Being ahead of the pack in Mario Kart makes me uneasy. Even when I'm winning, I'm never really comfortable. I know that a blue shell — that unstoppably powerful missile that seeks out the first-place racer — is likely only moments away, and there's nothing I can do to stop it.
Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U finally provides some hope. If I get lucky and grab the new super-horn, a box that emits a stunning pulse strong enough to knock back other racers and negate the explosive impact of the blue shell, it'll all be okay. It's a rare item and I've only collected a handful after playing hours of the game over the past two weeks, but that hope is enough. Yes, a blue shell is coming. But maybe, just maybe, I'll be ready for it.
Mario Kart 8 isn't drastically different than past games in the series. The structure, controls, and items are all largely the same as the Mario Kart games you played on your DS or Nintendo 64. But a few seemingly small additions and tweaks, like the super horn or the new anti-gravity feature that lets you drive on walls and ceilings, have a surprisingly big impact on the experience. Mario Kart 8 is full of life and ideas — and it might just be the best game in the series to date.
The fundamentals of the game are exactly as you remember them, dating all the way back to Super Mario Kart in 1992. The controls are still simple, with a few advanced techniques (like power sliding) for veteran players to prove their worth. You can play as everyone from Mario to a baby version of Princess Peach, and there's a new Grand Prix mode where you can race through all of the game's tracks and difficulty levels, either alone or with friends, and unlock new characters and karts. Mushrooms still make you go really fast, red shells are still awesome, and Rainbow Road is still a devastatingly difficult hellride.
Mario Kart 8's biggest change is its new take on gravity — when you drive over a glowing anti-gravity strip, your kart's wheels will fold inward, and you'll stay stuck to the track until you hit the next blue line or go over the edge. It seems a bit gimmicky at first, but it has allowed the designers at Nintendo to craft some truly outlandish race courses that feel more like a roller-coaster ride than a NASCAR circuit. One of the new tracks is a literal water park, where you'll be twisting around pipes, diving underwater, and avoiding Ferris wheels as you fly through the air.
The fundamentals of the game are exactly as you remember them
Perhaps the best example of Mario Kart's impressive new track design is the updated version of the infamous Rainbow Road, a course that's historically full of dangerous turns that make it oh-so-easy to plummet off the edge of the road and into oblivion. In Mario Kart 8, Rainbow Road has been transformed into a space station. It still features dangerously sudden turns with no barriers to protect you from falling off the edge, but because the course now twists in multiple directions, it's harder to see what exactly is up ahead, making those turns even more sudden. Just looking at the glowing, curving track ahead of you can be disorienting. There's also a new course where you're driving along a looping beanstalk in the clouds, and a twist on Bowser's Castle that includes a massive, molten monster that literally punches the road, causing it to buckle in nauseating ways. If you haven’t played Mario Kart since those dorm-room MK64 marathons of 1997, you’ll find the insanity has been ramped up considerably.
For me, it wasn't immediately obvious just how crazy these new tracks were — the first time I played them they just felt like fun new additions to the Mario Kart experience. It wasn't until I played some of these older courses that I realized just how great the new ones are. Previous favorites like Music Park from the 3DS version or Toad's Turnpike from the Nintendo 64 felt tame by comparison — even the N64 version of Rainbow Road was much easier than I remember it.
These stages can still get hectic, of course and some have even been updated with a few sections where you can drive up a wall. But the fact that they’re not designed with anti-gravity in mind shows — MK64’s Yoshi Valley still has its many branching paths to deal with, but the plentiful hills and valleys feel underutilized now. Fast-forward to something like the new Sweet Sweet Canyon, and you’ll find yourself racing along roads that will twist you around 360 degrees while you plunge in and out of an ocean made of cola. The new levels simply have more depth. It's sort of like playing a PS3 or Xbox 360 game after using the new generation of game consoles: the improvements might not seem all that huge initially, but it's hard to go back.
'Mario Kart 8' is absolutely bursting with life and color
Outside of the crazy new tracks, there's also a handful of other improvements that help make Mario Kart 8 better than its predecessors. For one thing, it looks amazing — it may have taken Nintendo far too long to start making HD games, but the wait was worth it. MK8 is absolutely bursting with life and color, and packed with tiny visual details that can make it hard to concentrate on the road ahead of you. When you dive underwater in Dolphin Shoals, schools of adorable fish will swim alongside you as playful dolphins jump through hoops. In the disco-themed Electrodome, thumping speakers, whirling cameras, and massive screens showing partying koopas provide more than enough distraction, and make it feel like you’re driving through a PG rave.
Aside from the blue shell-negating super horn, there's a new boomerang you can use to hit your opponents multiple times, as well as a piranha plant that will temporarily chomp down on anyone unlucky enough to get close to you. They're fun to play with, but don't really change the strategy in any way. Same goes for the new racers and vehicles: it's neat to drive around in an ATV while playing as a metallic Princess Peach, but it's more of an aesthetic change than anything. Meanwhile, the Wii U's defining feature isn’t particularly integral — the screen on the Gamepad controller can be used to display a map and doubles as a horn, and you can use it to play the game off TV as well. Motion controls are still optional, which is a good thing, since they're still not very good.
Nintendo has mastered the art of adding just enough to make familiar games feel new and interesting. It's why new Legend of Zelda and Super Mario games are still among the best-reviewed titles around — Nintendo can even make golf interesting. The Mario Kart series is a perfect example of this, as it changes slowly yet (in most cases) gets better with each new release. Mario Kart 8 doesn't offer much more than some crazy new tracks, HD graphics, and a handful of new items, but it's enough to make it the best Mario Kart game Nintendo has ever released.
And as long as I have my super horn, everything will be all right.
Mario Kart 8 launches on the Wii U on May 30th.