'Mario Kart 8' is out for Nintendo's Wii U from 30 May.
- 32 courses (16 brand new, 16 retro)
- Zero-G sections and tracks which twist and turn
- New items (Loudhorn, Boomerang, Piranha Plant, Crazy Eight)
- Mario Kart TV replays, editing and uploading
- Full online play (12 player)
- Battle mode
It is possible - not straightforward, but possible - to argue that 'Mario Kart 8' is the most beautiful video game ever made.
It doesn't have the dreamy artistry of 'Journey' or 'Monument Valley', the photo-realism of 'Forza 5' or the pixel-perfect appeal of 'Space Invaders'. But by its own standards - as a living cartoon, a kinetic, absurdly fast racing game and as 'Nintendo' as Toy Story is 'Pixar' - it is right up there. In single and two player the game runs at 60 frames per second, in HD, and never judders, halts or stutters once. Each of the 32 tracks (16 of which are significantly new versions of old classics from the previous 7 games) are resplendent with colour, detail and life. The animation is incredible: each of the dozens of characters has their own movements, styles, quirks and celebrations. They watch each other as they overtake, they cry out in pain as shells hit home. They are immaculately drawn. The game looks like it's made out of rich, creamy, expensive plastic come to life.
Luckily, 'Mario Kart 8' is the among most fun video games ever made, too. Everything that has been good about Mario Kart for more than 20 years is present here, not radically shaken up but not wrecked either, and not without significant additions and changes.
What does that mean? It means that at its core this is a simple, joyous, riotous fast-speed racing game tuned to within an inch of genius. It means edge-of-your-couch battles, with shells flying and feared, endlessly drift-able corners, huge jumps and plunges into water, and tracks that are astonishing in their ambition and edited density.
It is - again - impossible to get across just how entertaining and accessible this game is. Take as an example one of the standout new tracks, 'Mount Wario'. Instead of a straight circuit this is a rare three-stage marathon, which takes you from the cargo bay of an aircraft above the shivering glacier peaks of a mountain (take the tight corner left, or drift wide for an orange boost), over the jump shortcut into a service tunnel and through a dam (at 180 degrees) before twisting into a close forest of ski tracks and trees, before diving again into a slalom course, down a ski jump run and finally up into the air above a giant stadium, where after two final turns end in glorious victory or shameful defeat. It is long and rich, but not over-stuffed or egregious, and endlessly replayable.
Which is not to say the game is just a well-tuned version of what's come before - though it is that, too. There are new elements here which change things significantly. Most obviously, all of the tracks have sections where your car (or bike, or quad's) wheels retract up like a Delorean and pull you around at zero gravity. This brings a strange new drama to the courses and also new elements of strategy - collisions in these zones give you a boost, instead of a penalty, which can lead to some neat tag-team tactics. The effect isn't always obvious at first - the camera twists with you, meaning you're not always aware of your gravity-defying route. But it adds a literal new dimension and is graphically impressive.
There are also new items (a three-use boomerang, the brilliant Piranha which eats coins and enemies that come nearby, and a Loudhorn which sends out a shockwave which can also defeat the evil Blue Shell, previously an unkillable guided missile to the driver in first place). The online mode is expanded with 12 plays and regional/global options, and the Mario Kart TV fully editable and uploadable replay option is a neat addition too. Them there is the all-new full orchestra music - beautiful on its own, and a welcome way to mask the increasingly irritating 'woohoos!' each character utters every few seconds.
What remains exactly the same here is the structure. As with Mario Kart 7, there are eight cups, in three speeds (50, 100 and 150 CC, plus 'Mirror' mode), each with four-tracks and three-laps-a-race. It's fine, but it's repetitive. There is also a curiously tempered battle mode, restricted here to taking place on eight normal circuits and not the usual arenas.
If the game can be criticised, it is perhaps for a lack of ambition. There are only 16 new courses, while the lack of any battle arenas is a crying shame (and perhaps a clue to much-needed DLC to come). It is also a very frustrating game at the harder levels of difficulty, and still can be cruel in how a lead-from-the-front race turns into disaster on the final corner, almost without fail. This is Mario Kart, after all.
But even with all that in mind, it is hard to argue that this is anything other than a total triumph. It's a game your family will love even if they hate games. And if the Wii U falls, as now seems almost inevitable sadly, Mario Kart 8 (along with Super Mario 3D World) will ensure it will always have a place in gaming history.
This is a classic video game, one of the very, very best.