Mario Kart 8 is both joyous and frenetic, nostalgic but packed with twists and innovations. It’s exactly the game Nintendo needs right now, a strong – albeit lonely – argument for investing in a Wii U (an argument that will be considerably strengthened if the Japanese firm can repeat the trick with its upcoming Star Fox and Legend of Zelda games, both of which were announced at E3).
More than 20 years since Mario Kart’s inception, its eighth iteration maintains the pick-up-and-play quality that made it such a hit. Lapsed gamers who spent their youth on the SNES and N64 versions will be power-drifting after half a lap and even total newbies will be in the running – and occasionally winning – within an hour or two.
The new tracks are brilliantly thought out; simple on the face of it but full of tantalising shortcuts that take time and precision to master. Mount Wario is a particular favourite, a ski-inspired track that hurtles along at a constant 30 degree incline, sometimes incorporating one of the franchise’s newest conceits: zero gravity. In practise this actually makes little difference to the gameplay – the track bends around the player rather than vice versa – but it looks spectacular.
There are four new "cups" to win, each made up of four new tracks, after which you unlock four “classic” ones containing re-imagined versions of tracks from the last 20 years, including the blissfully trippy Rainbow Road, which is every bit as fun as you remember. A handful of new items, among them a Piranha Plant that sits on your dash and eats opponents, and a horn that blasts nearby players (and, crucially, gets rid of attacking blue shells) also help to keep things fresh.
The single player mode is relatively easy, and even on the most difficult 150cc setting a little determination and a few hours should see relatively adept players bag first place in each of the eight cups. But Nintendo’s drip-feeding of unlockables keeps you coming back. After that the real draw, as with all Mario Kart games, is multi-player. Two people can race split-screen – a relative rarity in modern gaming – and there's a brilliantly realised online multiplayer in which 12 gamers from all over the world career around the track without even a hint of lag.
It’s not perfect, however. Battle mode, in which you have to score hits against your opponents using the usual roster of shells and stars, is terrible. Nintendo inexplicably scrimps on creating purpose built arenas – at odds with previous iterations – opting instead to recycle the race tracks. It means you often end up stranded around the wrong side of the course for half of the bout and virtually eliminates any exciting, cat-and-mouse chases and spectacular shell launches from elevated positions. Other niggles include the lack of a map for players using control pads instead of the GamePad, although it’s not inconceivable that both issues could be fixed by a future update.
But its few flaws are easily forgiven. Few games are so uncompromisingly upbeat, so resolutely nice, from the gleeful jazz rock of Nintendo’s Mario Kart Band to the dancing mushrooms who cheer you on from the side of the track. This is a game of rare brilliance, and proof that there's life in Nintendo yet.