For a series that's been around since the days of the Super NES, debuting in 1992, it's hard to believe that Mario Kart has had just seven installments up until Mario Kart 8 launched on May 30th. Considering the fact that Call of Duty, a series that only made its bow in 2003, has already chalked up ten appearances (not including portable iterations, expansions packs or spin-offs), Nintendo has been incredibly restrained with its use of one of the company's most popular and enduring franchises.
I'll be the first to throw my hands up and admit that I had written off the original 16-bit version not long after it was announced, fearing that it would be another half-hearted attempt at capitalizing on the Mario brand that ultimately failed to deliver anything beyond mediocrity. How wrong I was, and some 22 years later I'm still as fiendishly addicted to the series as I've ever been.
With just a single release on each of its platforms since 1992, there's a certain air of magic and expectation surrounding each new installment in the series, but with Mario Kart 8 marking its first step into the world of HD, there's been a lot more hype surrounding this release than arguably any that have come before.
It's not just the vastly improved visuals that are new here, either, Nintendo has spent considerable time and effort tweaking the established series formula in an attempt to make it feel as fresh as ever, and differentiate it from a long line of best-in-breed kart racers. Perhaps one of the key factors behind this aim to innovate has been that, for the first time, there's a genuine pretender to the throne on the scene in Sega's brilliant, yet strangely underrated Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing series, which debuted in 2010 and saw an even better follow-up land in November of 2012.
Then there's the added pressure of MK 8 being one of the titles identified as potentially kick-starting sales of the flagging Wii U. Despite churning our brilliant game after brilliant game, the public still remains to be convinced that Nintendo's flagship home console has what it takes to stick around for the duration, with many opting to hold off until the console sees a significant price drop - by which time it may be too late to salvage the system.
So, no pressure at all for the guys over at Nintendo EAD to perform then, eh?
That's enough with the back story, let's get down to brass tacks; is Mario Kart 8 the game that can save the Wii U, send Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing spinning out and breathe some new life into what must surely be one of the most refined gameplay experiences of all time?
For the most part, yes it is- although it's not quite the perfect racer you might have hoped for.
The only real issue here is the fact that the core elements of Mario Kart haven't changed at all since Mario Kart 64. While the SNES original laid the basic groundwork, it was the N64 game that established the drift system that has gone on to define the series so radically, and since then there's been little beyond improved graphics, new tracks, different and additional characters added with each iteration.
That's by no means a bad thing, however, particularly when the gameplay experience is as pure as it has been throughout the series since its inception - but it's something that I feel is worth pointing out to those who may have dipped in and out of the series down through the years, but never really jumped fully in and allowed themselves to become immersed in the obsession of shaving every possible fraction of a second off their best lap times, or conquering the world in the online modes found in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 on 3DS.
If you've played any Mario Kart game at all since 1997, you'll know exactly what you're getting here, except this time you'll be getting it on a level that you've not experienced before.
Typically, I'm a proponent of gameplay over graphics, and even the most beautiful of games tend to see their aesthetic effects wear off eventually, but that's not the case with Mario Kart 8. A full 2 weeks on of almost constant play and I'm still finding myself in awe of the game's broad colour palette, stunning design and surprisingly detailed tracks. Nintendo has made some gorgeous looking games in the past, but they've really outdone themselves here, proving once and for all that HD gaming is about vivid colours and variety, not drab corridors and failed attempts to look as realistic as possible.
That keen attention to detail extends beyond the track and into every facet of the game. Even the boring menus look slick, popping with colour and demanding your attention, while the pretty pictures are ably accompanied by some fresh and clever twists on familiar musical motifs, as Nintendo EAD opted to draft in a crew of live musicians to give a hand with the soundtrack this time around. Rather than messing with the established formula, they've instead managed to build upon the audible delights that had come before, and deliver a broad range of toe-tapping new takes on some old favourites, while bringing plenty of new tunes to the table along the way.
Even as you hum away to the soundtrack, your eyes taking in the wonder of your next track as the camera pans here and there, it's not long before these flourishes of presentational brilliance melt away into the background and you focus on the matter at hand. We're here to race, not look at artwork, and Mario Kart 8 is well aware of that fact.
With more characters than ever to choose from (30 in total) and a much broader selection of kart customizations on offer, Mario Kart 8 is a truly expressive experience. It'll take even seasoned players a huge amount of experimentation to identify the combinations that'll best suit their driving style, and some of the combinations you'd least expect to work actually turn out to be among the best.
Once you've selected your character from those available (you'll need to unlock a hefty chunk of the playable characters through completion of the game's various championships) you'll need to select your kart, wheel and glider types (again, the bulk of these need to be unlocked first). Thankfully, this is made a little easier to gauge by the fact that you can pull up a handy graph that'll show how each selectable will affect your driving stats, but the real test will be when you hit the track.
Featuring pleasingly wide tracks for the most part, MK 8 is more than able to comfortably accommodate the 12 competitors that'll take part in each race, while narrower sections provide ample opportunity for close quarters combat and some dirty tactics that'll separate the pros from the also-rans.
Familiarizing yourself with staples of the franchise, including the all-too-essential start boost and seamlessly switching drift direction to make your way around some of the game's tighter tracks is important to single player progress, as you'll need to get three stars in each championship in the 150cc class to unlock the additional mirror mode on offer, essentially doubling the amount of courses to be found.
However, as important as it is to get a grip on those basics in single player, if you're going to have any success at all in the game's multiplayer mode, you're really going to need to become an expert.
Like the two previous online-enabled titles in the series, Mario Kart 8's online play is ludicrously competitive, and like those titles it's every bit as punishing should you underperform in even a single race, as you'll have to stand by and watch your ranking become decimated, often due to a single oversight or horrendously timed blue shell from the rear of the pack. But isn't that what the Mario Kart experience is all about?
In one of the handful of major additions to the game this time around, Nintendo has added an ultra-rare pickup that'll allow you to defeat a blue shell before it ruins your day. The Super Horn will unleash a shockwave when activated, destroying everything in its wake, and offering a single glimmer of hope for salvation when a blue shell is hurtling down, locked onto your location. It's not foolproof, however, and if you get the timing wrong you'll not only waste one of the most useful items in the game, but you'll also get smacked in the back of the head by old bluey to make things worse.
While we applaud Nintendo's decision to finally address the cruel and unusual punishment of the blue shell with the Super Horn, the problem is that they're all too rare, while blue shells remain disturbingly frequent to the extent that you're likely to encounter at least one in the vast majority of races you'll take part in.
This can be addressed in online play by creating a room for you and your buddies with items disabled, allowing you all to focus exclusively on racing. It's a truly refreshing experience that only serves to emphasis just how beautiful Mario Kart is as a series when it's in full flow. Watching sizzle reels of your races (which can now be exported to YouTube) can be a real thing of beauty as you marvel at your mastery of even the tightest turns, before wondering how on earth you managed to drive off a ledge and throw away another nailed-on victory.
One thing I haven't touched upon yet is Mario Kart 8's anti-gravity sections. As you'll well know having seen pre-release footage of the game, it's now possible for racers to drive along walls and ceilings during designated sections of the track, however it looks an awful lot more impressive in clever video clips than it does from the fixed vantage point behind your driver. Rather than exhilarating the player with twists and turns that defy the laws of physics, the track merely rotates around as the camera stays static, not really doing justice to the fact you're DRIVING ON THE CEILING!
What the anti-gravity racing DOES add however, is a potential game-changer for competitive players; spin boosts. Unlike in regular sections of tracks where other racers are best avoided, once the anti-gravity has been engaged (which happens when you drive across a glowing blue strip on the track), bumping into your rivals will give both parties a temporary speed boost, opening up a whole new side of tactical play that encourages temporary partnerships between competing players as they repeatedly bounce off one another, zipping past the rest of the field before crossing the anti-gravity threshold and resuming battle once again.
In the single-player mode it doesn't really have a huge impact, but when played with friends either locally or online it's a whole different kettle of fish, and it's one of the most important additions to the series in a long time.
If there's a criticism to be made about Mario Kart 8 it's that the game, somehow, manages to be not very exciting for long periods. The single player mode fails to get the adrenaline pumping like it used to back in the day, while the fact that the series has been so expertly refined into a flawless formula doesn't really give all that much scope for innovation - although it's fair to say that Nintendo has done everything it possibly can to breathe some fresh ideas into the series.
It would be incredibly unfair to claim that Mario Kart 8 is boring, especially when the online multiplayer remains as competitive as ever (even if the actual process of getting into races, or setting up rooms for friends can be a little longer then you might like), and with friends in the same room it's still as close to perfect as you'll ever find for a racer, but it's possible that this eighth installment of the series marks its pinnacle.
It's genuinely impossible to see where it can go from here without Nintendo taking some serious risks with the core gameplay mechanics, but concern for the future shouldn't have any bearing on whether or not Mario Kart 8 is a great game; and a great game it is, I just wish it