Mario Kart 8 is a revelation and a significant step forward for Nintendo.
In fact, it’s so solid that I sometimes think it could be a figment of my imagination.
The success of Mario Kart 8 is refreshing to see, not only because it has provided the Wii U with a much-needed sales bump, but because it proves that Nintendo is finally getting to grips with online multiplayer. Of course, this is something that Sony and Microsoft have been doing in their sleep for years, but nonetheless it’s a relief to see some parity at long last.
The irony is that, for all the praise being directed at Mario Kart 8, many of its features have been seen before, in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7. The difference on this occasion is the obvious impact of the Wii U’s increased power and improved back-end infrastructure. There has been a tangible upgrade in the overall experience, removing the elements of doubt that were pervasive in earlier games. Getting online and joining a race in Mario Kart 8 is a refreshingly quick, simple and reliable process.
I have written before about how impressive I find Grand Theft Auto Online. I still do. It’s a great game that seems bewilderingly overlooked by mainstream games media. But, as much as I admire it, the process of starting missions and joining friends or crew members is fiddly and slow. It can sometimes take 10 minutes just to get my car out of the garage. I’m exaggerating a little, (and I know GTA and Mario Kart are hardly comparable games), but you can’t overestimate how refreshing it is to boot up the Wii U (from the new Quick Start menu) and be online within 60 seconds.
There has also been significant improvements in terms of matchmaking. Each player starts with 1000 points that increase or decrease, depending on your finishing position. It’s a simple measure that works well, acting as as a record of your own progress, as well as being an indicator of your opponents’ skills. This method of ranking has been used before in the series, but is refined here, with global and regional games always pitching you against a comparable set of racers. Playing with friends is also much improved. They are clearly marked and easy to join. And if their race is in progress, the spectator feed is a delightful way to pass the time.
As a side-note, I have always enjoyed Nintendo’s quaint penchant for showing you the global location of your opponents. The national flags and region labels are a small touch that, in the un-missed absence of voice chat, work as nice reminder that you are playing against real people. It makes the game feel ‘international’ in a way few others manage.
Elsewhere, Mario Kart 8‘s tournament features also impress. The range of customisation options make it easy to set up events based around differing play-styles. ‘All item’ races are chaotic affairs that guarantee hair-loss and filthy language (unless you win). Meanwhile, ‘item-less’ tournaments give players the opportunity to show off their driving skills.
And of course, there is video sharing. Despite its simplicity, the editing interface is capable of creating mini-masterpieces. The replay algorithm always manages to produce thrilling dramas that capture the to-and-fro jostles that provide the bedrock of every great race. And as the Luigi stare meme has proved, these videos are perhaps the greatest marketing tool Nintendo has ever devised.
The only downside to the online experience is the rather slender range of performance statistics. It would be nice to know a little more about how you have fared against regular opponents, or to see a breakdown of your item usage and favoured driving manoeuvres. And whatever happened to race times? If I beat a friend by 0.01 of a second, it would be great to see that on the scoreboard.
The lack of statistics could well be a deliberate move. The whole experience, from top to bottom, seems designed to get you online, racing and then racing again. This is not a game for players obsessed with the minutiae of drift distance. It’s about having fun. And having fun, right now.
So yeah, after years of criticism, Nintendo have finally pulled it out of the bag. The truth is, they have always preferred to furrow their own path, with quirky online experiments that, in their own way, were ahead of the curve. We’ll return to that topic next week, but in the meantime, Mario Kart 8 stands as a high-water mark. Let’s hope this progress continues with the forthcoming Super Smash Brothers.
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