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June 5, 2014

RE: Mario Kart 8

I need a respite from Watch Dogs.  Let’s talk about something good.

You know what?  No.  Let’s not just talk about something good.  Let’s talk about something really good.  Really, almost unfairly good.

In a nutshell?  This game has officially earned Nintendo the right to drop the mic.

You know what?  I think I’m a Nintendo fanboy now.

I’ve got my biases, and as it stands those biases are swinging well in the Big N’s favor.  I’m not about to pretend that the company has done everything right, otherwise the Wii U wouldn’t be in such a bad spot (PLEASE, NINTENDO!  JUST MARKET YOUR PRODUCTS!), but there are only a couple of game devs that I can see myself supporting with unconditional, almost stalker-level love.  Atlus is one of them.  ArcSys Works is another.  And Nintendo’s a third.

But I think I’ve got every reason to be a fanboy.  They took what could have been a cash-grabbing rush job and made into one of the most harrowing games ever released, not to mention one of my favorite games ever (if not THE favorite).  They’ve consistently put out good games for decades.  They’ve offered platforms to do the same, and have been a last bastion of creativity, style, and actually being a video game for ages.  And while they may not have the harrowing numbers in terms of sales or profits, thus far they’ve taken the best step forward in this eighth console generation.  Game, after game, after game, after game they released (or helped/allowed to be released) has been reliable, and the closest to being remarkable so far this generation -- proof of what happens when you know what the hell you’re doing.

And they’ve proven it again.  As they have before.  As they always have.  And the way things are looking, as they always will.

So here’s the immediate question that needs to be asked: how is MK8 making a case for itself as a true “next-gen experience”?  And the answer to that is…well, in a lot of ways, it isn’t.  It’s not something that’s completely revolutionary.  It’s not reinventing the wheel.  At its core, it’s still just another Mario Kart game.  You’re not going to get a mind-blowing revolution when you slide it into your console.  And indeed, by design, the game isn’t trying to be a mind-blowing revolution.  It just has to be (and wants to be) the new Mario Kart.  So the question that follows is, “Is that enough?”

That’s really sketchy territory, and that answer is going to vary from person to person.  But in my opinion?  In this case?  Yes.  It’s more than enough.

Remember, Nintendo added an intermediary step between the sixth and seventh generations with the Wii.  It sacrificed raw horsepower for the sake of promise and potential, and did its best to sidestep a lot of issues that the bigger consoles and similarly-large developers would eventually run into.  (And they did.  HARD.)  So in that regard, we can think of “next-gen” in a different light.  Two factors, at least.  One: could Mario Kart 8 have conceivably come out on the original Wii?  And Two: Is Mario Kart 8 better than Mario Kart Wii?

To answer the first question?  No.  To answer the second question?

Let me be frank: I like MKWii.  I put plenty of time into it, and I think it’s a solid game.  But I admit that it has its faults.  And a lot of those faults -- maybe all of them -- have been either addressed or outright erased with MK8

Bear in mind that this is coming from someone fresh off of (loathing) Watch Dogs, but as it stands I’m convinced that the driving in MK8 is utterly immaculate.  As it should be.  Steering, drifting, boosting, it’s all there, and all works perfectly; it feels like when I slide into a wall, it’s because I got greedy and over-drifted.  But you can place your kart pretty much exactly where you want to, and make use of each turn for maximum Mini-Turbo potential. 

More to the point, you stand a much better chance of getting out of the way of traps like bananas and shells than you do in, say, MKWii; sure, you weren’t destined to swerve into a banana, but getting past them always felt much harder than it should -- and beyond that, would throw you out of your perfect line to first place.

Part of the reason why the driving feels so good, I suspect, is because the tracks are MASSIVE.  Maybe not in terms of length (typically), but in terms of width.  You have a lot more space to move around in than in MKWii, and as such can get right where you need to be in virtually all cases.  You can find that perfect line, and assuming you’ve got the skill, you can stay on it and get to first place, boosting past opponents and slipping behind them to slingshot ahead with a burst of speed.

More to the point, you have a better shot at getting past your opponents -- the “rat pack” -- without worrying about them slamming into you or throwing a career-ending shell at you as they blast off.  It makes for a less frustrating experience.  That said, the tradeoff is that while you don’t have to worry as much when you’ve gotten to first place, making a comeback is notably harder than MKWii.  It puts the emphasis back on skillful play, but I suspect it punishes those that can’t keep up. 

Playing online suggests that higher difficulties are going to add in that expected element of chaos, but the focus in MK8 feels like it’s back on what really matters: the racing.  Pain-in-the-ass items like the POW Block and Lightning Cloud are gone, as far as I can tell, and (as noted by others) you can neutralize the dreaded Blue Shell with a new item that fires off a big shockwave.  Getting hit by shells and such slows you down, but it doesn’t feel quite as debilitating as it did in the Wii installment.  The same goes for if when you fall off the course; you’re back in the race in what has to be a third of the time. 

The focus is back on the racing, and by extension the focus is back on the speed.  Setting aside the fact that you can mix and match parts before a race to make your dream kart, it feels like a faster game overall, and there’s a greater emphasis on maintaining and building that speed.  You can grab coins on the track to reach your top speed.  Running into the Mushroom Kingdom equivalent of Tesla coils while in anti-grav mode makes you go faster, as does bumping into opponents.  Slingshot ahead of opponents, and there’s a palpable sense that you’re moving forward with gusto.  Drive over a boost pad, and there’s a blur effect that tells your brain “ZOOM, BABY, ZOOM!”  You leave flames on the road as you boost, like you’re trying to outrun Doc Brown’s Delorean.

So taken purely as a comparison to the last console release, and taken in terms of gameplay, MK8 is by far a better racer than MKWii.  And really, that’s something that helps emphasize that this is “next-gen”, even if it’s not exactly a gargantuan leap forward.  The new hardware is being used to provide a better experience -- refining the formula so that the faults are removed, or if not that, then at least buried deep underground.  Could there have been more added?  Well, sure.  I don’t know what that would entail (I suspect that adding a story to the game wouldn’t do very much in the grand scheme of things), but while the game has more than enough to satisfy me, I have a feeling that some people aren’t going to walk away with their minds blown.  In theory.

I say “in theory” because there’s always the possibility that they will.  See, the expectation with new consoles is that, with the new hardware, there’s an opportunity for newer, better visuals.  More filters!  More particle effects!  HnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngPOLYGONS!  While I’m the sort of gamer who (like many others) doesn’t put much stock in graphics, I’ll be the first to admit that they are an important part of the package.  That’s just the way it goes in an audiovisual medium.  How things look and sound matters.  They’re not, and should never be, the ONLY things that matter.  But they are worth paying attention to.  Putting effort into.

So how does MK8 fare?  Well, I’ve got two words for you.

Yikesy mikesy.

(That’s my catch phrase, and no one can take that away from me.)

This is Nintendo’s definitive statement -- the proof that they know how to make an HD game.  MK8 is absolutely gorgeous.  The karts look amazing, from the sheen on their hoods to the sand and snow that gathers on their wheels.  The characters look amazing, right down to adding hair and mustache physics to my main man Luigi.  (To say nothing of his death stare.)  The effects look amazing, with what might as well be a supernova erupting each time you do a trick off a ramp.  And do I even need to say how much how much it matters that there are colors -- genuine, varied, vibrant colors -- in this game? 

Actually, I do.  See, games like this are proof of what devs need to do with the hardware and their graphics engines.  BioShock Infinite is another game that got it right; instead of showing us something we’ve seen a million times before, they need to use that power to give us something new.  Something exciting.  And MK8 gets that right in spades; they used that power to create tracks that have you going forward, sideways, and upside down.  They have you taking flight, and going underwater.  Into what’s effectively a neon-lit dance club, into mines bustling with workers singing in time with the music, and past what’s effectively a mech version of Bowser made out of rock and lava that punches the track so hard that it quivers from each blow.

And then there’s Mount Wario.  If my jaw hadn’t hit the floor, I guarantee you that I would have said “Nintendo, you’re fucking with me.  You’re just plain fucking with me.”

And on top of all that, there’s still the music.

All right, I’ll be fair.  Some songs are better than others.  That’s a given, and it’ll come down to a matter of preference in terms of which songs are best.  The same applies to the tracks; I’ve always been a fan of ruins, canyons, and snow levels in games, so MK8’s got me set for life.  But generally speaking, the songs in MK8 are unbelievably good.  Hearing them in-game is the first time I’ve gotten my taste of them (in spite of behind-the-scenes looks at the performances from Nintendo, and the soundtrack plastered all over YouTube for weeks before release), and now I feel like a putz for waiting as long as I did.  The first song from the first track almost seems to scream “Welcome to the new world of Mario Kart 8!  Now get ready for one hell of a glorious adventure!”

Usually when you think Nintendo, you think of catchy tunes.  But when it comes to adding rock and guitars and such into the mix, that’s often left to remixers across the internet.  But no longer.  The Big N’s composers have added some tasty, hot-blooded riffs into more than a few songs, occasionally alongside orchestral overtures.  But even if rock’s not your jam, you’ll be all right.  Violins will go all in.  Celtic tones will sound off as you drive on through.  And whoever suggested to the Big N that they start working more jazz and saxophones into their songs deserves a raise the size of an island. 

Also?  When the “trophy get” jingle of your game sounds better than the entire soundtracks of other games, you know you’ve done something right.

You know, it’s funny.  My brother regularly asks me when we’re going to get another F-Zero game.  And that’s hard to say for sure, obviously.  He might end up waiting for a while.  But as it stands, MK8 is pretty damn close, least of all because of the anti-gravity segments littered throughout its tracks.

MK8 makes me feel happy in a way a lot of games can’t (or won’t).  And this is just a hunch, but I think I know why.  This game may exist to earn money, and help pull Nintendo out of the dark hole it’s trapped in right now, but that’s fine.  Even if it is ultimately just a product, it’s still a damn fine one.  It feels even better than it has any right to be.  And it’s proof that the Big N has earned the right to keep “making Mario games over and over again”, because they’re A) incredibly good, and B) so different from one another that they might as well belong to different franchises, more often than not.  This may be the eighth-numbered Mario Kart, but it’s a separate beast with its own identity.

With that in mind, I’m concerned about the staying power of this game -- and with it, the genuine quality.  A few months down the line, am I going to like the game as much as I do now?  Am I going to go gaga over Mount Wario come next year?  I’ve put some time into it, and I can already see a few minor issues.  So once the sheen’s worn off and the races become commonplace, will I think of MK8 as such a high-quality production?  Could it be that my biases -- my hunger for a game that isn’t gritty and gray -- are making me treat the game as something far better than it is?  That’s very possible.  I admit that.  But merely the fact that I can play a 2014 game and be willing to get this excited about it -- without me thinking that it self-destructs in the first hour -- has to stand for something.  It has to. 

But it goes beyond that.  Say what you will about Nintendo, and go ahead and assume that it’s got no place in the modern games industry.  But as for me?  I’m going to assume something else.

This game is a true labor of love.

Moo Moo Meadows from MKWii is back.  But it’s been transformed so much that it’s almost unrecognizable.  It’s a bigger course.  It’s got new tricks.  It’s got new effects, and a new aesthetic.  It’s got better music.  It’s got wider roads so that you can dodge incoming cows a lot more easily.  It’s got all sorts of tweaks so that even if it’s an old level returned, it’s not a simple copy/paste job.  Every change is there, and there for a reason.  At LEAST three reasons.

1) So you can marvel at the sights and sounds.
2) So you can race more smoothly.
3) So you can have fun.

And I have marveled.  And I have raced more smoothly.  And I have had more fun.  And I’m going to have even more fun, because it’s a good-ass game I can’t wait to play more of.  And I’m thankful to have had the opportunity -- the blessing to be a part of it. 

So thank you, Nintendo.  Thanks for the game.  And thanks for being you.  You may not get the respect you deserve these days, but you’ve got a pretty good consolation prize: one more fanboy who’ll stay loyal for a while yet.


And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys next time.

…In which we’ll go back to talking about Watch Dogs.  Joy of joys.

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