Let’s just get this out of the way right now. We hate Donkey Kong, and we’re pretty sure he hates us too. What else explains his insistence on taking us out just seconds away from the finish line of around half of all races we’ve played in Mario Kart 8? Doesn’t matter if it’s a shell, bomb, or even a lobbed banana skin, if we’re robbed of a victory in the final moments it’s almost guaranteed to be that grinning, tie-wearing ape behind it.
We’ve no idea if Donkey Kong is programmed to be such an insufferable simian or if we’re just unlucky, but the point remains the same: MK8 shares the same impressive skill as its predecessors in convincing you that make-believe characters have the capacity for hate, spite, malice, pride… the list goes on (especially when it comes to that nasty brute – and on another note, who’s he trying to impress with that tie anyway?)
In its transition to shiny, high-definition graphics and a locked 60fps frame rate Mario Kart 8 has lost none of the series’ ability to infuriate with its randomness. A technically perfect race can still be undone in seconds, while poor performances can turn into pole position finishes with the right power-up at the right time. Can it feel unfair? Absolutely. Is it ever boring? Hell no.
This sense of unfairness is tempered by pitch-perfect controls that take a few races to learn, and a few dozen more to truly master. You can use the GamePad, a Wii Remote, a Remote combined with a Nunchuk, or a pro controller. There’s also the option to use motion controls if you want to make all that involuntary leaning on tight corners actually help you get round them. The weight of the karts and the way power slide boosts work feels closest to Mario Kart 64. Gone is the snaking technique that could allow an almost endless chain of boosts in the last few iterations, and there are no unnecessary gimmicks such as the two drivers of Double Dash.
Like Mario Kart 7 your kart has fold out wings or a parachute for gliding and a propeller for driving underwater. This time there are also anti-gravity sections where your wheels flip over, transforming your ride into a futuristic hovercraft. Handling feels slightly lighter for these parts, but the main effect is to allow tracks to twist and turn in whatever way the designers feel like taking you. Of the 32 tracks 16 are new and the rest are remade versions of classics from the last seven iterations. New tracks take full advantage of the anti-gravity sections, with race through the sky Cloudtop Cruise and downhill dash Wario Mountain two particularly inventive courses worth mentioning.
Though they still retain their old essences the retro tracks have been tweaked to include flying, underwater and anti-gravity sections too. A good example of how MK8’s design philosophy has been applied is the new version of the N64’s Rainbow Road. What used to be an arduous slog is one of the best tracks in the game, using anti-gravity and flight to create a rollercoaster ride with echoes of F-Zero in its manic hyperactivity.
When it comes to injecting their games with a tangible sense of personality Nintendo usually smashes it, and while having some of the most famous characters in videogames certainly gives them a head start, the way the sound effects and animations come together to create what feels like a cartoon in motion is remarkable. Yoshi leaps out of his kart to turn and nod at you when his weapon finds a target, stopped in his tracks Wario angrily shakes his fist, and Mario forever shouts ‘wahoo’ in that adorably musical way of his. All small touches granted, but all vital in creating a world that’s a joy to spend time in.
It’s no surprise for a Mario Kart game that the music deserves praise, but for the first time all the scores have been recorded with live instruments that make them even more jaunty, catchy and just downright hummable, without ever making you want to chuck a controller through the screen in frustration at their incessantly upbeat vibes even if you’ve just narrowly missed out on first place again (probably) because Donkey Kong’s a bastard (sorry, but there really is no other explanation).
With eight Grand Prix cups and Time Trial mode for those course record-chasing, second-shaving purists, single player is a perfectly good way to wile away the hours, but as always multiplayer is where MK8 comes into its own. The frame rate holds up for two players but get three of four people involved and things do get a bit choppy at points. Don’t let this put you off though, it’s never unplayable, and with local multiplayer taking a backseat in most games to online features MK8 is one of the best places to take on some living, breathing people in the same room as you. Like in single player a lot of the enjoyment comes from the randomness, whether it’s the infuriation of being robbed of victory or the smugness of whizzing past your mate in the final seconds, MK8’s ability to get your heart rate up and make you feel emotions (you know, those things that are in films and books and that) is fantastic.
That’s not to say online isn’t up to scratch. If, like us, you have friends who used to play games back in the day but scoff at the idea of spending hours getting shot by potty-mouthed teens from round the world, MK8 is the perfect thing to show them how good online gaming can be. Two people can play on one console together, and nothing beats knowing a real human somewhere round the world is fuming as you Bullet Bill your way past them on the final stretch.
There are no upgrades or XP, and that’s the beauty. Everyone’s on a level playing field, but the simple point system (you start with 1,000 and lose or win points depending where you rank and how many points your opponents have) still keeps things addictive. After all, nothing does a better job of keeping you playing than the annoyance of having fewer points than you started a session with.
Mario Kart 8′s only misstep is the Battle mode, which does away with bespoke arenas and simply adds a lives system to normal races. It’s also sad to see nothing in the vein of the DS version’s Challenge mode. Minor complaints aside though, Nintendo have done a fabulous job of bringing the Mario Kart series screeching into the current generation with aplomb. It’s just a pity they chose to bring Donkey Kong along for the ride. Not really, we love and forgive you DK – now please just let us get Gold on the Lightning Cup.
Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U is out now.
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