By Robert Ward . May 15, 2014 . 2:10am
The number of times I’ve been unwittingly bump-boosted off the edge of Mario Kart 8’s new iteration of Rainbow Road during its several antigravity segments is as frustrating as it is telling. Mario’s latest kart racer isn’t just about racing upside-down, across waterfalls, or along the walls of ancient ruins—it’s about taking risks.
Actually, now that I think about it, it’s about knowing when to take them. Adapt or die—that’s the motto at the heart of Mario Kart 8’s gameplay, making it one of the most uniquely competitive Mario Kart games I’ve ever played. Mario Kart 8 includes nearly all the racing subtleties introduced in previous installments: jump-boosting, drift-boosting, vehicle customization, and gliding, but the main pull is a new feature called anti-gravity racing.
For those of you who didn’t catch last month’s Mario Kart 8-themed Nintendo Direct, anti-gravity racing is a new feature that allows racers to defy gravity and race along walls or remain grounded on tracks that twist and turn like the game’s titular “8”.
Each of Mario Kart 8’s sixteen brand-new stages contain anti-gravity segments. Meanwhile, some of the other sixteen returning stages, like DK Jungle from Mario Kart 7 and Toad’s Turnpike from Mario Kart 64, have been re-imagined with anti-gravity in mind, while others, like Donut Plains 3 from Mario Kart (SNES) and Moo Moo Meadows from Mario Kart Wii,do not include it.
Anti-gravity areas areas are marked with a blue strip. Crossing this strip will cause your wheels to turn 90°, and that’s where strategy comes into play. If you bump into another racer while your kart or motorbike is in anti-gravity mode, it gives both the bump-er and the bump-ee a minor speed boost, marked by the automotive equivalent of a pirouette. How will this change the way you play? Well, you can try to do what the 150cc bots did to me and hit another racer mid-drift to push them off course, or maybe just use the stage’s several built-in speed-boosting obstacles to catch up to a racer and ignore hitting them completely.
Similarly, there are advantages and disadvantages to having items in anti-gravity segments. Want to ride speed boosts to first place? You better ditch any orbiting shells or bombs you may have, since getting closer to your opponents is essential to pulling off a successful boost. Don’t bother using items not named “red shell” on enemies too far ahead, either, as you can only sling items about half the distance you could in Mario Kart 7 or even Mario Kart DS.
You can’t depend on having a large arsenal of weapons on hand anymore, as Mario Kart 8 does away with being able to hold two items at a time. Indeed, it seems the days of trailing bananas behind you with a red shell in reserve are long gone. Instead, that item slot is full until you’ve fully parted with whatever it is you pick up in a mystery block, putting the focus on how you navigate the game’s several clever stages. You may only be stuck with one item, but you’ll rarely be stuck with just one route.
For example, on the re-imagined Toad’s Turnpike course, you can use anti-gravity to scale the freeway walls, but if you choose to stick to the freeway, you can use traffic to your advantage. Trucks with surfboards propped on their back can be utilized for speed boosts, while larger ramps launch you into the air and give you the chance to glide over overpasses (and hopefully not into helicopters). You can land on top of trucks for more speed boosts, but be careful—one miscalculated drift will throw a huge stick in your spokes.
Mario Kart 8 escapes the grasp of gimmick-hood not only in the modest frequency in which anti-gravity segments appear, but also in its ability to make non-anti-gravity segments just as risky. Cloudtop Cruise is a perfect example of this. Near the end of the course, you’ll be scaling a large vine (the word “bean stock” comes to mind). You’ll see two leaves hanging off the course which, if maneuvered properly, can be jumped off of in succession to gain a decisive speed boost that has often been the difference between 1st and 4th place.
Similarly, you’ll find cleverly hidden shortcuts all over Mario Kart 8’s long list of stages, including the ones it takes from previous games. I found myself encouraged do some exploration outside of the game’s Grand Prix mode after several embarrassing defeats at the hand of the hawkeyed AI. Such ventures lead to my discovery of the library in the Flower Cup’s Twisted Mansion, which I won’t spoil for you here.
Ultimately, Mario Kart 8 switches up the formula by becoming a close-quarters kart racer that relies on your ability to properly assess your situation and react accordingly at any given moment. Stages are riddled with opportunities to explore split paths or build up speed, and it’s up to you how to navigate them.
Dealing with your opponents isn’t just about getting good items any more—it’s about knowing how to use the terrain to your advantage, and knowing which route best fits the situation.