Half of Mario Kart 8’s race courses are inspired by tracks from past entries in the series, going all the way back to the original 1992 Super Mario Kart. Taken by itself, this detail might be cause for concern. It suggests that Mario Kart 8, like too many Nintendo games of the past decade, leans on nostalgia for its appeal. And it does, but it’s not that simple. There are different kinds of Nintendo nostalgia. There’s a superficial yearning for games of the past, the sort of warm fuzziness that might produce, say, a loving rendition of Zelda’s Link on DeviantArt. That sentiment is harmless fun among fans, but it’s more disappointing when Nintendo relies on it to sell empty rehashes like New Super Mario Bros. 2 in 2012.
Nostalgia doesn’t have to be so shallow, though. I’m sure many people have revisited a beloved game from their youth and discovered new layers that they didn’t see before—like the way that Metroid’s opening screen wordlessly teaches you the rules of its world or the ephemeral beauty of Kuribo’s Shoe in Super Mario Bros. 3. Because it often takes time to perceive the subtleties of a work, nostalgia can deepen rather than cheapen the past. Mario Kart 8 is informed by this more fulfilling sort of nostalgia: the kind that seeks to go deeper. The developers clearly studied their predecessors’ work to get a nuanced understanding of track design, competitive balance, and racing rhythm. The result is a sequel that refines Mario Kart with grace and attention to detail—a game that relies partly on fandom but nonetheless shines on its own merits.
As mentioned above, Mario Kart 8 follows longstanding tradition by including a mix of new and “retro” tracks. The distinction isn’t that important in practice. The throwback courses feel as vibrant as this installments originals, and they’re all gorgeous. This game puts the lie to the idea that Wii U titles are crippled by weak graphics hardware: Mario Kart 8 looks better than anything I’ve seen yet on the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4. Even in the slowest, easiest mode—50cc—the close quarters of the Twisted Mansion track create an exciting sensation of speed. And when the Cloudtop Cruise course twists upward into a raging thunderhead, it feels like an ascension into racing Valhalla.
Cloudtop Cruise is one of many levels to include anti-gravity sections, which make their debut in Mario Kart 8. Your racer’s wheels retract so that you can hover through spiraling stretches of track that ignore the rules of earthbound track design. At first, this feature doesn’t have the wow factor you might expect, because your vehicle doesn’t move much differently in anti-grav mode. But once I was familiar enough with each level to take in the whole screen as I drove—rather than fixating on my character—I appreciated the dizzy thrill of the game’s departures from terra firma.
Those soaring sections play out against a staccato beat of smaller moments. You can perform speed-boosting stunts as your racer flies off a jump, an airborne complement to the “power slides” that a Mario Kart aficionado uses to drift around corners like a Fast & Furious badass. These maneuvers become instinctive after a while, and when they do, each track acquires a brisk rhythm of stunts, slides, and straightaways. When you’re locked into this rhythm, the Mario Kart 8 controller can feel like a musical instrument, with you as the virtuoso.
One of the series’ most controversial design elements is its sense of fairness, or lack thereof. Ever since Mario Kart 64 introduced the spiky blue shell—a weapon that punishes success by homing in on the race leader to unleash a momentum-sapping blast—Mario Kart has struggled to find the best balance between luck and skill. While driving prowess needs to make a difference, Nintendo wants less talented players to have a chance at the winner’s podium, too.
It’s a tough compromise to strike, and Mario Kart 8 nails it. Overall, Nintendo has moved the needle a bit toward skill. But that’s a pat way to summarize a complex interaction of power-ups, weapons, and artificial intelligence that rewards experienced drivers while keeping novices very much in the mix. Yes, I’d still lose races on the white-knuckle 150cc difficulty when one of my opponents picked up a choice item at the last minute and swooped in for a cheap victory. Usually, though, this happened after I’d left an opening through some shortfall in my own driving.
In any case, I had to laugh at these final-lap high jinks. I’m happy to take my lumps here because this sequel isn’t as dispiritingly random as some Mario Kart titles that have came before. (There’s even a semi-obscure way to thwart the blue shell now, although I won’t reveal that secret.) Beginners don’t get short-changed, either. My wife, hardly a kart-racing veteran, admired the fact that Mario Kart 8 is “fun even when you’re losing.”
Battle Mode, which invites players to pound each other with Mario Kart’s Koopa shells, banana peels, and other adorable ordnance, is the one major letdown. Rather than constructing bespoke Battle Mode arenas, Nintendo repurposed full racetracks from the main game. What used to be a frenzy is now a dull affair, as the tracks are so large that combatants spend a lot of time just looking for someone else to attack. It’s likely that Nintendo made a conscious choice to punt on Battle Mode in order to focus on perfecting the meatier parts of the game. That’s an acceptable trade-off.
I’ve had Mario Kart 8 for weeks now, and I’m still discovering delightful details. A whole article could be written, for instance, about how the game uses sound design to keep players oriented on its loopy, dazzling courses. With console games like Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, and Game & Wario, the company has recaptured the whimsy and confident vision that made the NES era so memorable. I don’t mean to imply that Nintendo ever hit a true slump with its home consoles—and its portable offerings have been more consistent—but the creatively erratic Wii years were a low point, and the Wii U is looking more like a high point.
The only trouble is that too few people are witnessing this renaissance: It’s no secret that sales of the Wii U have failed to gain much traction. Gameological doesn’t make purchase recommendations, but if you’re one of those people who admires Nintendo’s yesteryear, let me encourage you to at least give this humble console another look. Mario Kart 8 may look different from its pixelated forebears of the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s infused with the same magical spirit and exacting craftsmanship. It’s the kind of game that’s bound to inspire nostalgia someday.