For more than twenty years, the Mario Kart games have brought cartoony, arcade-style racing to Nintendo’s systems. But while Mario Kart 8 does a good job of continuing this tradition on the WiiU, it’s hard not to think that it could’ve been better.
Like the previous games in this series, Mario Kart 8 has Mario, Donkey Kong, and their pals driving go-karts, motorcycles, and other vehicles around twisty tracks that are full of jumps, hazards, and multiple pathways, all while trying to take out the competition with weapons that are as loopy as the tracks you use them on.
Which is why Princess Peach is driving a low rider with wooden wheels on the dirt pathways of a farm, where she has to avoid oblivious cows and mischievous gophers while shooting red Koopa shells at Donkey Kong. Or, as it’s known in Mario Kart 8: Thursday.
As always, Mario Kart 8 adds a few new wrinkles to this series’ well-established arsenal, sometimes quite literally. Deploy the Piranha Plant, for instance, and one of the Dionaea muscipula from Super Mario Bros. will mount itself on your hood and start biting traps and other drivers. Or you can just hit people with a boomerang, then wait for it to come back so you can hit a couple other people.
Mario Kart 8 is also the first game in the series to be presented in high definition. Which is, of course, a superficial thing, it doesn’t have any impact on the game itself, but it does make this look vibrant and pretty.
But the biggest addition is that there are now tracks where you can drive up on the walls. Shy Guy Falls, for instance, has you speeding up a waterfall and then down the side of a mountain. Though unlike other games that have pulled such tricks — such as the Mario Kart-inspired Wipeout games — this never becomes disorienting or nauseating because the transitions from the ground to the sides of things is done gradually and subtly, not quickly. Which I why I knew when I had gone up onto the a wall on other tracks, but in Shy Guy Falls, I didn’t even realize I was speeding up a waterfall, I thought I was driving on a shallow lake bed.
All of this fun stuff is put to good use in Mario Kart 8’s many modes. In “Grand Prix,” which you can play solo or via local multiplayer, there are eight events of four consecutive races each; the single-player-only “Time Trials” has you racing against the clock, and the clocks of people who’ve posted their times online; the online multiplayer version of “VS Mode” has you racing up to eleven other players; while the online-only “Custom” mode and the solo- and offline multiplayer version of “VS Race” let you change such rules as what items you can and can’t use, the types of vehicles available, and the skill level of your competition.
There’s also a combat mode called “Battle,” which you can playing alone or with friends. But because you’re fighting it out on some of the tracks, and not in arenas, and because the weapons aren’t made for accuracy as much as they are lunacy, this mode ends up being rather dull.
This, however, isn’t the only problem with Mario Kart 8. It’s not even the biggest one. No, that distinction belongs to the game’s lack of options. Well, sort of. When it comes to the actual races, there are plenty of options, which gives this a great deal of depth. But in other areas, the game is sorely, and sometimes annoyingly, lacking.
Consider the controls. Mario Kart 8 offers two different steering options: you can either use the left thumbstick, or you can turn the entire gamepad (though you shouldn’t because the latter isn’t as precise as the former). But it only has one set up for the buttons: “A” or “Y” is the gas, “B” is the brake, and the right trigger is to power slide. Which means that, unlike every other racing game in recent memory, Mario Kart 8 doesn’t have you using the right trigger to accelerate and the left one to brake.
Admittedly, this isn’t a big deal. Even the most hardcore of racing game fans will get used to the switch after an event or two (though even then they might forget if they come back to this after taking a break). It’s just odd that Mario Kart 8 wouldn’t, at the very least, give you the option.
Mario Kart 8 could also use a little more speed. While you have three options in this area — 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc — even the latter isn’t all that fast. This could really use a 250cc category, or maybe even 500cc. Though it’s also not hard to imagine how much more fun this would be if you had a rechargeable boost that would blast you forward for a bit. Y’know, as opposed to the mushrooms that never come up when you really need them.
Though if they did up the speed quotient, they’d need to fix how the vehicles handle. Especially since these things not only don’t turn on a dime, they don’t turn on a nickel, a penny, or even a gold coin. Granted, you can always power slide around a corner. But it would also be nice if, like in other racing games, you could cruise around corners by letting up on the gas. Instead, taking your thumb off the accelerator slows you down considerably, like you’ve slammed on the brakes.
You also can’t talk to people when playing online. Voice chat only works in the lobby, not during races. Which makes sense if you’re playing with strangers, but with friends?
This could also use a good single-player career mode. Something where you’d race through a series of different tracks, events, and speed settings. And I don’t means something elaborate like you might find in a Need For Speed game, where you’re like an undercover cop trying to impress Kate Upton or something stupid, just something a bit more involved that has a sense of progression.
At the very least, I wish that finishing a Grand Prix event didn’t kick you all the way back to the main menu, but returned you to the Grand Prix menu instead.
Oh, and then there’s the music. Personally, I find music in racing games — even if it’s music I like — to be distracting. I also, again personally, find the music in most Nintendo games to be annoyingly goofy. So you can imagine how personally irritated I got that you not only can’t turn off the music in Mario Kart 8, you can’t even turn it down. The latter of which is doubly annoying because not only is the music terrible, but it’s also so loud that it drowns out the sounds of the cars and the crowd and of Wario yelling obscenities when he gets passed by Donkey Kong, Bowser, and Mario in rapid succession.
Admittedly, some of things I’m suggesting may sound sacrilegious to longtime Mario Kart fans. But other than the music stuff, which really is so annoying that it almost made me quit a couple times, none of these complaints are deal breakers. Yes, Mario Kart 8 would be better if you had the option of using the right trigger for the gas, or if you could take a turn by easing up on the gas, or if this had a full career mode. But as is, it’s still a good cartoony, arcade-style racing game. It’s just too bad it’s not better.