Speaking of air-punching moments… The core online experience is just as smooth and solid as single-player (even the online split-screen mode--where you and a buddy play online together--is sturdy). I did encounter a few unexplained disconnects during this pre-release phase of online play, but uninterrupted races were totally lag-free, even when racing between the US and UK GamesRadar offices.
However. Local multiplayer is not always the riotous good time it should be. Cutting the frame-rate in half to 30fps to enable full-fat four-player races makes the game look visibly scrappier, especially when the quarter-sized windows look extra jagged on a 1080p TV. Some of our four-player multiplayer sessions have been decidedly flat, like everyone feels detached from what’s happening in the game. Wiimotes don’t help. Thankfully you can turn off motion control steering, but the button layout feels restrictive either way. Pads with sticks make the game feel far more immediate and you’ll have a better time as a result.
The intelligent distribution of powerful items seems to vary between modes. Single-player doesn’t seem as generous with the better weapons, only awarding invincibility stars and the ‘8’ if you’re right at the very back of the pack. Multiplayer is a little more liberal, which is a good thing. You want ammunition to chuck at your mates, right? Accordingly, the multiplayer yields bigger weapons all the way up to around 4th place.
For variety, you can customise the multiplayer considerably. ‘No items’ or ‘shells only’ are purists’ heaven, while ‘Bob-ombs only’ is gleefully chaotic. But it does exaggerate that ‘leader will vanish’ problem, as there’s nothing to allow you to catch back up, yet you’re still getting hit.
By far the worst element of the game is the new Battle mode. A Mario Kart staple, the old ‘try to keep your three balloons safe while popping others’ should be a surefire success. But the arenas are gone. Instead, you fight each other on the same race tracks from Grand Prix mode. Sure, they have some extra routes opened up, and you can go either way around the track, but it’s not self-contained enough to be chaotic. Lonely multiplayer is not fun.
Perhaps ironically, then, the asynchronous action of online ghost mode time attack is one of the best reasons to buy the game. Leaving behind the chaos of regular multiplayer racing, you can race against your friends’ 3-lap ghost times, shaving tenths, hundredths and even thousandths of a second off their effort. Upload your own ghost lap and you can brag about it on Miiverse. Draw a little picture, write a little taunt… it’s superb, and exactly how connected gaming should be. And playing with focused precision really highlights the nuances of the drift-boost system and the exploitable placement of obstacles and ramps.
Mario Kart 8 is a high-quality game, of that there is no question. But it often feels like you and it are simply going through the motions. And when the musical swell from Super Mario Galaxy’s Gusty Garden kicks in (aah, the goosebumps!), it does hammer home the fact that this game doesn’t offer anything unique of its own that sets it apart from other kart racers or even other games in the series. As a result, it’s very good--occasionally superb--but not quite exceptional.