If there was ever a game that persuaded you to part with your hard earned cash for a Wii, that game was probably one of four heavy hitters - either Wii Fit, New Super Mario Bros Wii, Wii Sports, or Mario Kart Wii. With nigh on 36 million copies sold (that's over double what Call of Duty: Ghosts managed, and that was on six platforms), Mario Kart Wii was - and the Mario Kart series is - a game that ticks all the Nintendo boxes. Accessible fun, with great split-screen options that let family and friends join in together, in an over the top, crazy Kart race with dozens of tracks, and plenty of weird weapons, where anyone can win.
With the Wii U arguably struggling, Nintendo have put a lot of work in to making Mario Kart 8 their much needed system seller - a game to encourage those who have yet to dip their feet into the Wii U waters to jump straight in. With shiny new HD graphics, gimmicky new "anti-gravity" sections, four player split-screen, and twelve player online multiplayer (which, brilliantly, lets two people on the same console play together against other players online), Mario Kart 8 is arguably more evolution than revolution, but that's no bad thing.
Building on the existing Mario Kart conventions, 8's gameplay primarily revolves around the Grand Prix - the equivalent of the 'career' mode found in other games. Within Grand Prix, there are three different speed grades (50cc, 100cc, 150cc), which roughly equate to difficulty, with the skill of your AI opponents typically ramping up the higher the grade, even though the tracks and cups you'll be racing around stay the same.
As always, there are eight cups on offer, with each cup consisting of four races - four of the cups feature all-new tracks, while the remaining four offer re-imagined "retro" tracks drawn from earlier Mario Kart games, remixed to include newer features such as the mid-air gliding and the aforementioned Mario Kart 8 poster feature, the anti-gravity sections.
And there's a huge amount of courses on offer. From zipping in between pyramids of Dry Dry Desert, slipping and sliding down the snowy Mount Wario, avoiding giant doughnuts on the Sugar Rush inspired Sweet Sweet Canyon, or simply trying to stick to the road around the tight corners and edge of your seat insanity that is Rainbow Road, there's jumps, drops, tight corners, long straights where you can floor your kart - and plenty of time to get up close and personal with your competitors.
Despite having a great selection of tracks, though, Mario Kart 8's biggest new feature, the anti-gravity sections, ends up being something of an anti climax. After driving over a blue strip in the road, your kart's wheels will flip outwards, turning into anti gravity hovering... things, and letting you race around loops, up tracts of road at impossible angles, or even upside down. However, most of the time, you don't actually notice you're upside down. Seeing as the camera stays the same way up, and the track just seems to be bending and turning in the same way, the only way you can usually tell you're in an anti gravity section is by your car's glowing blue wheels, and the strange glowing orbs of light that, if driven past close by, will spin you round and give a brief speed boost.
Not that some tracks don't pull it off pretty well though. Some courses make use of the blue anti-grav sections for short cuts - one great example being Toad's Turnpike. A busy race set on a motorway full of slow moving vehicles, you'll spend as much time dodging the lorries and buses as you will avoiding green shells that have been chucked your way - so keeping an eye out for the friendly blue strips is a great idea. Letting you slip up a wall, and race at 90 degrees to the motorway, you can dodge all the traffic, and get a load of boosts for your trouble. Another good example is the Luigi's Mansion stage, called Twisted Mansion, which branches into two tracks that each rotate 90 degrees, meaning you end up racing with other karts *above* you on the screen. That's a weird feeling.
The other big part of any Mario Kart race is the weapons and power ups, which you collect by driving through the handily placed revolving '?' cubes, netting you a random item for your trouble. From the green shells, that bash their way through the track in a straight line until they hit someone or run out of steam, to the more irritating, homing red shells, and the more basic mushroom boost power ups, there's a wide range here - although they have the usual Mario Kart limitations. Many items from the previous games return - mushrooms, stars, bloopers (squids that spray the screen with ink), green/red/blue shells (with blue shells homing in on the person in first place), fire flowers (that let you shoot fireball), bullet bills (that trundle down the track blowing everyone up that they touch), lightning (which shrinks everyone but you), bob-ombs (which explode) - as well a few new additions: the boomerang flower (which lets you shoot boomerangs), piranha plant (which chomps obstacles/competitors in front while giving brief speed boosts) and super horn (emits a sonic shockwave, spinning out other racers and repelling shells). There's also Mario Kart 7's Lucky 7 successor, the Crazy 8, which gives the player 8 items at once - a mushroom, blooper, coin, banana, green shell, red shell, bob-omb and star.
As always, the racers towards the rear of the pack tend get the most powerful items as per Mario Kart's aid system, which tries to give those players who're stuck at the back a bit of a helping hand, while limiting those in first place to banana skins (which make karts spin, as you'd imagine) - but it doesn't work quite as well as you'd expect. If you're out in first place, your choice of weapons will be understandably limited - but if you're stuck in second, you'll also tend to only ever get bananas 99% of the time (the other 1%, you'll luck out and get three red shells or something) - but the problem is, how are you ever supposed to stop the person in first place armed with just a banana peel? If you can't reach them with your weapon - and no other players can touch them either, seeing as the players behind you may have better weapons, but they'll all, bar the blue shell, home in on you - it tends to mean that once someone gets out in first place, it's very hard to stop them.
If someone does get lucky with a banana peel, a different issue rears its head, as once you've dropped down the pack, you'll soon find yourself well and truly stuck in the middle, and never more than a few seconds away from being smashed with a shell. As most Mario Kart items work well over short distances, and as more powerful weapons come so frequently, the middle of the pack tends to be incredibly hard to escape from. Every few seconds, you'll find yourself being pelted with shells, with no-one really gaining any ground or losing any, as the person in first place, free from any interference, gets further and further into the lead. It's an issue that other racing games, like Sonic and SEGA All Stars Racing didn't have, so it's a bit disappointing to see a game like Mario Kart get the balancing so wrong.
Of course, it's no use having some swish tracks to drift your way around if there's no one you want to drift as, and so Mario Kart 8 comes packing a roster totalling 30 playable characters (16 unlocked to begin with, and 14 that can be unlocked by getting golds in the game's cups). Rosters like this usually vary in quality between Mario Kart instalments, but while 8's starting racers offer a good mix, the unlockable characters feel a bit 'cheap', especially when you consider how many Mario characters there are that have been given the cold shoulder - iconic characters such as Dry Bones, Funky Kong and King Boo are absent, despite having featured in earlier Mario Karts, while all 7 interchangeable Koopa bosses from Super Mario 3D world are present (who, let's be honest, nobody wants to play as). There's also the incredibly annoying baby versions of the main Mario troupe who are all-too-similar to their older counterparts, as well as the tack-on inclusion of Metal Mario, returning from Mario Kart 7, and the bizarre Pink Gold Peach who makes her first (and hopefully last) appearance in Mario Kart 8 (honestly, Nintendo - what's next, Rusted-Copper Luigi?). The only decent unlockable characters are Lakitu and Rosalina, and when you consider the characters Nintendo's ignored (Captain Toad, who's now the star of his own game? Mario Sunshine's resident grass skirt wearing Piantas? Even Birdo!), it seems like a bit of a rip off.
Of course, your character isn't the only thing you can customise. With a wide range of options on offer, you can create your own kart for your racer too, choosing a kart/bike body, wheels and some form of glider/parachute (for the mid-air gliding sections), letting you tune your racing experience to your own tastes. However, while it's more than possible to create a kart that you think looks great, it's also easy to make a kart that's a total lemon when you get it out on the track. Coming in twelfth place because your Bad Wagon/Monster Truck wheels combo turns like it's made of dark matter isn't all that much fun, and perhaps it'd be nice if, at least on the lower CC/lower difficulty races, changes you made to your kart were more cosmetic than anything.
To make things more complex, each racer has their own weight class too - light, medium or heavy - with each having its own advantages and drawbacks: lighter racers have better acceleration but slightly slower top speeds, heavier racers have higher top speeds but lower acceleration (sometimes to the extreme), while medium weight racers are generally all-rounders. In addition, different bodies/wheels/gliding apparatus have different effects upon the player's stats (for example, grippier tyres enhance handling but reduce speed), with a handy on-screen set of bars showing you how each choice will affect your car's overall handling, but still - it's a lot to think about when you're first starting out.
However, despite the irritations, there's still a lot to like here. One of the biggest, coolest features is that the entire game is playable in split-screen multiplayer. Unlocking characters by getting trophies in cups isn't limited to single player, as you can bring a group of friends along for the ride, and play through the races together. While it's technically competitive multiplayer, there's nothing stopping you deciding to work as a team instead - nominating one of you to try and take first place, and having two wingmen fending off the rest of the pack. Seeing as the cups get given to the player with the most points over all of the tracks, there's always everything to play for if you're playing competitively too, as right up until the very last track, all it takes is one bad run, or one particularly good run to turn the table on its head.
There's a fair amount of different modes here too. Time Trials challenge the player to complete the track in the shortest time possible, with this time being recorded as a 'ghost' against which other players can race. Vs Race allows for rule-tweaking in races, letting you adjust which items can be obtained, or the difficulty level of the AI-controlled racers.
Battle Mode, however, in previous games was an entirely different situation: players competed in specially designed battle arenas and accumulated points for attacking other racers and popping their balloons, with the last racer standing, or the one with the highest point count being the winner. If a racer lost all their balloons, they were effectively knocked out of the competition, but they could still attack other players as a ghost. The immediate difference in Mario Kart 8's Battle mode is that smaller, more intimate battle arenas are no longer used - instead, Battles take place on regular racing tracks which, frankly, doesn't work very well. Instead of the usual attacking-dodging-item-stealing-balloon-popping-all-out-mayhem, players spend most of their time driving around alone searching for everyone else.
Online makes a return too, although as always, it's hampered by the Wii U's lacklustre online service. Actually getting your friends to join a session is a bit of a game, as there's no way to make an invite pop up on their screen saying you want to play Mario Kart 8 now, so it usually boils down to a lot of texting, Skype, and sometimes even using the Xbox 360 or PS3 to tell your friends you want to play. Still, once you're there, it's worth the wait. Letting you and a friend take on the world (or just some distant friends) in online matches with a total of 12 competitors, things get every bit as crazy as you'd expect. In-between races, players can send messages (chosen from a list of pre-determined options, just to keep things family friendly) to everyone else in the 'race lobby' as well as voting for the next track from 3 randomly selected ones. In a bit of a weird twist, rather than the track with the most votes getting picked, the course is instead chosen randomly, meaning that there can be times when the 90% majority in favour of a particular track can lose out to one of the other two options.
One of the areas Mario Kart's always struggled in is the single player longevity. Luckily, Mario Kart 8 gets this right by packing the game full of unlockable extras. Each course in the game is littered with coins, and not only does collecting them give your kart a quick speed boost, but it also lets you unlock new add-ons. The coins you collect in each race are added to your overall tally, and collecting enough will unlock new bits of bike/kart, wheels, parasols, and other assorted automobilia. It's a great reason to keep you coming back - although, to be honest, you don't really need one.
And this is perhaps what it all boils down to. We have a bit of a love hate relationship with Mario Kart. We love the split-screen, but we hate the unbalanced weapons that make it so hard to catch the player in front, but so easy to get stuck in the middle. We love the accessible controls (you can use any combination of things, from a Wii Remote on its own, tilting like there's no tomorrow, to a Classic Controller Pro with more analogue sticks and buttons than a 747 cockpit), but we hate the crummy characters you unlock. And yet we'll still be there, night after night, with three or four of us firing our shells up Waluigi's exhaust pipe on more time, just trying to get that last gold trophy, unlock that new part, or simply playing it for the fun. We'll set challenges to complete the courses in the crappiest cars possible, to see who can tame the beasts, and we'll work together to take advantage of the broken weapon balancing.
While the Battle mode is an eternal disappointment, robbing one of the most popular game types of what made it special, for all its warts and bumps, there's still something special about Mario Kart that'll keep you coming back. Whether it's the shiny new graphics, the new replay system which shows you instant highlights after every race, which you can slow down, rewind and speed up again to see every red shell impact and dice with death over and over again (or, if you'd prefer, the eerie stare of a Mario brother), or the toe tapping tunes, there's something about this that will keep you coming back, again and again.
Is it a system seller? Perhaps not on its own. But with this, LEGO City Undercover, Pikmin 3, the best version of Batman on any format, Zelda: Wind Waker and the best Mario platformer in years, if not ever in Super Mario 3D World, there's more than enough reason to buy a Wii U.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U