Nintendo seems content with playing it safe when creating first-party series for its Wii U home console. Recent games such as "Super Mario 3D World" and "Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze" provided the fun factor fans expected, but they failed to separate themselves from their predecessors. "Mario Kart 8" ($59.99, rated E for Everyone) continues this mentality, bringing the series into beautiful high definition but stuck firmly in its usual lane.
The series has always been about friendly competition, and the eighth game adapts that formula to the most powerful hardware in Nintendo's arsenal. Some new karts, characters and items are offered, but "Mario Kart 8's" best quality is its transition to high definition.
Visually, it rivals the best-looking games on the more powerful PS4 and Xbox One. Nintendo has always found a way to do more with less, and this game is no exception. The vibrant colors pop from the screen. Time and care went into each course to make it seem as if these racers have been transported to a new world. The tracks are as intricate as their backgrounds and surroundings.
Half of the 32 tracks are updated versions of classics, while single-player mode remains the same as always.. Players compete in various cups -- groups of courses -- with difficulty levels starting at 50cc, and difficulty progresses to 100cc and 150cc. Earning first-place trophies in each cup unlocks the mirror mode, which inverts all the tracks.
Coins have been adopted from the 3DS's "Mario Kart 7." Drivers can collect 10 coins that are scattered around the track. The more coins a driver holds, the faster that character will be. Getting hit with items or tumbling off the track loses three coins. Coins should be in every "Mario Kart" moving forward -- they add a much needed layer of skill.
The coins unlock new parts that allow players to mix and match wheels and kart bodies to create a custom driving machine. Different parts carry unique attributes that change speed, acceleration, grip and handling. Having a comfortable kart is essential in "Mario Kart 8's" competitive modes.
Skill is needed when venturing into the multiplayer arena. The game features four-player local multiplayer, as well as online play. Online play is smooth but clearly highlights Nintendo's shortcomings. For example, in multiplayer modes, voice chat is an option only in a pre-game lobby in a match among friends. The lack of multiplayer setting adjustments also hinders the experience.
Local and online multiplayer have the option to race or engage in battle mode, the classic "Mario Kart" mode that grants characters three balloons. Getting hit with an item removes a balloon, and the player that removes the most balloons wins. These matches were usually housed in a large open arena, but Nintendo made the wretched decision to move them to tracks. What was once a frantic frenzy of item slinging is now a slow-paced drudge while characters wander around a loop looking for each other.
"Mario Kart 8" is still all about racing friends in a chaotic battle for first place. That old form of fun is present, but this latest edition fails to drive the series forward with meaningful change.
Max Parker writes The Game Guy blog at communityvoices.post-gazette.com. Twitter: @GameGuyPGH.
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