Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, 2014)

Mario Kart 8 Cover Image
I was leading all the way into the final turn. Cruising, even. Then I got hit by a Blue Shell, a Red Shell, another shell. I finished 7th.

Not only did I get hit by a Lightning Bolt, but it zapped me mid-jump, so I also fell into the pit. #ItHappenedToMe

Got hit right _before_ a jump. Didn't have momentum to make the jump, so I fell into the gap. #YouAreNotAlone

Finally, a break. They give me Crazy 8. Before I can use it, Shy Guy rams into me and I explode. He set off my Bob-omb. #ItDoesNotGetBetter

Game hands me Triple Mushrooms on Rainbow Road. What am I supposed to do with these? Can’t even dump them. #TakeBackTheseMushrooms

I had the Golden Mushroom, so I figured I’d cut through the rough. Lightning zapped me and left me stranded in it. #YesAllMarioKartPlayers

Lakitu fished me out of the water. Before I could even start driving, another Lakitu dumped Donkey Kong on top of me. I was Toad. #IWasToad.

The coin was really a banana peel. #NeedGlasses

Mario Kart remains frustrating as ever. The above is a fair representation of the running commentary from my siblings and I, every time we sit down and play the Grand Prix mode against the CPU in Mario Kart 8. If someone were to record the audio, transcribe it, and then have strangers read it back in solemn voices, I imagine it would sound something like the therapeutic sharing that goes on in a support group meeting.

More than any of its other series, Mario Kart exemplifies both the positive and the negative to Nintendo’s iterative design. The games are consistently excellent yet rarely surprising. The latest, Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U, is the first in HD, and, at least visually, it sparkles brilliantly.

Many of the tracks actually play up the sport of kart racing as some sort of arena spectacle, which recalls for me the podracing sequence from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I also see it as carrying on the legacy and glossy sheen of F-Zero, Nintendo’s other racing series, which was last seen in action two console generations ago.

The similarities to F-Zero, specifically the 3-D installments, F-Zero X (1998) and F-Zero GX (2003), extend beyond the visuals, as Mario Kart 8 features a number of vertically winding tracks, with sections that will have players racing along slanted roads or even fully perpendicular to the horizon. There are even anti-gravity segments, which feature the most notable new mechanic.

Vaguely reminiscent of Burnout, making contact with another kart while in anti-gravity mode will result in both racers getting an immediate speed boost. Factoring in also that the anti-gravity sections are very often the parts of the track without railings, the high speed and the feeling of danger during these segments provide for the game’s wildest, most exhilarating moments.

Quite a number of Mario Kart 8’s original courses are staged in the sky, the better to showcase the expanded vertical component. But the most original course is surely Mount Wario, the final track of the Star Cup. Mount Wario is not a circuit with laps, but rather is raced continuously down a snow-covered mountain. Not entirely an original concept (but new to Mario Kart), it resembles an SSX downhill course, cramming in as many elements as feasible—ramps to trick off, midair targets to hit, cave and forest areas, moguls and slalom sections—in rapid succession to create the most seamlessly varied experience in Mario Kart 8.

Mario Kart 8 includes more playable characters than ever before to toy around with, including nine "brand new" racers. But, seriously, who wanted all the Koopalings, let alone such complete oddball unlockables as—SPOILER—Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach, especially while favorites like Birdo and Boo are MIA? One thing I appreciated in Mario Kart DS, my favorite entry, was that almost every racer had unique stats, so you might play around with all of them just to get a different experience (and because Mission Mode forced you to use everyone). In Mario Kart 8, why would I ever use Larry, if his stats are just the same as Toad, Koopa, and Shy Guy, all of whom are much cooler characters?

For all the bells and whistles, the experience of playing Mario Kart 8 is altogether familiar. The meat of the game is the Grand Prix. You can still try to beat the staff ghosts in Time Trial mode, and Balloon Battle also returns, although it's very lazily implemented this time (not that I've cared for that mode since Super Mario Kart (1992), when I only played it because, as a nine-year-old, I was not a skilled enough player to enjoy the actual race modes). But what I’ve traditionally loved about the Grand Prix in Mario Kart is that it includes support for local split-screen multiplayer—a rare feature in the 16-bit days, and seemingly even rarer now. Mario Kart 8’s Grand Prix mode even accommodates up to four players simultaneously.

Playing with other humans helps to make racing against the CPU a little fairer. With unlockable cups, classes, characters, vehicles, and stamps at stake, players may be incentivized, especially in the ruthless 150cc class, to transgress into unsanctioned team racing against the CPU. This is no worse than the cheating and collusion that the CPU itself engages in, of course. As always, the game will randomly designate one CPU racer at the start of a Grand Prix to be the players’ “rival,” who will consistently place highly. Even if you knock them down a few times during a race, they will somehow miraculously fight their way back ahead of the other CPU racers, such that a Grand Prix cannot be won without outracing that rival specifically.

Even on 150cc, simply outracing them would pose no difficulty. But Mario Kart isn’t a pure racer, and what inevitably frustrates is the unavoidable cheap shots that can snatch victory out of one’s grasp. The worse your position, the better the items you receive. Being in first just means you get to be the target of everyone else’s assaults. The worst part is that the most devastating items, Blue Shells and Lightning, are only handed out to the poorest racers. Such tools still won’t suddenly vault a racer from last place into contention, so the Blue Shell doesn’t actually help the user; it just screws with the people in the lead.

This is an old song now, the cheapness merely reflecting Nintendo’s longstanding socialist philosophy toward competitive multiplayer, also seen all over the Mario Party series. Nintendo does not equate ability with performance in Mario Kart, nor, theoretically, performance with fun. I even understand it, given that Nintendo designs its games for all audiences, and so needs to ensure that a young child, who might never be able to win a race against a hardcore enthusiast gamer, can nevertheless feel engaged while hurling thunderbolts from the rear. But I play to win, and it’s really not my concern whether some five-year-old novice is having fun while eating my dust. That never happens anyway, because I don’t play with five-year-old novices. It’s only ever the CPU running these item scams against me. Are you telling me the game needs to handicap me in order to preserve the CPU’s ego? I also swear, any time I’m not actually looking back at them, the CPU racers behind me just start flying.

Yes, the game is still fun and worth playing, despite the moments of frustration. It has charm, the controls and physics are perfect, and it’s great for parties. It is both the best racing game and the best local multiplayer game of the moment. Unless you take the game online, it does run out of content quite quickly. Once I beat all the cups on 150cc, there wasn’t much else for me to do. And how anticlimactic! All you get for it is Mirror Mode and the same lame ending credits that I already saw on completing the lower difficulties.


Robert Fung said...

I'm surprised you didn't discuss the various control schemes. Or, for that matter, the fact that you can choose Yourself as a racer.

Henry Fung said...

If I ever do a write-up on Mario Kart Wii, I'll discuss those features then, since that's where they originated. The one new addition in Mario Kart 8 is the ability to play with the Wii U GamePad. On that, I'll say it's a nice controller, but it's a bit of a shame that all the useful info on the secondary screen (which used to be available on the main screen) is practically impossible to take advantage of now, because you really need to keep your attention fixed on the main screen at all times.