out of 10 in a review with scarcely a negative syllable to be found among its well-turned sentences. Nintendo has delivered that warm, fuzzy familiarity that longstanding fans crave but, the reviewer argues, there is more innovation going on here than just HD graphics and flying cars. For Eurogamer, Mario Kart 8 is "a revelation," and to understand why you have to plunge below its surface.
"For some reason I absolutely cannot fathom, Battle Mode matches now take place on the same looping tracks as the actual races"
"Start not with the screen - a window into the Mario multiverse that has never before loomed so large and vivid - but with the hands. Here, at the physical level, you begin to understand the connection this game establishes with its player. As well as managing the gas, brake and steering, your fingers and thumbs must also tap out curious rhythms as they squeeze you into a drift-boost corner - the longer you hold the drift trigger, the greater the boost you receive on release - and fire a trigger as you sail from the crest of a mound in order to perform a speed-boosting stunt.
"You must tilt your kart through the air as it glides from the tallest jumps, or through the water as it transforms into an amphibious craft with a pop-up propeller... This pitter-patter of interactions, of jabs and squeezes, connects you intimately to the game. You are needed here, more so than in most other racing games.
"Mario Kart 8 is a rare thing, then: the best entry in a series and the most exciting yet."