The Wii U needs saving. Despite its head start, Nintendo’s newest video game console has been outsold by the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One is on its way to surpassing it as well. And while there are several potential reasons for that—like the marketplace confusion over whether or not it’s a new system or just a peripheral for the Wii—it’s really about the games. The system is home to at least a dozen worthwhile titles, but many are still waiting on some of Nintendo’s big guns: a new Zelda or Metroid, the next Mario, and the upcoming Super Smash Bros. With its newest release, Nintendo has fired its first shot. Well, thrown its first shell.
Mario Kart 8 may well be the most beautiful game Nintendo has ever released, and it takes a 22-year-old winning formula and makes it better than it has ever been. The company’s developers have always been among the best in the world, and the consistent quality of their releases is why they have so many fans all these years later. As the oldest company in the video game industry, Nintendo has a long history of beloved franchises, and Mario Kart is near the top. Nintendo is clearly hoping a new entry can give the Wii U the boost it needs, and it’s not an unreasonable proposition: Consumers are attracted to things they recognize and like. In an industry where name recognition matters, Mario Kart has undeniable clout.
Every Nintendo home console since the Super Nintendo has seen a Mario Kart game, as has every portable since the Game Boy Advance (Japan even has an Arcade series). Approximately 100 million copies have been sold since the first game released in 1992, making it one of the most successful franchises of all time. Mario Kart 7 is the second best selling game on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld and the best selling portable racing game of all time. In 2009, the Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition ranked the original Super Mario as the no. 1 video game of all time, putting it ahead of classics like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Super Mario Bros.
Nintendo often focuses on its established franchises, and the Wii U has continued that trend. Nearly all its biggest games have been sequels. Even Super Mario 3D World—arguably the best game of 2013—is yet another Mario game. The company has published original titles like The Wonderful 101, but its developers haven’t done much to surprise and entice current and would-be Wii U owners. Even the enjoyable NES Remix series, a recent invention that takes retro games and twists them into fun minigames, is based on existing properties. Instead of creating new characters, Nintendo returns to the same cast again and again, just as the big film studios bank on well-known characters from every corner of pop culture to bring in an audience.
Which is exactly why it’s “Mario” Kart. Nintendo’s beloved mascot has appeared in over 200 games. And with Super Mario Kart, Nintendo created a new subgenre—the kart racer—that bore no resemblance to the platformers that its mascot was famous for. But they added Mario to it, and now he’s an indelible part of the franchise.
Eight iterations in, Mario Kart has become something of a known quantity. Sure, each game has a gimmick (such as having two characters per kart in Double Dash, the GameCube release), but the look and feel hasn’t changed much. That isn’t to say Mario Kart 8 has nothing to offer longtime fans or potential newcomers, though. The new trick here is verticality, turning kart tires into magnets at key points on the tracks and letting players drive on walls (or even upside down). The gameplay doesn’t change much when the world starts spinning, but it adds a little bit of variety that keeps the tried-and-true formula interesting.
And it’s never looked better. In fact, no Nintendo game has ever looked better. From the title screen all the way to the ridiculous loops of Rainbow Road, you will be blown away by what Nintendo has done with Mario Kart 8. People have written off the Wii U because of its relatively weak hardware—more in line with the PS3 than the PS4—but there is much more to graphical quality than raw numbers. Even on the radically underpowered Wii, Nintendo was making games that stood out from the crowd. Now that they’ve finally made the switch to HD, the gloves are off. Super Mario 3D World may not push as many polygons as the PlayStation 4 beauty Killzone: Shadow Fall, but its style and artistry is every bit as impressive. Mario Kart 8 follows that trend. In stills, it looks nice. In motion, it’s breathtaking.
But while the system has needed another big showcase of its graphical abilities, that isn’t what makes Mario Kart 8 the title that everyone needs to own. Instead, it’s the multiplayer experience. Just as the next Super Smash Bros. will undoubtedly be, Mario Kart 8 is a game best experienced with a friend (or three) sitting together on a couch, looking at the same screen. Mario Kart 8 can be played online with up to 11 other players, but it’s in the social setting that Mario Kart really thrives and brings back memories of the good old days. Ever since the advent of Xbox Live, online multiplayer has become the dominant way to play, and while some games do offer a single split screen option, few allow for a full four players at a time. Mario Kart 8 fills this gap, and I will be playing this game with friends for a long, long time. In the right setting, it becomes as much of a party game as the immensely popular Just Dance.
And Mario Kart 8 caters to all types of players, allowing for a number of different control schemes, letting people play however they are most comfortable. This means pretty much anyone, gamer or otherwise, can sit down and be dodging green shells within minutes. I convinced a friend who hadn’t played before to try it out with me, and by the third race he was already beating me. (Disclaimer: I’m not very good at Mario Kart 8.) It just clicked for him, and even though I was losing, I was still having a blast. That’s an unfortunately rare feeling in video games nowadays, and it should be celebrated.
I want Mario Kart 8 to be the Wii U’s savior. It’s gorgeous, brilliantly designed, and a whole lot of fun. Nintendo is keeping tight-lipped about pre-sale numbers, but it’s currently the second game on Amazon’s Best Sellers list and high on GameStop’s list as well. With universally positive reviews and 22 years of nostalgia behind it, Mario Kart 8 is in prime position to put the Wii U back in the spotlight.