It's the third lap. You're in first and Luigi's hot on your tail. Your item? A banana peel. The finish line is mere meters away when Luigi slips in behind you to draft his way to victory. You let that banana peel fly and Luigi goes crying to his mama. But wait! You were so focused on Luigi you didn't notice that red shell coming your way. It's too late! The shell bashes you in the face, and Ludwig Von Freaking Koopa zooms into first while you're left to limp into fifth place. Mario Kart is back, people, and the racing is more frustrating, more frenetic, more fantastically over-the-top, I-need-to-sleep-but-I-can't-stop-playing fun than ever.
With 32 tracks, 30 characters and countless Kart parts to unlock and customize, there's so much friggin' content in Mario Kart 8 it'll take your breath away. The basic elements of the series, such as power-sliding, crazy items and trying desperately not to fly off of the road, are all back along with some stirring new additions. Mario Kart 8's courses are insane, often having players go underwater, through the air or even straight up the walls. With the many alternate routes in every stage, players often have a choice as to whether they'd rather take the safer, but slower, underwater route, slip onto the walls to try for max speed or get as much air-time as they can to stay above the rabble. These alternate driving modes look and feel great, and add some nice variety to the gameplay. The anti-gravity sections, in particular, are to be commended, as they manage to make driving sideways and upside-down a clear, vertigo-free experience.
Items are better distributed, too— don't expect to see the endless line of Blue Shells you'd find in previous Mario Karts (although, if you want to play with an endless line of stars, blue shells and lightning bolts you can always turn on Frantic Mode for some frenetic fun). Though there are still plenty of nutso power items, they're not quite as common, but every power-up functions with so much more precision that it encourages players to use them thoughtfully rather than count on them to carry them to an easy victory. There are also coins scattered around every course, granting increased top speeds to players who collect them and small speed boosts to players who reach the maximum coin count. While it may seem like a small detail, the addition of these coins actually makes for an excellent gameplay element, as they make it easier for players who are far behind to focus on nabbing coins to pull ahead of the pack, or for first-place players who get blue shelled to get back on their feet more easily. In fact, recovering from just about anything happens more quickly than previous Mario Karts— even when you fall off the track you're quickly fished out and back into the action in a flash. Little things like these help make this Mario Kart feel like the sharpest, fastest version of the Mario Kart experience.
Mario Kart 8 boasts an impressively large cast, and an even larger pile of bodies, tires and gliders with which to customize your kart. Your character of choice does have some impact on the way your kart performs, the actual pieces of the kart itself have far more bearing on your weight, speed, acceleration, etc., and with how well-balanced the various cast members and kart types are with each other, ultimately who and what you want to drive is up to you. No one character or machine is better than the rest.
Few games lend themselves to couch play as well as Mario Kart, and here it's even better than ever. You'll ooh and aah at the amazing visuals and level designs with your friends, marvel at the impeccably tight controls as you zoom into first, drown out the top-notch score of tunes new and old when you scream swear words when coming in dead last, and laugh your ass off at Mario Kart 8's most brilliant new addition— replays. At the end of each race you can rewatch a highlight reel of the greatest thrills and spills by you and your pals, using fast-forward, rewind and slow-motion to prolong the hilarity. The built-in sharing tools allow for easy uploads to YouTube, and while all of this is great, the lack of direct editing/camera controls in the replays can be a tad frustrating.
Battle Mode— a staple feature of the series- returns, and with it comes Mario Kart 8's one major stumbling point. This mode has players trying to strike each other with items until only one racer remains, and while previous MK iterations have had special arenas specifically devoted to battle mode, this time around you have to use the standard levels— and it sucks unbelievably hard. These levels are far too large, and you'll spend more time driving around looking for other players than actually fighting anyone. This entire mode screams "rushed, last-minute addition,” one that we can only hope gets rectified with some battle mode-related DLC down the road.
Even the most hardened kart-racing veterans would be hard-pressed not to consider Mario Kart 8 as one of the best, if not the best, entry in this phenomenal series. Mario Kart has long been known for bringing players of all size and skill together. This newest iteration, with its tightly balanced gameplay, giant content offering and lush visuals and audio, will have you and yours screaming, cursing and cheering through countless hours of play.
This review is based on a digitally-downloaded copy of Mario Kart 8 for Wii U.