Review: Mario Kart 8 earns the checkered flag

Platform: Wii U

Over the years, the Mario Kart franchise has grown into something truly spectacular. What started as a simple, Mode 7-powered SNES racer with two-player compatibility has become a multiplayer favorite for Nintendo, culminating with the awesome Mario Kart Wii and the 3DS' triumphant Mario Kart 7. Of course, the company isn't nearly done with the franchise, and, in a matter of days, will give the Wii U a shot in the arm with a version of its own.

With Mario Kart 8, however, Nintendo isn't just putting together a placeholder to amuse fans of the system. It's pretty much redefined how the racing series is supposed to flow, from multiplayer compatibility to full-fledged social features to a swift new anti-gravity add-on that works incredibly well. In other words, it's got the familiarity of the series, but feels entirely new – not an easy trick to pull off.

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Turning things upside-down

The basics of Mario Kart 8 are the same as they've always been. You select your favorite Mario hero or villain and hit the road across a series of Cups, unlocking new ones as you make progress. With each new Cup you unlock, new challenges await, along with scattered power-ups that can either make your ride easier or harder, depending who's on the receiving end of what. The new weapons and items are, for the most part, fantastic, with the rare "Super Horn" a sure-to-be fan favorite, thanks to its ability to actually counter the blue spiny shell that has spelled inescapable disaster for the first-place driver in all of the game's earlier incarnations. Some fans of the franchise will miss items that have been jettisoned to make room for the new ones, including the Fake Item Box that was last seen in Mario Kart Wii, but all the true series classics remain, and the new additions more than make up for what has been lost.

While the start of a race in Mario Kart 8 will likely feel familiar to anyone who has ever played any title in the series, it won't take long before players encounter a new twist -- literally. The new anti-gravity feature lets Nintendo run wild on track design, and in certain sections karts can race along ceilings and walls without any trouble. This opens up a stunning amount of diversity in tracks, and the new courses really feel like something modern and special, especially when compared to the routine tracks that players are used to – although there are a few of those classics are thrown in for good measure. This is a Mario Kart game after all.

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Better, Faster, Friendlier

Mario Kart 8  features a refinement of the same smooth racing gameplay that has always made the series a hit. Drift-boosts return, along with speed boosts that come from gathering the coins that litter the map. Selecting your driver and the  pieces of your kart is a fun process that allows you to tailor things like weight, acceleration, and traction to fit your play-style. If you want to be the toughest, heaviest racer on the course, it's easy to do -- just keep in mind that you'll likely have to make sacrifices in terms of acceleration and handling. Combined with the new items and the multiple pathways through every course -- made more intricate than ever with anti-gravity --  Mario Kart 8 provides a satisfying amount of strategic depth for those who want to explore it. Of course, plenty of people are just going to wait to grab some friends and start racing, and it works very well for that too.

The visual presentation of Mario Kart 8 is the best we've seen in the series. Sporting high-definition visuals, this game takes the cake when it comes to looks, with 60 frames per second and plenty of amazing details throughout. The lighting is especially impressive, with solar flares and shine on metallic surfaces that are absolutely eye-popping. Nintendo deserves a great deal of credit for what they have done in terms of visual polish with Mario Kart 8.  

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The sound doesn't see quite as much of an improvement as the graphics, but it's as solid and entertaining as ever. The soundtrack is pleasant and captures the classic Mario spirit, and the voice samples, though repetitive, fit each character just right. One feature that could have used a bit more work is the kart horns, since they're extremely muted and all sound like toys.

Where Mario Kart 8 truly excels is with its online and social features. There's split-screen multiplayer for up to four people, but the real treat is hopping onto the Nintendo Network for a 12-player session, against friends or random players from around the world. It works wonderfully, even with a couple of minutes of set-up, and continues to be the series' biggest draw. However, a quick option to set up custom races with friends would have been ideal. To involve them, you actually have to go through a few steps around the usual norm – which is a slight, but not deal-breaking, disappointment.

In a final bit of social genius, Nintendo introduces Mario Kart TV, a great feature where you can share your gameplay clips with others via YouTube. Although we didn't get to test this out extensively during our review period, it sounds like it will be a wonderful way to share your love of the game with others, especially consider the post-race highlight  reel, with its slow-mo replay features, was a source of tremendous fun during our time with the game.

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My View

Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Mario Kart 8.

 Graphics: 9/10

A beautiful transformation into a high-definition beast, Mario Kart 8 is the pinnacle of how the series should look from hereon in.

Sound: 8/10

Not as revolutionary as the visuals, but still great.

Gameplay: 9/10

Razor sharp, with plenty of power-ups and boosting techniques to keep you coming back.

Multiplayer/Social: 10/10

 A powerhouse with both local and online multiplayer, and the YouTube aspect adds a rich social ingredient.

Overall score: 9/10

Mario Kart 8 feels like a re-definition for the series, without straying from its roots. The gameplay is fantastic, the visual presentation is stunning, and the social features will keep players coming back for more. The Wii U has a killer addition to its line-up that could easily drive sales of the console. Now that's something worthy of a victory lap.

GameCrate reviews represent the opinions of the GameCrate writer who wrote them, and not necessarily those of Newegg.