Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8

It's been an age since our first look at Mario Kart 8, and with the racer locked in for a release on Wii U in May, we sat down with a more substantial cut of the near-finished game this past week. Some things - a lot of things - were still under wraps.

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We spot another four - blanked out - Cups alongside the four we can play now. A few Question Marks cover faces on the Character Select screen, obviously for guest stars that'll unlock as your progress. We hear about, but don't see, the ability to edit race highlights into a video montage.

What we do get: four Cups of the Grand Prix, each containing four tracks apiece. The biggest range of Mario Kart racers yet to select from (we still default on Yoshi though), kart customisation. Four player and two player local split-screen. The ability to watch the post-race Highlights reel (something most racing games have, but becomes a must-watch in Mario Kart thanks to being short and snappy with its choices).

Mario Kart 8

It's enough to dig into for our three hour session with the game. We're joined by three other press clutching a variety of controllers; Remote, Controller Pro and GamePad. End of play verdict: Controller Pro edges out the rest for comfort. Shoulder button to hop and face button to fire items feels fine on the Pro, slightly cramped on the GamePad. Even if the Wii U's default controller has off-screen play, you'll want to keep your eyes on the TV. Mario Kart 8 does what we'd expect a first-party title to do in HD - it dazzles.

It's nice to talk a Nintendo title and commend its visuals. You're not going to notice background details on four-player, but they're there. As with Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo's went for colourful over detailed, but the tracks pop with rich blue skies, reflective puddles, packed stadiums, distant mountains, far-flung horizons, fireworks and more. Expect Rainbow Road to give you a nerd-gasm.

Mario Kart 8's new anti-grav kart mechanic has allowed its creators to take the F-Zero route for some of its courses; go single player and you'll see tracks arrow into the sky or slide up vertical walls in the distance. Notable moments have us roaring up the face of a waterfall, while a whole racing curve of Mario Circuit's course goes from horizontal to vertical as you race towards it.

Mario Kart 8

The anti-grav addition feels a much more prominent addition to the series than the hovercraft or glider add-ons, for both visuals and gameplay. Bounce off another racer while you're both in anti-grav mode and you'll get a temporary boost, so with practice you can slingshot your way along these sections.

Anti-grav shortcuts are plentiful. Look at Toad's Turnpike. The traffic-rammed track can be avoided entirely at points if you keep an eye out for boost pads. Hit them and you'll race up onto the walls adjacent to the main track.

These course designs aren't as frantic or winding as F-Zero GX's (the futuristic arcade racer whose tracks would give an architect epilepsy) but any addition to the well-worn formula is welcome. And anti-grav goes beyond the cosmetic.

Problem is (and we'll be happy if the four yet-unseen Cups prove this wrong) it's not used enough. The new tracks that offer these sections use them sparingly (we do wish Nintendo had just looked over what Sega had done with F-Zero in GX and copied wholesale).

The four current Cups are littered with remade ‘classic' tracks that offer little in the way of redesign to factor in the new gameplay options. Once you've seen the new stuff, returning to the regular circular tracks of Moo Moo Meadows or Dry Dry Desert is boringly tame. We're finally apathetic about tracks we've seen too many times over the years. (Side note; play Sweet Sweet Canyon and try and tell us it's not Nintendo flipping the bird at Disney's Wreck-it-Ralph for that film's Mario Kart-inspired middle act).

Even the new weapons available can't make old tracks feel fresh Of the new items, we get to play with the Boomerang (fires straight whether thrown in front or behind you, three throws before it disappears) and the Piranha Plant (chomps any nearby enemies or items). The classic items, Mushroom boosts, Bullet Bill, red and green Shells etc, are all there (visual change - single shells are now carried in racer hands rather than behind the kart unless you tap and hold a button).

And the classic racing traps appear yet again. We're not talking track-specific dangers (though the Moos and moles in Moo Moo Meadows can be complete bastards) but the "been hit by three items in a row, I want to kill someone now" trap. Loose your advantage, loose your position, loose your speed-increasing Coins. From first place to 8th in the blink of a red shell hammering your rear fender.

Mario Kart 8

It's a Mario Kart tradition, and it still frustrates. Now more than ever we wish Nintendo would tinker with the formula. We're not saying a counter move, but anything that'd not so completely destroy your chances or momentum if that triple-hit happens. Maybe a brief recovery boost that needs precise timing to hit (much like the initial speed boost from the starting grid if you time your engine rev right).

So: Big visual upgrade for the best-looking Mario Kart yet. A few new ideas, but we need to see more of them on the tracks yet to be revealed. Same Mario Kart multiplayer spirit (bring your own swear jar). Some familiar courses. A mix of new, old and borrowed.

There was always the danger of Mario Kart devolving into a 'Best Of' that comes once a generation. Nintendo have a chance to break out of that slide here. Fresh ideas do better than a new lick of paint, no matter how good the series looks in HD. Let's hope they're wanting to embrace the future rather than the glorious past.

Mario Kart 8

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