[28 May 2014]
The Mario Kart series is one of the strangest racing game series out there. Some racing games like Gran Turismo or Forza are simulations that have hundreds of cars and thousands of customizations and try to give the player the most realistic experience possible as they chase getting the best times on courses. Others use a similar formula, but turn the system on its head at the last moment, like Burnout in which crashing the car is a good thing and nets one points or Need for Speed in which other players are aggressive and the police are often on the player’s tail. The spectrum seems to go from real to “fun” or silly, and if this is the case, the Mario Kart series is as far into the “fun” side as it can be.
Instead of being realistic, Mario Kart 8 and the rest of the Mario Kart series are almost exclusively about fun. While many games boast a variety of vehicles, Mario Kart 8 only has a little more than a dozen, but that’s not the focus. Instead the player can choose from a plethora of characters they identify with, who are much more prominent than the karts they drive. It’s much easier to personally connect to a character than it is to a car, which in turn gives the player a greater connection to the game. That said, Mario Kart 8 is certainly pushing the limits of character, as they are running out of Mario series characters and many of the new kart racers are hardly recognizable at all.
The Mario Kart series also isn’t about getting the best time. While there is a mode in Mario Kart 8 in which the player can run the courses in the game by themselves and try to get the best time possible, that mode is more tacked on than it is a main game feature. Instead, other players and computers become the challenge, as everyone else is a huge threat to the player. Shells, bananas, bombs, and boomerangs all clutter the tracks of Mario Kart 8 and their purpose is to disrupt and destroy. No racing game can be about time when the other players have as much sway over the player’s time and success as the player does.
The courses in Mario Kart 8 are also wildly different than those of other racing games. I would say that most racing games take place on mostly flat ground, but this is definitely not the case in Mario Kart 8 in which the player flies through the air, goes deep under water, cruises down mountains, drives on rainbows in outer space, upside down, on the walls, or through vast lava filled volcanoes. At the same time, a variety of statical challenges appear, monsters and other gigantic obstacles need to be avoided and falling off the course is almost always a present danger.
All these departures from the regular formula of racing games make Mario Kart 8 and other Mario Kart games what they are: games that create moments. Whether driving through the jungle or through outer space, nearly every course, character, and race can become, and are, memorable. Races are almost always close, as it takes a huge skill gap for one player to constantly win over other players as no one can predict or prepare for the next shell or boomerang slamming into them.
Mario Kart 8 is filled with the highest highs, like hitting your friend with a shell right before they cross the finish line and stealing victory from the jaws of defeat, and the lowest lows, like being the friend who gets hit with a shell right before crossing the finish line. Unlike other racing games, no two Mario Kart 8 races are alike, as the items are also randomized and they have such a huge impact on the game. While some racing game aficionados probably view this as a negative thing, it is the bread and butter of the Mario Kart series. Regardless of skill, every player is on the same level—at least to some degree.
Nintendo can often be criticized at times for creating redundant games, but I strongly feel they fully understand that Mario Kart 8 is a game about moments. Most of the changes to the “Mario Kart formula” enhance the fun factor of the game and help create moments. For instance, the player gets back on the track much quicker now if they fall off, helping to create a much more fluid experience for the player and reduce the frustration of taking that one corner too sharp or too late, and while poorly implemented, the new “highlight reel” added can sometimes help you relive those great moments of conquest.
Fluid is definitely the word I would use to describe Mario Kart 8. While Nintendo doesn’t do much to change things up and most of the features of the game are very similar to previous Mario Kart games, the commitment to fun is surely present in this attempt, and it shows. The attention to detail in this game is on a level that I rarely see from Nintendo, and all of it is geared towards creating a full experience so that the player(s) can have the incredible moments that the Mario Kart series is known for. Mario Kart 8 flows beautifully and older games in the series will almost surely feel clunky and stunted compared to Mario Kart 8, which is a welcome addition to a series already crowded with great games.