Among the new games that Nintendo revealed at this year’s E3 was Mario Kart 8. The upcoming Wii U release represents the next logical step in the franchise’s evolution. Part 7 for the 3DS introduced flying to the formula, albeit in a very limited capacity, via hang-gliding. There were also submersible elements, but these too were for very short bursts during a given race (and were not present on every single track).
But its follow-up goes one step further by having assorted karts and bikes not just fly in the air and dive underwater, but also race sideways and upside down, thanks to each vehicle now sporting anti-gravity capabilities. The very first track lightly introduced the idea, in the form of a figure eight Möbius strip. The final game is still a ways off (it’s due next Spring, in early 2014), but the first couple tracks were playable on the E3 show floor.
At first, one’s head might naturally become filled with visions of F-Zero. And while some of the tracks do have perspective bending moments, much like in F-Zero X or F-Zero GX, it’s still Mario Kart at the end of the day—both in terms of tone and, most importantly, speed.
So is each vehicle some kind of futuristic transport that floats in the air? Not quite. Initially they resemble the karts one has come to expect. And they handle just like them too. That is until the track decides to turn things upside, literally. That’s when the additional hardware shows up, with the result being a different type of vehicle. Somewhat.
There are also two modes of control. First is the more traditional (and preferred among most) method, which has steering achieved via the left analogue stick, the A button is the gas, the B button is the brake, L is for weapons, and R is for hopping/drifting. It feels very much like playing with an oversized 3DS.
Then you have the second option, which takes its cues from Mario Kart Wii. Everything remains the same, except for steering; the Wii U GamePad becomes a virtual wheel. Much like the Wii installment, you hold the controller out and tilt it left or right to steer. Thanks to superior button placement, when compared to a Wii Remote in the wheel cradle, it’s actually more enjoyable this time around.
I asked Hideki Konno, the steward of the Mario Kart franchise, if hovercraft-like vehicles was a relatively new idea, or if it was something that has been bandied about for some time. Apparently, and not surprisingly, it was simply an extension of territory recently explored, and one that allows for greater experimentation:
“As you know, in Mario Kart 7, we had the ability to be high in the air, as well go down below, underground. From that, we had a bunch of ideas, like ‘what if we raced sideways’ or ‘upside down?’”
And it is true; this new element is taken considerably further than the aforementioned additions in the previous installment. I also asked if there were any challenges with creating a system in which one is essentially controlling two different types of vehicles in a given race:
“We’re always doing a lot of testing, and we’re still doing a lot of balancing at the moment. Of course we have plenty of time before release, so we’re going to spend that time balancing, balancing, balancing… right up to the last minute.”
At the moment, at least with the very first track, the Möbius strip, the transition between horizontal to vertical/upside is quite seamless and not at all dramatic as one might expect, or even hope. Handling remains more or less the same.
Konno also mentioned that, if one is in hovercraft mode and crashes with another, both vehicles will spin out, though I never found myself in such a situation. Sounds like one might stop dead in his or her tracks, which isn’t exactly uncommon in a Mario Kart game, given its plethora of weapons that are designed to do just that, so that too might not be nearly as dramatic as it initially sounds.
Overall, Mario Kart 8 appears to be a worthy, sensible follow-up to Mario Kart 7. It again tries something new, but doesn’t go too crazy. But it is a bit crazier than before, at least. In the end, it’s up to the track designs to really take advantage, as well as justify, this new mechanic.