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Mario Kart 8 review

AT A GLANCE
  • Rock-solid movement and physics
  • Beautiful, sumptuous HD visuals
  • Excellent online integration
  • Anti-gravity feels disappointingly flat
  • Balloon Battle mode has been ruined
  • Doesn’t offer any remarkable new features

Mario Kart 8’s title might as well read ‘Mario Kart 7 Deluxe’, because this is essentially an HD retread of the 3DS racing classic with a few extras thrown in for good measure. That is, of course, a good thing. The land/sea/air transformation seen in MK7 provides not only aesthetic variety but potential for clever play… and now it’s bolstered by a fourth mode: anti-gravity racing. So you’re still zapping, boosting, and red-shelling your opponents around Mario-themed tracks, only now you’re doing it on the walls and even the ceiling. But unlike the rollercoaster track layouts that seem to promise so much fun, Mario Kart 8 does, at times, feel a little flat.

With the 32 tracks split 50/50 between brand new and revised retro content, the evolution of Mario Kart track design over the years is starkly apparent. The new tracks are almost universally wider and easier to drive thanks to an abundance of shallow corners. And, as a result, they’re not as exciting as they should be. Sure, the Mount Wario downhill, point-to-point track is a standout, and the Boo-filled Haunted Mansion looks amazing with its warping corridors and lava fountains, but the track design is rarely fiendish or particularly inventive. There is one corner on Bone Dry Dunes that lets you drift right along the inside of a tight corner over two highly pronounced undulations, before releasing the orange boost and flying over a ramp. It’s perfect. But it doesn’t happen anywhere near often enough.

By comparison, the retro tracks have still got class. Of course, nostalgia plays a role there, but many have been enhanced so much, they’re virtually unrecognisable. All have been given a wonderful graphical makeover (DS’ Cheep Cheep Beach, in particular, looks incredible) but many have been significantly warped to include that anti-gravity driving. One old-school ‘flat’ track even breaks into elevated sections on hydraulics before the race begins, ready for some anti-grav shenanigans.

And so, you drive over a blue bar on the track and--with a seamless, automatic transition--your kart’s wheels fold downward and suddenly you’re driving on walls, ceilings… even vertically. What a shame anti-gravity ‘state’ only has a marginal effect on gameplay. The handling doesn’t change, to the point where you can even stop dead and you won’t fall off. So even when you're upside-down, corners still feel the same, to the point where you rarely even realise you’re upside-down in the first place (especially considering the camera hardly changes position), which is disappointing.

Snaking secrets

In past games, it has been possible for advanced players to exploit the ‘drift boost’ mechanic and ‘snake’ down straights, drifting to the right, boosting from it, then repeating to the left. Mario Kart 7 fixed this to a good extent, but MK8’s drift is even better. Drifting on the apex of a corner charges the boost faster, while straights need so much time drifting, you’ll be facing the grass by the time it’s anywhere near charged.

Also disappointing is the difficulty level of single-player. If you’ve played Mario Kart before (and with seven predecessors to Mario Kart 8, chances are you have), the 50cc and 100cc difficulty tiers will pose such little challenge that you’ll rarely see another kart after the first corner. But even on the more challenging 150cc (and unlockable 150cc Mirror Mode), if you get out ahead of the pack by the end of lap 1, you’re practically guaranteed a win. Online and off, no weapon will close a big gap, especially when even the Blue Shell is now vulnerable. 

Yes, you read that right: you can now defend against a Blue Shell. If you’ve got the horn (steady), you can blast the blue bastard out of the sky as it approaches, in a gleeful moment of revenge for all the times it screwed you over on the finish line in Mario Kart Wii. It’s a rare-ish item, plus lightning attacks often make you drop it before you can use it, but the satisfaction when you smash ol’ Blue out of the sky is palpable.

The other new items are both useful and fun to use. The Piranha Plant not only takes exaggerated bites at opponents as you pass, but also acts as a mini-turbo every time it lurches forward with a press of the attack button. There’s also a boomerang for medium-long-range attacks, which isn’t mega-powerful, but can hit multiple racers in one go, and the one-more-than-Mario-Kart-7 ‘8’ weapon, which gives you 8 items at once, moving in a ring around your kart.

Annoyingly, however, you can only hold one standard weapon at a time. No Mario Kart 64-style holding a shell behind you while banking another item here. It always used to feel like a safety net, racing along with a banana visible to everyone else, while secretly hoarding a red shell homing missile. Now everyone knows you’ve only got a banana.

Still, that banana looks incredible because the attention to detail here is magnificent. See those speed-boost mushrooms encircling your opponent’s kart? You can steal one by driving close enough for it to touch you. That is brilliant. A light enough brush of a ramp with your wheels while you’re gliding doesn’t deactivate the sail, but it does let you hit the jump button for a ramp boost. And the best air-punching moments still come from accurately predicting the trajectory of a green shell’s bounce off a wall and using it to smash your opponent into second place. Geometry FTW.

More Info

Release date: May 30 2014 - Wii U (US)
Available Platforms: Wii U
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating:
Everyone: Comic Mischief

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.

Mario Kart 8 is a slick and gorgeous-looking kart racer that's perfectly solid but not always as exciting or addictive as we've come to expect from the series.

167 comments

  • alexis-braunreiter - July 21, 2014 11:45 p.m.

    Far out I was gifted a Wii points card code and it was legit! Giveaway is going on here http://freewiipointsforever.com
  • IcedChoffee - June 5, 2014 8:09 p.m.

    this game needs soooo much fixing, dont get me wrong its a good game i completed all the cups already with atleast a 1 star rating but the items and karts are sooo dumb. first of all the kart parts have "stats" in which some have more speed than others and some may have more acceleration, but none of those stats come into effect. i play as morton (heavy) on the sport bike with azure roller tires and the bowser kite. the stats for that is (4.25 speed, 4.0 accel, 3.75 weight, 3.25 handling and 1.75 traction) that is a great balance of a high amount of speed and acceleration but noooooo in this game ive gotten passed by normally driving by mario, who is a medium player, with the Standard kart, standard tires and the super glider which has (3.75 speed, 2.5 accel, 3.75 weight, 3.25 handling and 3.75 traction) so nintendo is trying to go above and beyond with these features of customizable karts but you basically customize them for show since the stats dont apply to the game at all. Second, the items in this game suck, ive gotten a star in 2nd place, that really doesnt make any sense at all in my eyes, when you get hit by an item its almost like youre stunned for 15 seconds, ive been in first place slipped on a banana and was sent all the way back to 7th in a matter of seconds. in mario kart wii, which is the best mario kart, when you had a mushroom or a star it would give u a noticably big speed boost...... not in mario kart 8, there is probably a 2% speed boost tops when activating star power. mushrooms in this game barely add speed as well, ive had a golden mushroom before and was passed by a person getting a boost from drifting.......wtf is that crap. there really needs to be something changed with the items with how often you get a certain item, what places can and cant get certain items, faster and more powerful boosts with mushrooms or stars and even the bullet bill. the bullet bill is complete garbage in this game. if nintendo is going to implement kart stats they should at least make it balanced or just have the stats removed. in addition to that, the stats are completely unfair, heavy characters start off with a base stat of (4.75 speed which is already fast, 2.0 accel, 4.75 weight, 2.25 handling and 3.25 traction) with just a base stat of that is completely over powered. having a footrace on mario circuit with heavy against light, heavy would win because of the speed they have(light has a base stat of 2.25 speed). overalll this game is completely 100% broken from items to stats to stun from items.right now with my experience on this game i would give it a 2.5 out of 5 and im a great Nintendo fan, but they really messed up this game and its bad. to see all the stats on the kart parts and characters go to the mario wiki for mario kart
  • Blackhammer26 - June 2, 2014 6:58 a.m.

    To me mario kart 8 is a good game but Nintendo took it way to far on the 150cc and the mirror race. I want to get the gold kart but I can't because the coms get to aggressive and they get faster power ups than I do. Doesn't make sense to me. And why do u have to get a star on every single race. U did a good job Nintendo but cool it down on the coms
  • DoctorGordonFreeman - June 1, 2014 11:16 a.m.

    Great review Justin! I agree 100%, especially with the Battle Mode issues. For anybody interested, I've just started a petition for Nintendo to release optional DLC including arena courses. It could really use some support! Hopefully with enough people we could make it happen. https://www.change.org/petitions/nintendo-co-ltd-add-arena-style-courses-to-the-nearly-perfect-mario-kart-8-s-battle-mode-via-dlc
  • CitizenWolfie - May 31, 2014 12:12 p.m.

    I've been playing it a lot since I bought it home and I have to say it's the best one since Mario Kart 64. I've enjoyed them all but the weapon spam and AI rubber banding in some of the later ones have gotten ridiculous. MK8 is really well balanced and the fact that there's now a counter to the blue shell has made the world of difference to me. I love the new tracks too and I don't think they're too wide and forgiving at all. But even the little tweaks like Lakitu saving you much quicker and faster recovery from item hits makes the races flow much better. And the N64 Rainbow Road is the best ever. My only cons are obviously the battle arenas being gone and I'd have liked to see more variety in the classic tracks. It feels like there's a lot of DS ones there and I'd like more anti grav takes on the SNES classics or HD versions of the N64 and GC tracks. I know most of the best ones have already been redone in the Wii & 3DS versions but I wouldn't mind seeing them again with the new additions.
  • KNITEpanda - May 30, 2014 9:48 p.m.

    To the cons: The anti-grav is nearly the same as driving w/o it. Its their to give you a boost advantage if you know what the hell you're doing. Balloon battle mode can EASILY be fixed via update and downloads. I understand how crappy it is to no longer have the arenas, but this is easily fixed like I said. Mario Kart has never really needed to bring anything new...Newest features for a while were just the new vehicles, then new weapons...what more do you want? lol
  • talleyXIV - May 20, 2014 10:50 p.m.

    I can't get over how gorgeous this game is. We've all been playing in HD for many many years now but there is still something so spectacular about this game. It's probably because we have been seeing this series in standard definition for right around 20 years.
  • shawksta - May 18, 2014 11:49 p.m.

    I just keep watching gameplay vids and comparison videos on Retro tracks, goddamn this game is gorgous, you really need to see those comparison videos, Just 12 days left to go!
  • shawksta - May 16, 2014 10:09 p.m.

    I just realized that Mario Kart 8 got an 8 heh
  • mikewatson021 - May 16, 2014 4:59 p.m.

    Mario is the best game and character of my life ! Everytime i play with him and i play his game ! http://goo.gl/lEQWe1
  • watevermanimlost - May 16, 2014 4:27 p.m.

    I don't know if this was brought up but which controller did you use? Pad, Pro, or Wii mote?
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - May 19, 2014 8:50 p.m.

    Tried them all!
  • Shayz - May 16, 2014 9:05 a.m.

    Double Dash had THE BEST battle modes. If they were going to make the battle modes on tracks they should have done some sort of baby park style battle mode where it's just a small track that goes in circles or something. But come on, how can you tell me that spamming bob-ombs at 3 of your friends on a tilting 2D mario surface isn't fun? Giant colorful explosions litter the screen as multiple bombs go off that were laid as traps. Or trying to grab the shine sprite from someone as they race through random pipes going in one way and popping out the next. Every time the counter gets down to 3 seconds someone finally hits you and the timer is reset again. Or how crazy it is to play a baloon battle on top of a gamecube, where giant bowser shells bounce around constantly, fireballs are spewed left and right, shells and banana peels EVERYWHERE. ______________________________ All that aside, this still looks like a great game despite the battle mode. The one thing I will nitpick though is the soundtrack. I usually LOVE MK soundtracks, but the real instruments just throws me off. I'm sorry, but mario games are built for repetitive electronic/synthetic melodies...the soundtrack honetly sounds like they're trying to be too innovative and the guitar solos make it feel that much worse. Don't get me wrong, the melodies I've heard so far are superb, but they all sound like orchestra versions instead of the actual themes themselves. It's even more obvious how far off it sounds when you compare it to the classic tracks. ____________________________________ I just hope that I don't play this game for a few hours, then get annoyed/bored and go back to Double Dash. There's just so much they got right in that game that ever since the flop that was MKWii, I've been patiently waiting for the MK salvation, and it better not disappoint.
  • talleyXIV - May 20, 2014 10:53 p.m.

    I think Double Dash is essentially where Mario Kart peaked. That game is brilliant in all facets besides the fact that playing 4 players means 2 teams (still loved teaming up though). Battle mode was brilliant as you said, there were legitimate advantages and disadvantages and unique characteristics for each kart and players you chose, and speaking objectively it had the best tracks. If it had online I would still be playing that sick puppy today.
  • Nikku7 - May 16, 2014 1:30 a.m.

    I've read quite a few reviews so far, and leave it to Justin to have by far the most detailed one. Thank you. If their's one thing I'm afraid I'm afraid of, it's battle mode. It used to be my favorite, but mario kart wii's was all but unplayable and now I dont know what to think about the sound of this one. Why can't I have some awesome new arena maps and a reskin of block fort and double decker? Can I battle free for all? Team battles on mario kart are terrible... Well at least I know it's got the racing I want and expect. Should be a fun time nonetheless. Enjoyed it at the preview event. (Other than being stuck with the wiimote controller...)
  • avedon-arcade - May 15, 2014 10:17 p.m.

    Wow, looks like everyone is ripping on Polygon's layout style lately. Or am I missing where Polygon ripped it from somewhere else? As far as game sites go, it's lame that they're all becoming the same. I personally think anti-grav was meh when I played it, but it doesn't break the game either.
  • brickman409 - May 15, 2014 9:27 p.m.

    Wow, the graphics look amazing! ... man, when was the last time I have said that about a Nintendo game?
  • -_-Anonymous-_- - May 15, 2014 8:52 p.m.

    Another bad Nintendo review from a Playstation & Xbox fanboy. to make Nintendo look bad. and Xbox & Playstation look great.
  • Swedish_Chef - May 15, 2014 9:04 p.m.

    Ahh the modern game industry, the only place where there are people that consider an 8/10 review score "Bad".
  • -_-Anonymous-_- - May 15, 2014 9:08 p.m.

    You know this review is nothing more than a joke? It was made by teenage kids who are fanboys of the playstation & Xbox.

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