“Mario Kart” is one of those rare video game series that truly everyone in the family can enjoy. Little kids love its energy and silliness, while even the grouchiest geezer can figure out how to drive a go-kart. Heck, even Tony Soprano played it.
“Mario Kart 8” (Nintendo, for the Wii U, $59.99) lives up to that tradition, keeping the franchise high on any list of terrific multiplayer games. Beyond slicker graphics, it doesn’t represent a great evolution from 1992’s “Super Mario Kart,” but Nintendo has never been a company that tried to fix things that aren’t broken.
This time around, there are 32 racetracks: 16 new ones and 16 repurposed from previous games and upgraded to high definition. Some of the new tracks, like the high-tech Electrodome, let you defy gravity, so you’ll find your vehicle clinging to walls and ceilings. It’s nothing new to fans of high-speed racers like “F-Zero” and “Wipeout,” but adds some unpredictability to the goofier courses here.
Besides, there’s more to “Mario Kart” than keeping your foot (or thumb) on the accelerator. Scattered across each track are boxes containing weapons, which you need to disrupt other racers’ momentum. As usual, you can fling turtle shells and banana peels at competitors; “MK8” adds a boomerang, a piranha plant and a “super horn” you can use to deflect shells hurtling your way.
The cast includes 30 drivers, from superstars like Mario and Donkey Kong to obscurities like Larry and Lemmy Koopa. The roster gets a little watered down with baby versions of the most familiar names; I’d rather see some characters from other Nintendo franchises like “Metroid” and “The Legend of Zelda.”
Finally, there are 26 vehicles – karts, bikes and all-terrain vehicles – that you can trick out with different tires, as well as gliders that let you float across trickier parts of the terrain. Most of the vehicle bodies and accessories need to be unlocked, so there’s motivation to keep driving even after you’ve seen all the tracks.
All this makes for fast-paced lunacy that’s best enjoyed with two or three friends. Sure, more experienced drivers have an advantage, but the ability to knock out the front-runner with a well-timed shell helps even the playing field. You can also compete online with up to 11 other humans, but the joy is more infectious if your pals are in the same living room.
Unfortunately, the popular Battle Mode, where the object is to eliminate other drivers rather than beat them to the finish line, is hamstrung by a puzzling decision to place the battles on linear tracks. The tracks make it much too easy to avoid getting struck, unlike the crowded arenas featured in previous installments.
Still, if you crave a racing game where the need for laughs is just as vital as the need for speed, “Mario Kart 8” is the one to beat.
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