“But do you think it’s better than Sonic Racing All-Stars Transformed? Whatever that one is called? You know, the one with Sonic.”
He thinks for a minute. I don’t have to think. I already know the answer. But he’s thinking.
“I mean, yeah, I can understand that you like Mario Kart 8,” I continue. “But better than Sonic Transformed All-Stars Racing?”
He’s still thinking.
After the jump, here I am, discussing the comparative merits of kiddie racing games.
Mario Kart 8 is certainly cute. And it looks great. And it’s slick in that Nintendo “hey, come on, just jump in!” way. But it’s come along too late. Because the kart racer that finally overcame my mild disdain for kart racers — why does anyone need a big cartoon character head sticking out of a tiny car in order to play a rough-and-tumble racing game? — is Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, a superlative package of racing on wheels, on wings, on water, across imaginative levels that would change with each lap. It has the usual trappings of kart racers and then some: various types of challenges, and scads of game types, and a campaign with collectible stars to unlock stuff, and characters you can level up to modify their vehicles, and, uh, stickers. Yeah, stickers. Unlock stickers and choose three for your profile. There’s a trippy Nights into Dreams level. There’s an Afterburner level with jets zooming around an aircraft carrier and its fleet. There’s a level where flying galleons blow up a whole town. There’s a flooding underwater lair. You can be the monkeys from Super Monkey Ball and the foxes and hedgehogs and what-not from Sonic. You can be some crazy Japanese dancing chick from some music game I’ve never played. You can be John C. Reilly from Wreck-It Ralph. What a big splashy thorough generous komplete package. It is the pinnacle of kart racing and even a flat-out great racing game. But Mario Kart 8 is just another iteration of Nintendo’s usual formula, right? Here we go again, right? Where are the special challenge levels? Where is the campaign where I earn stars to unlock new levels and characters and tracks? Why doesn’t a flying galleon come along and blow the crap out of the whole track? Why can’t I level up my dudes? I think it does have stickers, though.
“Well, I think Mario Kart 8 is better,” Jose finally says. He’s a writer for IGN who wrote their Mario Kart 8 review. Why would he say that? Why would he buckle for Nintendo so easily? Why does everyone buckle for Nintendo? Why the soft spots for the big N whereas I’m mostly just annoyed by Mario himself? Nintendo fans. They’re so predictable. I want to get to the bottom of this, but I haven’t read his review yet and besides, we’re at a press thing and I have to go look at a terrible demo of a Sony shooter, so we don’t get to talk more specifics. I’ll read his review after I’ve written this and then send him an email to let him know he was wrong, that Sonic All-Transformed Racing Stars is obviously the better game for the following blah-blah reasons blah blah.
And over the next week or so, as I’m playing Mario Kart 8, wishing it was as good as Sonic Racing All-Transformed Stars but still enjoying it, I find myself wondering how I would answer the question of which game is better. How would I respond to that in a meaningful way? Such as in a review, like this one. How can I explain that Sega has closed the book on kart racing? To prepare myself, with Mario Kart 8 fresh on my mind and fingertips, I spend some more time with Racing All-Sonic Transformed Stars. And it’s good. Very good. Great, even. I love it. So much variety, so many ways to play, such wildly inventive tracks with their airplanes and boats and cars and massive destruction and changing paths. I mean, jeeze, a flying galleon blowing up a whole town! It’s inspired.
Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, is mostly safe. It’s an iteration of the previous Mario Karts. I mean, half the tracks are from older Mario Karts. That’s Nintendo’s way and I’m sure they’re disappointed at their own lack of innovation all the way to the bank. But innovation, which I’ve always said is overrated, isn’t Nintendo’s strength. It’s barely even in their top fifty things to do. It’s, like, number 47 on their corporate checklist. A game like Wonderful 101 will come and go, unheralded, unsung, a way to cross off the 47th thing on the list for another year or so. But with Yet Another Mario Property Number Whatever, Nintendo will bang the biggest gong they can find. “Now in Mario Kart 8,” they proudly announce as if it’s as cool as a flying galleon blowing up a whole town, “you can stick to walls!”
But as I start to swap back and forth between the two kart racers, as I start to look at the fun I’m having with something approximating a critical eye, I come to the conclusion that, okay, Mario Kart 8 is very good. Very very good. Very very very good. Maybe even great. The actual physics of the racing — lordy, I’m using the words “physics” to talk about a game where several of the drivers are actual babies sucking pacifiers — are so solid, so gratifying, so grounded, so imbued with personality that I’m even doing time trials. I don’t mind driving around and around on the same track trying to get a better time, checking what components a ghost is using, changing my car and trying again, working out where to use my limited boosts, finessing a shortcut. I sure didn’t care to do that in Sonic All-Racing Stars Transformed because the driving physics are mostly a matter of whether you’re the car, the boat, or the airplane. And although I’m sure it’s a major failing that your kart can’t turn into a boat or an airplane in Mario Kart 8, I can’t help but wonder that there seems to be a significant difference among the handling for an ATV, a kart, and a motorcycle, all of which are distinct chassis types. Is that really the case? I certainly feel different skidding around a tight curve on a motorcycle. Maybe it’s just the animation. That amazing animation. Peach kicks out her leg and drags it on the asphalt as the motorcycle leans over. The characters turn to look at each other. They wave and clap. The wall clinging segments have their own new rules. Is that Peach’s ponytail going straight up because I’m driving upside down? These looping vertical and inverted tracks tie the tracks together like tidy fancy bows. I guess wall clinging is worthy of a bullet point after all.
And as much as people tell you games look good, boy does Mario Kart 8 look good. It’s the stuff of high-def dreams, of childhood memories scrubbed clean of imperfection and rendered in Pixar-perfect imagery, of speed and precision going hand-in-hand, of vision and clarity and undeniable infectious ebullience. Frankly, it’s the stuff of single-platform development, where someone makes a game only and specifically for one machine. And Nintendo knows enough to give it a flexible but easy-to-use replay option, pre-plugged into YouTube. Here are a few highlights of me as a solid gold Princess Peach giving a bunch of people in Japan and France the what-for. When did it happen that I cared enough about Mario Kart 8 to upload highlights because I placed second in an online race?
And try as I might, I can only cling stubbornly to my supposed preference for Sega’s excellent kart racer for so long. They’re both good in different ways, but Mario Kart 8 embodies what Nintendo does so well. They take something that works well and they eventually make it smooth and great and absolutely irresistible. Okay, Nintendo, you got me. For now. Let’s see what you can do with a new Super Smash Bros. later this summer. There’s no way you’re going to get me to write a review without whinging that Super Smash Bros. Brawl was all I ever needed in a party brawler. Is there?
Mario Kart 8
Feel the rush as your kart rockets across the ceiling. Race upside-down and along walls on anti-gravity tracks in the most action-fueled Mario Kart game yet. Take on racers across the globe and share videos of your greatest moments via Mario Kart TV. And YouTube. Not just for kids!