Monday, June 16, 2014

Monday Geekery: Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 is the newest of the Mario Karts, for the WiiU. I played it a bit over the last week, and of course lost horribly after I got out of the 50cc, but that's a different story...

To be fair, the only other Mario Karts I've played have been for the Super Nintendo and for the N64. That said, there were things I enjoyed, and things I wasn't so fond of, with the Wii U Kart.

Of course the graphics I'll put down as a plus. My eyes get dazzled with scenes that are too busy and I have hard time focusing on the track (hence the losing horribly), but that shows you the level of detail put into the settings, which are elaborate, bright, and amusing. There are a lot of the classic settings (Wario's Stadium, Donut Plains, Peach's Castle, and of course the Rainbow Roads). In fact, there are two Rainbow Roads, one based off the N64 track and the other, although original, reminds me of the Super Nintendo track. But we all expected the classics to be back, and I think that may have been one of the drawing points--the game boasts 50% new tracks. (I consider the second Rainbow Road to be fudging it slightly, but it does have unique features not in previous Rainbow Roads I remember.)

There were also a couple of "new-retro" settings that, like the second Rainbow Road, have a touch of familiarity. Dolphin Shoals, for example, was for me a flashback to some of the previous beach settings, with the addition that now you drive underwater. In fact I was sort of reminded of a Mario Jet Ski game I played a while ago. Mario Kart Stadium and Bowser's Castle are also included, and again, while the names are retro (Super Nintendo style), the tracks are very much more alive in this 3D setting, unrecognizable compared to the 8-bit era versions. Yet still, familiar, and there are elements like fireballs and jumps in both versions.

From IGN 's review of the features, tracks, and more
The super-busy water park track. Yes, you plunge directly
into the water, drive sideways, and more.
Then there are the new-new tracks. I've never seen a Cloudtop Cruise before (that doesn't mean there wasn't one, but it was entirely new to me). It had the strong Mario flair of finding that secret level,climbing into the sky and running around on the clouds, then jumping onto the cloud ship... you know the classic Super Mario feel brought to life, which is what I think all Mario Karts aim for. I enjoyed all the new settings, although the Music Park, Toad's Harbor, and the Water Park were just a wee bit too busy for me, so distracting I had a hard time seeing the road.

Still, all the business in those parks included some interesting alternate routes. There are bonus ramps in each track. Most of the ramps are only useable with a mushroom, since they're located on grass, and there are more of them on tracks with fewer alternate routes. Which some tracks offer quite a variety of. Toad's Harbor seems to have the second-most in options (of course Yoshi's Valley, in its maze-like setup, offers the most). These I appreciate more, because it gives me the feeling of exploring, and the ramps... well, honestly left me disappointed as they didn't go anywhere interesting and offered little in the way short cut, and rarely offered the additional question mark that made them so useful in N64. I didn't find much in the way of serious shortcuts, although there were one or two that shaved off a corner or an extra second's worth of track. I'm going to keep looking, though.

The golden mushroom was much my pet peeve in the game. This version of Mario Kart has twisty, tight turns on almost every track. Admittedly, the tracks with straightaways, golden mushrooms were great. But getting a golden mushroom in either Rainbow Road, or the Music Park, or the Haunted Mansion (excuse me, "Twisted" Mansion) was more a slap on the wrist, because you couldn't really effectively use it without sending yourself plummeting to your would-have-been-certain-death-if-you-weren't-promptly-rescued. Perhaps it was just my luck, but falling into lower ranks kept saddling me with golden mushrooms instead of more useful items like red shells or even triple regular mushrooms, which can be spaced out appropriately and used for maximum effect.

The tightness of the turns also made vehicle selection important. You get options--lots of options--in vehicle customization. I enjoyed the handling of the bikes, but the power braking was hard to control and much, much harder to stay on the track in the sharper-curved courses. On the whole I found I preferred 4 wheels, because they were more adaptable for a variety of tracks. Top speed was affected by weight, so characters that were heavy and had heavy vehicles had the highest top speeds, but getting hit by a single shell in the last lap was practically the kiss of death, because of the slow acceleration. And whatever you do, don't drive on the grass! Lighter characters recovered better, and if you're just picking up the game, I'd say start with a light or middle weight character until you get used to the vehicle handling.

Another attribute is the fact that you can choose to race internationally online. But I wouldn't suggest this if you're just getting started. The game's been out for only a short time, and already the online tracks are vicious. Fun to watch, but if you're going to play before you've gotten your feet under you, expect to end up dead last.

Then there's the battle mode, which was the big disappointment of the game. Unlike the arenas of N64 and Super Nintendo, battle mode takes place on a regular track. Yep. The entire track. In my opinion that's far too much space... you never even have to see your opponent. You start out in view of each other, but quickly end up losing sight; and once the other player has disappeared, you have little chance of finding her without looking at her screen. Of course you still have the three-balloon setup, where being hit loses your balloons, and once you've lost all your balloons you're out. Then again, you still get to run over question marks and drop green shells and items, so you're more disqualified from winning than out of the game. So that's a bonus, since nobody has to sit around getting bored in three-plus player combat.

On the whole it's an enjoyable game, and worth playing. The highlight reels are amusing the first time or two, but they quickly lose their glitter; most of the fun comes from what Mario Kart is all about: racing through an interesting track and shooting the other racers with banana peels, ba-bombs, and shells. It's a game where playing dirty is the draw, and in the end everything else is just tasty icing on the cake.

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