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

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."

Latest comments (15)

Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd3 years ago
This is exciting! I haven't seen a Mario Kart with reviews this enthusiastic since Mario Kart 64. I can't wait to pick up my copy (with my free Pikmin copy) later this month.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe3 years ago
I don't remember being so excited about the launch of a racing game in a long time. Hearing nothing but good things. We've all been saying Nintendo need to bring the killer software - seems they've done just that here. One title won't turn the tables, but it's a step in the right direction.

Looks gorgeous at 1080p 60fps too - there's a very healthy number of titles achieving this on Wii U, I wonder how long before Nintendo realise they can actually win some core supporters over by highlighting this fact?
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Jim Burns Research Asisstant 3 years ago
The complains so far have been a bit weird of the game.
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University3 years ago
Personally, I've never actually been excited about a Mario Kart release, other than as a kid waiting for my oldest brother to return home with Mario Kart 64 from Electronics Boutique. That's not to say I don't enjoy the series; they've always been a safe, enjoyable bet for games out of which I will get my money's worth, largely through local multiplayer though increasingly with online through each iteration.

That being said, these reviews have me very excited. Pre-order placed, and some old housemates invited over for a reunion on release weekend. Several other reviews I've read have mentioned that this entry in the series genuinely feels new, exciting and refreshing. Looking forward to it. Without confirmation of a consistent release schedule, I don't expect this to radically alter Wii U's sales trajectory, but there should be a nice bump at the time of release and perhaps a slight upswing in the ongoing sales rate. Any major turn around is more dependent on what software Nintendo will release and how often; and particularly dependent on whether or not Nintendo have a transformative piece of software waiting in the wings for Wii U.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 3 years ago
I just hope people can get though the misconceptions they have of Nintendo and the WiiU, like... "its underpowered", "its just a kids device", "Its more for social gamers", "its not selling as much". This game looks asbeautiful as anything PS4 and XB1 can dish out.Its also a VERY fun game... Nintendo's only mistake is not being able to churn out games like this fast enough. But it has a promising line up coming for WiiU and Im very excited. And at 1080p 60fps, MArio Kart is a great game. Cant wait to pick this up!

At the end of the day its the games that sell the hardware. If you dont have a reason to pick up a WiiU, you should have one now.
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Art C. Jones Writer / Blogger 3 years ago
Can't wait. The reviews being posted 2 weeks before launch is killing me. want to buy NOW!
It's reviewing much better than MK7 or MKWii did, I wonder if that is b/c of the controls improving (Kotaku called out the controls as much improved) or b/c the game is just a visual beast. At E3 last year it was as pretty as anything I saw period.
2 weeks...2 weeks!
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Pete Thompson Editor 3 years ago
Even though Polygon have said it's likely to be the worst selling game in the series I hope it does well for Nintendo..

Mario games have never been my sort of game thing.
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Jamie Read 3D Artist, Neon Play Ltd3 years ago
Love Mario Kart, this game looks beautiful and so much fun. Can't wait, system seller for sure.
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Christopher Ingram Editor-at-Large, Digitally Downloaded3 years ago
I don't like to be the negative voice in the crowd, but I've not purchased a Wii U yet and Mario Kart 8, regardless of the praise it's getting and seemingly deserves, this is not a system seller for me. The console is still too lacking for the investment in my opinion - I'm usually there on day one to purchase Nintendo consoles. I've burned myself out of the Mario Kart franchise years ago. After dropped an insane number of hours playing Mario Kart DS (and every installment previous to it) years back, I simply don't have the urge to play another.

I do hope that this game sells well for Nintendo!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Ingram on 15th May 2014 11:17pm

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Gareth John Marketing Consultant, Gamoso Ltd3 years ago
While pre-destined to be the most underperforming Mario Kart to date given the Wii Uís small install base, this is yet another critically acclaimed game on a system that has already built up a solid catalogue for a reasonably specific audience.

With the exception of my pc, I find Iíve bought more titles for my Wii U in the last year than for any of the other systems out there, last or next gen. Seems the Wii U is destined to be this generation's Dreamcast. Which I think is a shame.
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments3 years ago
@Gareth I'd say more this gen's gamecube than dreamcast.
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Gareth John Marketing Consultant, Gamoso Ltd3 years ago
@Neil Yeah, better comparison.
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Tanya Rei Myoko Programmer 3 years ago
Wii u being underpowered is a fact repeated by many developers. Its not a misconception
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.3 years ago
Wii u being underpowered is a fact repeated by many developers. Its not a misconception
Wii U isn't underpowered. Looks like it's running Mario Kart 8 just fine.
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments3 years ago
It's just a shame Nintendo still don't plan on bringing out Zelda until next spring. If they could have got Zelda out for October/November then the Wii U might of still had a chance going into Christmas. I understand the reasons initially why their release schedule was this staggered but without 3rd parties it's going to be hard to build on the momentum from Mario Kart.
They're not going to risk rushing something out. A flop would do far more damage to both the console and their overall brand than a dry patch.
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