Mario Kart 8 takes the series in a new direction, which is to say, "sideways." The Wii U's first entry in the franchise introduces the concept of relativistic gravity – an idea not entirely foreign to Mario himself – to the vehicular antics enjoyed by Nintendo's mascots.
It also marks the console debut of Mario Kart 7's hang gliding mechanic and, by virtue of being on the Wii U, motion controls with the GamePad. Hang gliding is innocuous enough, but I had reservations about the implications of the GamePad's seemingly superior motion controls after a few test races in Nintendo's booth at E3. We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before we get on to how good (and therefore troubling) the GamePad is at emulating a steering wheel, let's talk about Mario Kart 8's gravity mechanic, and how simplistic and enjoyable it is.
It works like this: Scattered around each track are curved, blue, ramp-like surfaces that, once driven on, activate your bike/car's anti-grav wheels, which in turn reorient your race onto an adjacent wall or similarly improbable surface. The players' vehicles will also jump into anti-gravity mode when presented with unusual terrain, such as the warped, waving floor of a Boo-infested, haunted dining room.
It's a simple enough idea, and in practice is essentially a clever way to add multiple paths through a track without branching the course, but its execution adds a fun, fantastical layer to a formula that has, for the most part, remained the same for over a decade. The mechanics of driving don't change while you're on a wall or upside down, but you're still driving on a wall, or upside down, and it's pretty neat.
Mario Kart 8's other important new addition is the GamePad itself, which the player holds out in front of themselves like a big, square steering wheel. The touchscreen doesn't add much to the driving experience, but the device's suite of motion sensors are surprisingly adept at accurately translating slight variations in rotation to the in-game world. In fact, my lap times were better while using the GamePad's motion controls than while using traditional controls or a Wiimote.
Of course, the Wii U currently has a one-GamePad-per-console limit, which means one player will be using the GamePad while everyone else is using Pro Controllers or, more likely, Wiimotes, and herein lies the rub. Based on my (admittedly limited) time with the game during E3, the player with the GamePad seems to have a fairly substantial advantage over the other, lowlier players.
This will, of course, require more in-depth investigation down the line, and I'm not suggesting that the game is by any means broken. Quite the contrary, Mario Kart 8 felt solid as a rock, as Mario as Karts can get, and frankly it's gorgeous in high definition. The Wii U's controller hardware disparity is new and uncharted territory for both the Mario Kart series and couch co-op in general, and its something I'll be keeping my eye on.