It’s fitting in more ways than one that the bright blue number eight in Mario Kart 8’s logo suggests a Möbius strip. Not only is it indicative of the game’s introduction of anti-gravity segments that send players speeding across inverted routes, but it’s also representative of the boundless replayability that accompanies such multifaceted, fantastical kart racing. The breakneak meme-ification of Luigi’s “Death Stare” very nearly overshadowed just how solid this series’s eighth entry really is; it’s easily the most mechanically daring and artistically sound since 2003’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!! The game’s plus column is so jam-packed that all the complaints one can lob in its direction are nearly rendered null. Intuitive controls, a terrific soundtrack, an equal amount of brand-new and magnanimously updated vintage courses, not to mention some of the most stunning graphics yet seen on the Wii U, render it an indispensable gameplay experience.
Almost everything about the game typifies enhanced quality, from the silky-smooth 60fps framerate (which, understandably, halves to 30 during local four-player competitions), to the expert level, item, vehicle, and character designs that put Nintendo’s first-party title dedication on full display. This is clearly a game that was made with mega-critical superfans in mind, as each detail, no matter how minute, in the long run seems vital to the success of the overall package. It’s the modest, nostalgia-inducing flourishes that remain with you hours after a session is completed: the ethereal cherry blossoms that float by while gunning for a merited victory at Royal Raceway, the iconic over-sized spinning egg (now in glorious HD) that marks the final stretch to the finish line at Yoshi Valley. While the retro tracks would be enough to satisfy many a Mario Kart enthusiast, the fresh environments rank among the greatest in the franchise. Sweet Sweet Canyon, with its ice-cream cone-lane markers and coral-colored skies, is a visual feast, and Super Mario Sunshine receives its proper homage with Sunshine Airport, which at one point has players dodging airborne jetliners as they sail down a runway. Most memorable, though, is the chaotic downhill slalom of Mount Wario, which dutifully bucks the traditional three-lap trend in favor of well-placed checkpoints that make the course, much like past Wario-themed stages, a highlight.
The game’s 30-character roster has its pros (all hail Metal Mario and Pink Gold Peach) and its cons (too many babies, and the Koopalings aren’t all that special either), but there’s enough dissimilarity in weight classes that there’s always a suitable option in any versus situation. The customization of vehicles, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. While the selection of karts, bikes, and ATVs, in addition to tire and glider models, is a cut above previous iterations, the lackluster presentation of variable stats during the outfitting process is an unforgivable annoyance (refined side-by-side menus or a separate, thoroughgoing breakdown on the GamePad would have helped), with Nintendo apparently leaving players to experiment largely via trial and error in order to analyze the features of each possible component assemblage, something that takes time away from reaching paramount goals. The inexperienced should probably be told upfront, somehow, that bikes pair better with slim wheels and perform better on tight turns, while ATVs typically require bulky, bumpy treads to gain the advantage, sneaking through obstacles to uncover helpful shortcuts. Thankfully, anti-gravity sections do away with roads altogether, flipping spokes horizontally and taking the spotlight in the ultra-futuristic looking neon-coated nightclub Electrodome and the Wii U’s hyper-stylized version of Rainbow Road, both of which recall the glossy high-speed thrills of F-Zero GX, drastically furthering the need for a genuine sequel to that fashion-forward GameCube classic.
The theory that a Mario Kart game is only as good as its multiplayer doesn’t necessarily hold true for Mario Kart 8. While the regular races, both online and off, are an ample source of competitive amusement, the battle scenarios lack staying power and creativity, axing original arena-style levels, instead sticking tired balloon-exiling combat into areas already explored in standard play. Don’t be surprised if the majority of your personal triumphs occur when playing solo, your last-second slides to the winner’s circle relished and rewound ad infinitum on the game’s post-race replay system’s (Mario Kart TV) many switchable camera angles.
The game possesses a handful of notable firsts (paranoia-generating Spiny Shells can be halted with a thunderous blow from the invaluable Super Horn; recovery from falling off edges is expedited, and doesn’t outright kill your lead), but most momentous is the fact that, finally, a Mario Kart installment’s fun factor is practically matched by its graphical beauty. If Super Mario 3D World wasn’t enough to make the Wii U that much more of an enticement, this game, now the golden yardstick by which all future Mario Kart titles will be measured, just might do the trick.