Before Melee and when I had to visit my cousins for a chance to play anything Nintendo, Mario Kart 64 was the easiest way for us to all play together. Some have been better than others, but the Mario Kart series has moved from there with a general upward trajectory. The latest entry feels all-encompassing, avoiding technical pratfalls while being loaded with excellent tracks.
A key element about both Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. that I see many complain about is the luck-based elements. Smash luckily has the feature to turn those random elements off. As a kart racer, items are central to Mario Kart’s design philosophy. What I think people overlook is that these elements are what raised these series out of their niche genres. Both traditional racers and fighting games have a glaring flaw due to their focus on skill. New players are going to be trounced. While these games are good for actual competitions, anyone stuck with a few inexperienced friends is going to have a rough time convincing them to keep trying. I’ve met a few fighting game enthusiasts who simply can’t participate in their hobby – they’re caught in an awkward place between being too good for locals but not good enough for professional tourneys.
In Mario Kart, items give everyone the feeling they can influence the race, no matter their skill level. Key to Mario Kart 8 is there being enough ways to mitigate damage as the top player. Skill is still the determining factor 90% of the time, but that little sliver gives everyone else hope. For anyone who prefers playing with ordinary friends, this perception is a must. ‘Realistic’ racing games simply can’t offer that experience.
With 48 tracks, Mario Kart 8 is by far the largest game in the series. What makes this truly special is that there are many I love and very few (if any) I outright dislike. By offering both quality and quantity, Mario Kart 8 goes one step beyond its predecessors.
The highlight here is Mount Wario, a track which feels more like skiing down a snowy mountain than a traditional race; unlike most other tracks, Mount Wario does not loop. This is simply one massive track. Each track carries a distinct energy, from racing through a flashy nightclub to balancing atop an eel to staples like Bowser’s castle and Rainbow Road. Plenty of great classic tracks come back, while the DLC expansion (which comes with the Switch version) features tracks based on Zelda, Animal Crossing, and F-Zero. There’s just so much on offer here, and it’s all top quality.
For those looking for a challenge, the game introduces a 200cc mode. At this speed, every track becomes a nightmare to navigate. I feel like anyone who played this series started off by bashing into walls and drifting off edges during sharp turns. 200cc is a new way for even experienced players to revisit that frustration!
Mario Kart has always filled its niche with quality games, but most entries lacked a serious oomph. They were the side game that you might as well purchase if you’re already getting a Nintendo system, rare games which go well with parties. With so much quality content and smooth mechanics, Mario Kart 8 is the first time the series has felt like a central draw.