Nintendo needed this. A rough start to 2014 has seen gaming’s greying giant post terrific losses and weather unrelenting criticism directed at its Wii U. Its financial year forecast for the console dropped from nine million units to just 2.8 million. A year after its late 2012 launch, the machine wasn’t close to breaking even. But now there’s hope. Now, the Wii U has its Mario Kart.
Mario Kart 8 (developed and published by Nintendo) is absolute videogame purity: easy to pick up even if you’ve never played a previous title; a ball to play from the simplest starting grid to the toughest track; and a total blast when enjoyed alongside others in local multiplayer modes.
Naturally, this being the 21st century, you can compete online and upload highlights of your fastest laps to YouTube, selecting angles and action points using an array of easy editing controls. But it is in the company of Actual Human Beings where the smiles really register, where the laughs bubble and froth before flowing freely. This sensation you’re all feeling, I know you don’t get it with every game. It’s known as fun. And Mario Kart 8 trades exclusively in it.
By now you know the drill, surely. But if not: Mario Kart pits a slew of famous (okay, some not-so-famous) Super Mario franchise characters against one another in kart races, with adjustable difficulties open from the outset and more complicated circuits requiring an absolute mastery of the game’s elementary controls to satisfyingly conquer.
And those inputs really are immediate, if not completely intuitive: one button to go and one to stop; one to jump and drift, and another to use a power-up, weapon or whatever perk you’ve most recently acquired. You’ll need to steer, too, which you can do using the analogue stick or with the GamePad’s motion controls.
With over 20 years having passed since Super Mario Kart introduced this series onto the Super Nintendo, Mario Kart 8 exhibits its share of evolved gameplay elements. Foremost amongst these are the newly introduced anti-gravity sections, where kart wheels flip horizontal to float atop the surface like Doc Brown’s retrofitted DeLorean. This lends the title a delicious F-Zero GX-style dizziness. Fans of Captain Falcon, please form an orderly queue.
Also debuting are new offensive weapons. The boomerang can be tossed three times to strike opposition drivers ahead of you, while the Piranha Plant sits atop your racer and munches through both obstacles and fellow competitors. The blue spiny shell returns, too – it shoots through the field until striking whoever is pulling clear in first. Those in the lead can protect themselves by picking up the Super Horn – its shockwave works much like the barge power-up in Bizarre Creations’ (barely) more realistic 2010 racer Blur, deflecting projectiles and unbalancing nearby racers.
The rest is tried and tested, and loved: mushrooms give you speed boosts, bananas make your vehicle slip and slide, lightning shrinks the field and slows everyone down and coins are collected across each course to incrementally increase the player’s overall speed. Every driver looks and sounds perfect, with karts modifiable using a variety of bodies, wheels and gliders. There’s innovation, sure, but not to the divisive level previously showcased in the GameCube’s Double Dash!!. Accessibility is paramount.
So is it familiarity that lends Mario Kart 8 its fantastic appeal? Partially, yes: many gamers will have great memories of Mario Karts past, be they of drunken four-player sessions on the N64 version, everyone cramped around a 14” CRT screen, or of the more recent Mario Kart 7, hunched over a 3DS on a train journey or long car ride. These games are in our blood, ingrained into the fabric of Nintendo’s history – there’s been a Mario Kart for pretty much every Nintendo system since the SNES.
But Mario Kart 8 can stand tall on its own terms, its forebears forgotten, as an example of truly expert engineering. Gorgeous visuals, impressively detailed environments, enveloping sound and exquisite gameplay: it all adds up to an essential experience for anyone with the slightest interest in having a laugh with a controller of some kind in hand. The most fun you can have in the company of a few friends while keeping your pants on? Could be, could be.
What Mario Kart 8 is not, however, is the final puzzle piece that completes the argument for the Wii U being a must-have piece of living room machinery. The system still needs a few more so-called killer apps for it to even begin to build towards the amazing popularity its predecessor, the Wii, enjoyed.
A new Metroid title could be on the cards – Metroid Prime developer Retro Studios has been making some positive noises on the matter. But that’s still a little on the niche side, the kind of game that’ll click with an old-school Nintendo crowd, but perhaps not those with a more casual interest.
An all-new direction for the Zelda series? Now we’re talking. And what about some of that sweet third-party support, of the kind that launch-day exclusive ZombiU seemed to portend? That’ll do nicely. Not that Nintendo is too worried right now. With something like $10bn in the bank, it’ll take a few more years of "failure" for it to start sweating.
Quick detour from a console triumph to recent iOS highlights, what with this being holiday season and everything. Monument Valley (ustwo, also on Android) is a beautiful, becalming puzzler inspired by the art of M.C. Escher – a vital soother for stressful airport situations. Kiwanuka (CMA Megacorp) is a hyper-coloured Lemmings-like affair that’s “dubstep powered” – but don’t worry, as it’s not all guts-loosening wumps, and is actually pretty hypnotic. And Leo’s Fortune (1337 & Senri LLC) is a side-scrolling platformer that looks so good on one’s iPad that you want to climb into it and roll in the grass. All are out now, and represent better away-break purchases than that impulse-buy Dan Brown you usually end up with.