Multiplayer is the second option down on Mario Kart 8’s menu screen. It feels as though that single player selection sitting there at the top is a strange move, as Mario Kart is clearly all about the local multiplayer mayhem. And now, with Grand Prix being available in multiplayer too, it almost feels as though the single player side of the game could be moot.
That’s not entirely true, though – while it plays its best with three other friends by your side, it looks its best in single player, at a solid 60fps and 1080p resolution, and there’s more finesse in getting gold and three stars on each Grand Prix alone. Beyond that, there’s leaderboards on each track, which thankfully support online times and ghosts. It’s as great a single player game as it is in multiplayer and, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter where the options sit on the menu, because there’s enjoyment to be found in every section.
Single player will see you, and you alone, taking on the eight Grand Prix tournaments, each of which has four tracks – 16 new, brilliant and original, and then 16 from previous games, reworked and remade. As ever, you’ll be aiming for first using a combination of smart racing and crazy items, drifting and weaving your way between obstacles and through shortcuts. It’s a really fast-paced game – particularly in 150cc or mirror mode – and can be quite difficult at times, offering a lot to do.
The gameplay is just perfect now. On the surface, Mario Kart 8 is a fun and wacky karting game which is easy to learn, but there’s something far deeper going on here, and mastering each drift, boost, jump, trick or slipstream to get that perfect lap will take some time.
There are also some subtle differences with how it all comes together, which aren’t likely to be spotted by newcomers or casual players, although it does feel like a more hardcore game from the moment you press down on A. There’s no automatic drifting, for example, and getting those drift-boosts are more important than ever. There’s much more finesse in the handling, too, which makes for a very particular racing experience which still sits in first place among karting games.
All of this leads to an extremely fun and refined experience, which is at the top of its game in multiplayer. It’s the kind of multiplayer you’ll be playing years from now and never get bored of, partly due to presentation, partly due to design, but mainly due to the sheer fun that can be found seconds after loading it up. It remains extremely smooth at 60fps with two players and a horizontal split, but when the screen is divided into four, it goes down to 30fps, which is a noticeable difference but one that doesn’t have a huge impact, and it never drops from a stable rate.
The track design is simply brilliant – there are straightforward circuits, new and old, such as the SNES donut plains or new Mario Stadium, but then there are complex tracks such as Shy Guy Falls, which will see you drive up and down twin waterfalls, or Mount Wario – an SSX-like downhill race with three distinct sections rather than repeated laps. There are some stand-out highlights, yet no real lowlights, at least in the new set of sixteen.
But the sixteen old tracks feel just as new: Moo Moo Meadows is a different realm in HD, with some stunning effects, backgrounds and a gorgeously varied colour palette compared to the rather flat textures of the Wii release. Nintendo don’t stop there though, with remakes of simple GBA and SNES tracks twisted to incorporate features such as anti-gravity, gliding and underwater gameplay.
The biggest singular upgrade is the N64 version of Rainbow Road. Once a relatively flat, boring track, it’s now a twisting roller coaster with three different sections, floating above a glorious cityscape and below fireworks in the night sky, as you travel alongside a floating, speeding train. It’s a track which exceeds expectations, and one which is actually better than the new Rainbow Road.
New features really do take the track design to the next level, breathing new life into old tracks as well as bringing new elements into play which do not confuse much and feel completely natural. Both gliding and underwater gameplay from Mario Kart 7 return, and you’ll have to master these subtle changes if you want to win.
Anti-gravity brings a lot to the game, but you’ll barely have to change your play style. It’s incorporated in a perfect way: your wheels will turn on their sides as you go up a wall, or the road ahead twists and you find yourself on the roof, but you might not notice unless you look at the upside down scenery. It’s hardly a subtle effect, but one which isn’t jarring, allowing you to race unhindered in a multitude of directions. It really adds another element to the track design, and is just perfectly executed in terms of how it affects both style and gameplay.
Many items return from previous games but there are some new ones too. There’s standard green, red and blue shells (which are still annoying, but less so than before), bullet bills for playing catch up, stars for super speed and mushrooms for boosts, and those are joined by the superb piranha plant which boosts you while chomping nearby enemies, or the boomerang flower, which returns to you after throwing. There’s even a way to destroy blue shells from first place, in the form of the super horn.
Of course, items are balanced in that there’s a handicap for players falling behind, meaning that while you’re likely to get bullet or star power in last position, you’ll only really get bananas, shells and coins in first place. The coin item gives you two additional coins, and many more can be found littered around the track. They’ll boost your max speed, up to a maximum of ten collected, but if you get hit you’ll drop three of them.
Mario Kart 8 feels like a combination of all the best bits from previous games, as it should do, and the karts and bikes are also combinations, which you’ll create after choosing your character. You can select a body, wheels and a glider, which all come together along with your character’s weight class to create a balance of speed, acceleration, grip and handling. It’s really fast to put a good kart or bike together, and with quad bikes in the mix, there really are some unique combinations.
Despite this, there are some notable characters missing, but then there’s a respectable roster of thirty characters, bringing Shy Guy, Metal Mario and the Koopalings (Bowser’s minions) into play. In-game, every character looks amazing, with their own animations, trick poses and subtleties making them appear as though they’re Mario figures which have came to life on screen. The roster is nice and varied then, with plenty to choose from, although all characters are unlocked very quickly, which removes some of the excitement of completing time trials and getting three stars on every cup. But you’ll do that anyway.
Given Nintendo’s penchant for quality throughout every aspect of their games, it’s odd that one section of Mario Kart 8 feels like an afterthought, and remains unfinished. That’s the less popular battle mode, which is now confined to balloon battle across existing tracks, rather than tailored arenas. Driving around the tracks doesn’t have quite the same excitement as fighting on an open battlefield, and it ultimately just feels as though they shouldn’t have included the mode at all.
They’ve also missed a trick by not allowing a fifth player to join the race on the GamePad. In fact, while the features are good – a horn, live race rankings, a map, or a screen view for off-TV play – it would make more sense to display the individual screen on the GamePad rather than the split screen.
Online modes – either one player or two locally, against up to twelve in total online – feel very simple at first, but the customisable tournaments are a great addition, and the ranking system which sees your rating start at a flat 1000 and then go up or down from there is good enough to keep you coming back. There’s also the ability to upload or download ghosts for individual time trials, and there’s a real sense of challenge here too.
Another feature which shows that Nintendo is eager to move further into online features is Mario Kart TV. At the end of each race, you’ll be presented with an impressive automated highlight reel, showing the best bits from the race. This can be edited by choosing different styles of play and different characters to focus on, or by increasing the length. Best of all, these clips can be shared to either your friends on Miiverse or YouTube. It’s often fun to watch highlights back, and you’re even able to slow down the action to see the most devious of takedowns.
As touched on before, it looks absolutely incredible in motion, particularly when it’s running at 60 frames per second, and there are some incredible effects at play which make every single aspect of the game shine, but the visuals aren’t the only thing which will blow you away. In fact, the best part which makes it all come together is the music. Whether it’s the Moo Moo Meadows’ fiddle, the guitar in Rainbow Road, the Galaxy-style orchestral tones of Cloudtop Cruise, or even just the addictive melody of Thwomp Ruins, the big band music shines in every track, much like almost every other aspect of the game.
Mario Kart 8 doesn’t deviate from the formula set by previous games, and you might not even notice the anti-gravity mechanics until you’re driving up a wall or upside down, but that’s what’s so good about it. They’ve refined every single feature and mechanic – aside from a poor Battle mode – and brought it all together to create an objectively simple, but deceptively deep, racing game which will hold your attention for years to come.
Once again, Nintendo have proven that they’re the masters of local multiplayer, and you’ll be hard pushed to find a game this fun on any other console, whether you’re playing with friends or alone.