Mario Kart 8 review: Hover conversion

The Mario Kart series' frantic, anything-can-happen style of racing has always been an interesting alternative to complex, serious driving simulators. Its accessible aesthetics and mechanics make first-time players feel welcome, but what's under the hood can fuel rivalries with pinpoint drifting and mastery of the rock, paper, scissors essence of countering items. It isn't exactly chess, but Mario Kart caters to all skill levels, encouraging competence while still throwing item-shaped bones to racers near the back of the pack.

Mario Kart 8 lifts that winning formula from the blurred, blocky home of Mario Kart Wii, providing a drastic boost in visual quality in the series' first lap in HD. From rippling, Cheep Cheep-infested waters to the marks left on the pavement from sharp turns, Mario's brand of racing looks the best it ever has. Beyond the welcome boost in visuals, the experience fits comfortably in line with expectations. Mario Kart 8 isn't a radical gutting of the ride series fans have grown to love, but its tuneup to the established experience is largely welcome.

In a world where cartoon characters drift through stretches of track constructed from (and surrounded by) desserts, MK8 asks "Why do we adhere to gravity, anyway?" As I crossed over my first zero gravity strip, watching my wheels fold up and keep me inches from the asphalt as freshly-converted hover pads, I immediately resonated with the question. Rounding a corner to stare back down the height I had just climbed was thrilling – I was facing down a stretch of road perpendicular with the ground of a stadium, and the only thing to keep me from plummeting into the grass below was a strip that would launch me onto the next disjointed section of MK8's opening track.

MK8's disregard for the laws of physics blends perfectly with the series' fondness for quirky pathways. The zero gravity sections have literal seams in the form of their wheel-transitioning strips, but they feel naturally woven into the colorful turns and flips of each track. Some passages amplify awareness of your competition, showcasing rivals boosting ahead of players on a separate, upside-down path just above a standard roadway. Others are subtler, twisting through corners of caverns or up through part of a city for a high-rise detour. Discovering either style is satisfying, and sliding through a curve of road as it twists to a new orientation still feels incredibly slick after dozens of laps.

Courses run through predictable environments, like the volcanic hazards of Bowser's Castle and the seaside streets of Toad Harbor, but some locales feel as creative as MK8's unconventional roadwork. Twisted Mansion opens the estate's creaky main doors as races begin, beckoning players along the walls of a dining hall before plunging them into a flooded passageway occupied by Fish Bones. The thumping Electrodome tours a space filled with lights and speakers pulsating to the same beat, adding effects as drivers slide and bounce their way through portions of its path. Some of the returning tracks also feature underwater and gravity-defying sections, which feel both subtle and at home in their placement. I've yet to pass up the new wall-boosting sections in Toad's Turnpike, for example – I've been run over enough times by the traffic on the N64 version to last a lifetime.

This is a Mario Kart game though, so there's a juggling of items that accompanies the hunt for each stage's fastest route. Plowing through the iconic, rainbow-tinted blocks littered across tracks rewards players with weapons, which help compensate for a botched turn and work as a great way to enrage opponents. Although there are exceptions, the more miserable a player's performance is, the more useful gathered items will be.

Racers will see plenty of the shells, stars and banana peels hurled throughout prior Kart games, as well as the speed-boosting, kart-part-unlocking coins that were featured in Mario Kart 7. Beyond established arsenals, new offerings like the multi-throw Boomerang Flower, which can hit players both in its departing and returning arcs, add intelligent elements of strategy. Blue Shell victims have more of a chance this time around, too – the new Super Horn can eliminate threats in a player's radius, including the spiked, victory-snatching menace.

Local friends might stop speaking to you if you hit them five times in a row with the same Boomerang Flower, but MK8 offers online play, so civil couch multiplayer isn't the only option beyond AI-filled races. Worldwide, regional and friends-only divisions are available, with in-lobby voice chat present in private friends rooms. Tournaments can also be created and customized, allowing for restrictions on who can join and which days and times of the week events will be active. Tournaments are also accompanied with their own Miiverse page, making discussion and trash talk with newfound rivals easy. No matter who you play MK8 with, the social features seem capable of making races with strangers feel pretty personal.

What's surprisingly disappointing, however, whether played online or off, is MK8's battle mode. Instead of enclosed arenas that encourage competitors to load up on enemies and have a showdown, MK8 ties a familiar trio of balloons on each racer's bumper and sets them on one of eight tracks from the game's main drag. The player count is divided into two groups, which travel in opposite directions on the track. At its best, it feels a bit like jousting, with shots being exchanged as players rush past each other, trying to burst their opponents' balloons. There's too much downtime between sightings though, and it can deteriorate into a normal race if players switch directions to chase a missed target – the condensed bouts of combat previously offered in arenas is definitely missed here.

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Despite an unfulfilling battle mode, most competitive matches are full of "Did you see that!?" moments. Thankfully, MK8 no longer makes players stumble through explanations of how they managed a last-lap comeback from 12th place. Highlight reels from individual races can be saved and edited, with a default, multi-angle edit being automatically provided after each finish line. While a reel's run time, starring character and primary content focus can be toggled in a simplistic menu, it's a bit clumsy to use. Auto-generated reels will gloss over moments that feel like shoo-ins, or make an odd choice for a selected camera angle, or fade away before a scene feels fully finished. Players can always save the entirety of the race and find the great moments manually, but it would be more useful if a real editing timeline was offered.

Once an edit is finished, it can be favorited or left to appear in a player's recent reels on Mario Kart TV, a lobby that hosts highlight reels from friends as well as the global player base. Players can browse clips and leave comments without jumping into the Miiverse app itself, which helps Mario Kart TV feel social even though you're just watching replays by yourself. Highlights can also be uploaded to YouTube, though I wasn't able to test this option prior to release.

Despite an unfortunate change to its battle mode, MK8 is a solid extra lap on a series with a great foundation. The gravity-shifting sections spliced into existing and new tracks feel like a natural extension of the series rather than a gameplay-changing revelation, but it's a strong complement to an already enjoyable experience. The social features are surprisingly solid and may even outlive the total course selection, but it helps that the new tracks feel as worthy of a revisit as the series' standouts.

This review is based on a pre-release eShop download of Mario Kart 8, provided by Nintendo. Mario Kart 8 launches on May 30. Be prepared to set aside just over 4GB if you opt for the downloadable version.

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