Mario Kart 8 (April 2014 Hands-on) (Wii U) Preview

By Jorge Ba-oh 05.04.2014 8

Review for Mario Kart 8 (April 2014 Hands-on) on Wii U

If there's any racing game that's survived the test of time and the ever-changing landscape of the video game market, it would have to be Nintendo's iconic and much-loved flagship franchise, Mario Kart. From the ground-breaking moment of Mode 7 in the series debut, Super Mario Kart, to the multi-terrain approach in Mario Kart 7, the series has flourished in over two decades.

With Nintendo's latest home console, Wii U, in need of a healthy prescribed dose of banana blitzing, blue-shell busting and "Rainbow Road" romping, the team have been brewing what's intended to be the definitive edition of Mario Kart. Nintendo haven't just spruced up the visual design into HD; but instead collated all the innovative features from years past, together with intricate fine tuning, to produce a Mario Kart from a brand new perspective. Welcome to Mario Kart 8.

The build we played was significant step up from the initial post E3 reveal, a delicious starter to the main course expected to hit homes this May. As a preview build, the main focus was on single and multiplayer Grand Prix, with 16 of the 32 courses available to blitz through, soaking up the intense amount of detail and trying to remould lessons learnt from the more recent entries. As per expected, these play out in the tried-and-tested way: four courses, points awarded for how well each racer places per circuit, culminating in a victory celebration and bragging rights that transcend time itself. The preview build didn't delve into the customisation options available, but there was assurance that there will be a wealth of modifiers to shake up proceedings. Mario Kart 8 producer Yosuke Yabuki did tease in a roundtable during GDC that the Wii U edition will feature a greater level of customisation, taking a leaf out of the Mario Kart 7 rulebook.

Unfortunately, the other available modes weren't playable, but would presumably fit into the Mario Kart mould for those already accustomed to how they play out. Single player, a staple of the series and one for unlocking content, is of course back in full force, there'll also be a two player spit-screen mode, time trials, battle and online play. Those wanting to go deeper into the experience, unrestrained from the specific Grand Prix order, can sink their teeth into the Versus mode as featured in the more recent instalments.

What is worth noting, though, is that both battle and versus modes are also available in the Single Player selection, and though not playable in the preview build, are a welcome re-inclusion given the abrupt removal of these options for the solo racer in Mario Kart 7.

Add a third or fourth player, and instantly leap back through time to the days where localised split-screen was the norm and smartphones weren't around to derail the concentration. As a staple of the series, four player local play returns and will likely eat into gaming nights with ease.

Last, but not least, is what Nintendo are describing as the "edit highlight reel" feature, Mario Kart TV, an expanded replay function that essentially would allow footage from the race itself to be cherry picked, chopped and mashed neatly together to reproduce those key, unforgettable moments. Managed to claim pole position from the perils of last place? Performed the physics defying evasion along the walls only to be derailed by a blue shell moments from the finishing line? These moments can be captured and tweaked, so that everyone can relive the race, particularly those who may have been in other sections of the course while the action was happening. The hands-on preview build did give a small taster of what's to come, and it'll certainly be an intriguing option to explore in the final release.

Screenshot for Mario Kart 8 (April 2014 Hands-on) on Wii U

Whilst the game was mind-numbingly impressive and a true successor visually in the E3 build, the latest insight into the inner workings of Mario Kart 8 presented a sublime art style that is truly brimming with streams of colour, intricate detail and a scope beyond a simple reconfiguration of the Mario Kart Wii aesthetic. The added details and top-tier production help accentuate the fantasy feeling of racing in a myriad of different environments; realistic texture work and lighting, yet maintain the Nintendo lick of paint. "Thwomp Ruins" brings an impressive tribal look, bathed in scorching sunshine and dimly lit, slightly eerie tunnels, whilst "Shy Guy Falls" ascends into new heights, through a fantastically detailed mountain range. Retro courses have been torn up, ripped apart from their pixelated and polygon roots and reworked into a delightful, reimagined look that sits nicely within the new framework.

For all the details, particle and lighting effects, the game would fail at the first hurdle if the animation and movement churned along, so fortunately everything is locked in at an impressive 60 frames per second (or 30 when playing with three or more players). In the several hours of play, the game didn't stutter once, with single player certainly being the most impressive setting yet - allowing the true vision of the production to come alive on the big screen.

With a third or fourth player sat firmly in the driver's seat, the fluidity does take a fairly significant dive, dropping from an insatiable 60 frames per second to half that, but fortunately maintaining a steady and far more consistent performance when compared to Mario Kart Wii. In the former release, four players would be mind-numbingly awful, with slowdown apparent in every which corner. However, in Mario Kart 8, it's a joy to play, maintaining a solid 30fps lead.

Certain series veterans may cringe at the very mention of motorbikes, within a series clearly labelled as "Mario Kart"; but the two wheelers are certainly here to stay given the popularity of the vehicle class in Mario Kart Wii. Armed with the ability to submerge under particular portions of water and glide past opponents from Mario Kart 7, there's no plane that can't be conquered by the Mushroom Kingdom racers. Unlike Mario Kart Wii, however, the vehicle selection process lends itself more to Mario Kart 7, where the different wheel and parasol types affect stats, rather than simply weight-specific models.

Bikes do feel that bit closer and more balanced towards karts this time round, with the concern from four wheel purists that bikes had the upper-hand in a multi-vehicle race in Mario Kart Wii. Gone is the ability to instantly wheelie for added speed, in favour of bikes that do feel heavier than their Wii counterparts, with turning that felt more in line with Mario Kart 7. From the preview build, there wasn't a bike available that emulated the "Mach Bike" or "Magikruiser" in terms of nippy turning, but some did some close to achieving that style of control.

Screenshot for Mario Kart 8 (April 2014 Hands-on) on Wii U

Above all that, comes the much touted "anti-gravity" feature, where certain sections of a track would allow players to cling onto walls or the ceiling to avoid obstacles, take much-needed shortcuts or simply act as part of the level design itself. Particular highlights include roaming across a Boo ghost banquet in "Twisted Mansion", seeing Princess Peach's castle upside down in "Mario Circuit" or ascending up a drenched rollercoaster in "Water Park". No longer are circuits limited to a fairly flat terrain, but instead is a wild ride of different axis without being too disorientating due to the consistently fixed camera work. Another change was an ability Nintendo are calling "Spin Turbo", where specific objects or colliding into another racer during the "anti-gravity" sections grant a mini speed boost.

The usual assortment of familiar faces return in their quest for golden cup glory, including Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Daisy, the babies, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Wario, Waluigi, the Koopalings and many more. Bowser's cheeky offspring do tend to feel like rehashed versions of the core crew, but do have their own distinct personalities. Perhaps they could have opened up the floor for other, potentially more unique enemies from the Super Mario series, but these critters are here to stay.
In the preview build, there were 16 courses available to sample, across four cups, with 32 set to be available in the final retail release. The new set offered a vibrant, enjoyable selection of themes, from the scrumptious, candy filled delights of "Sweet Sweet Canyon" to the vibrant, European, sea-side vibes of "Toad Harbor", there is already an exciting number of courses, each distinctly different from one another. In terms of complexity in course structure, there were some dastardly turns in places, and awkward obstacles here and there, but these early Grand Prix cups within the game are notably easy to navigate.

The retro courses are a joy to behold, particularly for those who have grown up with the series. From the sample of tracks played, most of these put anti-gravity on the backburner, relying on a more traditional course design, bar a handful of trick platforms and slight deviations on the tried-and-tested structure. Those that did lift players above safe ground included the clever use of ramps for flight, plus antigravity walls in "Toad's Turnpike", plus a giant, modified loop (on springs) in "Mario Circuit". Visually the tracks aren't a simple cut and paste job, with some flourishing so much so that they become almost new circuits in their own entity. It's certainly pulls on the heart strings, and will be exciting to see how the remainder of the retro selection plays out.

Mario Kart wouldn't be quite the same without a generous helping of items, intuitive and precise controls, and Mario Kart 8 returns with that wholesome feeling that it simply works. The preview build did lack some of the newer items from the finished product, but did include the traditional collection of shells, mushrooms, invincibility star, lightning and bananas, also inviting back the Bullet Bill, Blooper, Fire Flower and Bomb-Omb from recent titles.

Screenshot for Mario Kart 8 (April 2014 Hands-on) on Wii U

These generally handle almost identically to their predecessors, though come with the snag of not being able to pick up additional items whilst holding out shells, or bananas for example - whether it's three circling about or holding the single item behind a racer. Whilst a fairly small change, it does have repercussions on those sailing ahead, given the lack of reserve item. That said, balancing in the preview build did lean more towards those out in front, as catching the pack from low positions did seem significantly more challenging this time round.

Two newer items include the nifty boomerang, which fires out in front and returns, knocking out multiple racers with up to three throws. It's one of the more useful additions, with the potential to do a lot of damage within a confined space, yet does demand a little bit more skill than simply letting loose all willy-nilly. The second of the pair was a hungry piranha plant, which bolts onto the front of a vehicle and gobbles up obstacles and, naturally, racers up ahead. It does sound similar to the invincibility star in some ways, but does leave the rear undefended and up for the taking.

In terms of controls, those who have played the Wii or 3DS releases will feel instantly at home. There is a bit more weight, though, so both karts and bikes did feel fractionally heavier overall from the preview roster. Power-sliding is the "modern" system of holding down a shoulder trigger to build up momentum, with both bikes and karts able to generate an orange flame with some persistence. From the overall hands-on session, it's as tight and solid as the past games, with a refinement in balancing between vehicle types and classes that did make for closer matches.

The GamePad was available to try, though the interface is subject to change in the final release, offering a fairly limited toolset on the screen itself: a map, ranking, off-TV system and a giant horn to press, but not really much else. A rear-view camera would certainly be the icing on the cake, but there is of course elements of the design that have yet to have been shown.

Last, but certainly not least, was the soundtrack. Whilst the playthough session did not allow for headphones or direct-audio recording, the vibrancy and richness from the live instrumentation just strengthened the presentation and helps highlight just how much work has gone into the production, even from an unfinished preview build. Not all tracks will come will full, live music, but it's certainly a much-needed step up from the dated midi range.

Screenshot for Mario Kart 8 (April 2014 Hands-on) on Wii U

Final Thoughts

Mario Kart 8 is a sign of even greater moments to come for Wii U owners, with a velvety, rich look, feel and sound that bring the Nintendo production into the high-definition era. The controls are as fluid and intuitive as ever, courses are distinct and varied, plus features absent from the 3DS release are making a welcome return. Nintendo are hoping that this release will be the definitive package, and as it stands, it's certainly coming close to fulfilling that need. Better stack up on supplies, as May will be a month to remember.

Developer

Nintendo

Publisher

Nintendo

Genre

Driving

Players

4

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10 (4 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now    Also on Also on Nintendo eShop

Comments

From the preview build, there wasn't a bike available that emulated the "Mach Bike" or "Magikruiser" in terms of nippy turning, but some did come close to achieving that style of control.
Thanks for that, jb. Far from all bikes in Mario Kart Wii were like that, so we can't completely rule them out until the final build that has all of them. Still, as long as they handle similarly, I'd be fine with that. My worst fear was bikes merely differing from karts when it comes to looks, so I'm glad that's not the case.

( Edited 05.04.2014 19:01 by SirLink )

Sounds great!

Thanks for that, jb. Far from all bikes in Mario Kart Wii were like that, so we can't completely rule them out until the final build that has all of them. Still, as long as they handle similarly, I'd be fine with that. My worst fear was bikes merely differing from karts when it comes to looks, so I'm glad that's not the case.

Definitely had to look at how karts/bikes handle - don't think many other reports really went into that, but personally it makes a hell of a difference, especially in some MK Wii courses (where bikes feel more suitable).

Definitely more vehicles to unlock, hopefully some will be a bit closer to Mach etc.

Cubed3 Admin/Founder & Designer

I am so jelly of you right now JB....where do you get these connections???!

It is not wise to speak on subjects you do not know all facts about, nor is it smart to judge a game based on looks alone. PSN: Nintendo_Gamer 3DS: 4296-3029-7422

Any idea if the game can be played like Sonic Racing with one player on the gamepad and another on the TV? After Call of Duty and Sonic Racing, I don't really want to share a screen anymore. Smilie

Great stuff, thanks for the in-depth preview, lots of food for thought. Can't wait to give it a go. Smilie

andy-blah said:
Great stuff, thanks for the in-depth preview, lots of food for thought. Can't wait to give it a go. Smilie

Cheers Andy!

Any idea if the game can be played like Sonic Racing with one player on the gamepad and another on the TV?

Good point - not sure, possible but wasn't available in the preview build we played!

I am so jelly of you right now JB....where do you get these connections???!

Lol, well Adam and James (ex staffer) got us the initial Nintendo UK connection many years ago (around 10 now), and we've kept the connection going Smilie

Cubed3 Admin/Founder & Designer

I always needed this game since my childhood

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