There are three important things to know about “Mario Kart 8,” which hits stores May 30.
1. It’s the first game of the popular franchise that can be played on a big screen in high-definition.
2. Drivers shouldn't be surprised to find themselves racing upside down.
3. It’s still Mario Kart, and that's a very good thing.
The eighth installment of the popular racing franchise, and the first on the beleaguered Wii U system, elevates the series with one key innovation, improved gameplay, a new group of racers and items, and the preservation of all the elements that consistently make Mario Kart one of the best options for family video gaming. It's quirky, colorful, kid-friendly, intuitive, witty and, most importantly, extraordinarily fast.
The Wii U platform gives the franchise, which debuted in 1992 on the Super Nintendo, a vibrant and sharp visual upgrade. Fans of the series might find the graphics reason alone to invest in "Mario Kart 8." The variety of colors, courses and detail is, at times, stunning. Right off, Mario Kart Stadium, with its massive U-shaped vertical track, sets a high standard.
Such racing is made possible by the most noticeable gameplay innovation of "Mario Kart 8" — the concept of "anti-gravity racing." Certain courses feature blue strips that flip a kart's wheels inward, cause them to glow blue and hover. In this mode, karts can be raced along any surface — on walls, upside down, up vertical tracks, etc.
"Mario Kart 7" introduced the ability to race underwater and through the air. In a Nintendo direct video, series producer Hideki Konno said through a translator that developers considered what the next step would be for "Mario Kart 8."
"So, we started brainstorming, and eventually we came up with the idea of allowing karts to run along walls and on the ceilings by defying gravity," he said. "This time, the power of Wii U allowed us to use more polygons, so we were able to create various courses where you can race on all kinds of surfaces."
Konno then explained a new wrinkle. Anti-gravity mode allows players to "spin-boost" by bumping into other racers and objects, essentially flipping the strategy from evading to seeking out contact in this mode.
Of course all the striking visuals would be for naught without fast and controlled gameplay with just the right amount of chaos that is characteristic of the franchise.
"Mario Kart 8" allows racers to choose three speed options — 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. The top option is downright speedy, but "Mario Kart 8" is smoother and more fluid than its predecessor on Nintendo's previous console, "Mario Kart Wii." Harnessing a breakneck pace is somewhat easier in this game, which makes it more satisfying.
The degree of control is partly determined by the mode and controller a racer chooses. The Wii U gamepad and classic controller enable racers to use joystick mode, the easiest way to maneuver a kart. A Wii remote allows racers to use motion steering, which limits control but makes for a more engaged, realistic experience. The gamepad can also be switched to motion-steering mode. Either way, it's not really a sit-down game.
The chaos comes in the form of power-ups that can push a kart ahead and sweep others aside. Expect to take out a lot of fellow racers, and expect to be toppled often by others. New items in "Mario Kart 8" include a boomerang, a piranha plant that chomps opposing riders and obstacles, a super horn that eliminates impediments and a "crazy eight" — a swirling wheel of eight different power-ups. The mystery boxes containing these items are much easier to hit in this game and reappear more quickly.
There are also more characters, 30 in all, including a group of villains called the "Koopalings" — Larry, Roy, Iggy, Lemmy, Morton, Wendy and Ludwig. There is also Baby Rosalina and the new metallic racer Pink Gold Peach, as well as the option to use "Mii" avatars.
Those who haven't played "Mario Kart 7," made for the handheld DS systems, may be surprised to find the option for a flying apparatus in the pregame menu. Underwater racing is also adopted from "Mario Kart 7."
Other notable features are the online racing mode, including tournaments, which can feature up to 12 players, and "Mario Kart TV," which captures highlight reels of each race that can be edited, viewed in slow-motion and uploaded to the "Miiverse" or YouTube.
As a family/group game, Mario Kart doesn't have many equals. It's sophisticated enough for older ages, but intuitive enough for younger gamers to pick up on and not get too frustrated. And playing together (multi-player mode can accommodate up to four racers) is way more fun than one-player mode.
There's been very little good news regarding Wii U sales since the console's launch in late 2012. Nintendo recently announced its third straight annual operating loss, and as Sam Byford of TheVerge.com wrote, "If 'Mario Kart 8' doesn't perform, it's hard to imagine what might convince customers to pick up a Wii U."
Nintendo certainly appears to be leveraging the franchise's popularity by offering a "Mario Kart 8" Deluxe Set, which includes a Wii U deluxe set console, game disc, Wii wheel accessory and Wii remote for $329.99. The company is also offering a free download code for either "New Super Mario Bros. U," "Pikmin 3," "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD" or "Wii Party U" for those who buy and register "Mario Kart 8" before July 31.
It remains to be seen whether this new game spurs increased sales and, as reported by IGN, confirms Nintendo President Satoru Iwata's assertion that "the fate of a video game system is often influenced greatly by the introduction of a single title."
But "Mario Kart 8" has certainly done its part.
Game: "Mario Kart 8"
Platform: Wii U
ESRB rating: E (everyone), comic mischief