The Road to Mario Kart 8 Success
Nintendo took a bold step with the release of Super Mario Kart in 1992. Sticking an established platforming icon and a cast of supporting characters into small motor vehicles may not have sounded like a recipe for success, but with eight releases to date spanning eight Nintendo consoles, the Mario Kart games have become a staple in any Nintendo fan’s library.
Mario Kart has delighted gamers of all skill levels with its immediate appeal; there are familiar and likable characters, and like the platforming Mario games, the objective is straightforward. The structural simplicity of Mario Kart helped it become what I consider my first “party game” experience. Going to friends’ houses to race and battle on the Super Nintendo graduated into a four-player frenzy on the Nintendo 64. Mario Kart seemed to appeal to a wider variety of players than the popular fighters and first person shooters of the time, and it was my first memory of the neighborhood girls getting involved in gaming.
Despite the simple appearance of the game, it is one thing to get “good” at playing Mario Kart, but an entirely different one to take it to the next level. Mastering the drift controls, course familiarization, and item usage are some basic concepts that need to be accomplished in order to succeed. Finding shortcuts, understanding mechanics like drafting (driving behind an opponent to gain a speed boost), and constant practice are necessary to elevate any player’s game. With the recent DLC for Mario Kart 8 adding an unprecedented faster class with 200cc, even experts will have to revisit their strategies to maintain a firm hand on the courses, racers, and general gameplay.
Unlike the immediate console predecessor, Mario Kart Wii, Mario Kart 8 does not have an “automatic” option to control a character. This control scheme allowed inexperienced players to only worry about pushing A to speed up, and tilting the control stick to turn. If the turn was too sharp, the kart would automatically start to drift, cutting the corner at a tighter angle. Even on more advanced courses, using the automatic control option would enable beginners to navigate the twisting turns without smashing into the side or flying off the edge of the track. The only drawback to this undoubtedly easier control scheme was that the player would not receive mini turbos as a result of their cornering. Veterans and more experienced players could opt to use the “manual” control scheme that allowed for traditional drifting. This more difficult playing style rewarded players with mini turbos after a successful drift turn. Advanced players could benefit twice from this method, as they could take tighter, more controlled turns, as well as exiting those turns with a bonus burst of speed. This is not a tutorial about drift turning, but instead an advocacy of the importance and necessity to learn how.
Mario Kart 8 eliminated the option to pick a control scheme and forces players to either learn how to drift turn or to get comfortable finishing in the bottom half. Never before has the difficulty progression of the tracks been more apparent than in this game. Starting out on Mario Kart Stadium, drivers are exposed to long straightaways, wide track, and long, gentle turns. New players can be successful on this type of track because drift turning is not necessary to win. By simply driving down the middle and staying on the track, anyone can pull off an easy win, especially on 50cc. Comparing this opening experience of the Mushroom Cup to Thwomp Ruins just three races later, one notices that there are skinnier paths, more obstacles, and tighter turning sequences, including back to back 90º turns in opposite directions.
The need to master drift turning is apparent as early as the Banana and Flower Cups. Some of the tracks like Donut Plains 3 and Shy Guy Falls are simply too difficult to navigate smoothly without drift turning. This natural progression of difficulty forces players to learn to drift as it gradually becomes more and more a part of each track. By the time players reach the Special Cup or any of the DLC Cups, drift turning not only gives a player an advantage, but it is required to win. Driving at 150cc, 200cc, or Mirror is impossible without drifting, as the kart moves too fast to turn normally. Mastering drifting also allows players to revisit earlier tracks to better times and find new ways to navigate the course.
The game actually teaches players how and when to drift turn on the very first track. Mario Kart Stadium, as well as other traditional road tracks like Mario Circuit and Yoshi Circuit, have red and white markers on the inside edges of the track to show racers when to start the drift on each turn. Using these markers is a great way to start learning the best moments to begin a drift, as it is often much sooner than expected. Practicing cutting the corners tightly is easier on these course as well, as players can actually drive on the markers to get as close as possible. These markers do not exist on all of the tracks, but understanding their placement and the principle itself will help on all turns. If you are a player that dreads getting the gold mushroom on Rainbow Road because you fly off the track every time, then taking the time to practice drifting is something that you need to do.
Mario Kart 8 has some of the most fun and challenging tracks of any in the franchise. Visually, the tracks look superb in 1080p high definition, and the details in the courses themselves, including the backgrounds, make this one of the best looking titles on the Wii U. Despite their beauty, some of these tracks can be downright nasty to play on, as they are full of hidden obstacles, blind turns, and slender pathways. Memorizing the track layout is vital to evolve from a good player to a great player. While easier tracks like Moo Moo Meadows and Mario Kart Stadium are open and allow players to see what is coming from a far distance, selections like Bone-Dry Dunes and Wario Stadium feature many difficult and surprising turns. Knowing what turns are coming and when to start drifting for them is essential to succeeding on the highest difficulty.
Most courses have shortcuts, and making use of them needs to happen under the right circumstances. Almost all of the shortcuts require the use of a speed item and knowledge of the layout of the actual shortcut. Shortcuts like the one at the end of Mute City are so much of a time saver that racers often save up a mushroom for an entire lap to make sure that they have one to access the shortcut. On the DLC track Yoshi Circuit, a player can use a mushroom right after the first turn to launch through a waterfall and cut some serious track. Many players will end up in the water hazard right after going through the waterfall as the track makes a blind, sharp right turn.
Speed items can also be used to drive across rougher terrain to cut corners as well. This “grass cutting” is a great way to use a mushroom more efficiently instead of wasting it on a straightaway.
Some shortcuts do not require items to access and are vital to use on every lap. The Special Cup version of Rainbow Road has one of these shortcuts on the split path section. Missing this shortcut will result in a slower lap every time.
Choosing a good racing path is also a strategy that yields successful results. It is important to find a route to take through a track that is most comfortable to you and to stick with that route. Doing this will enable the player to perfect a particular navigation through the course. Instead of reacting to the track as it happens, the player has already established a plan and is just doing the same thing each lap, successfully executing the turns previously practiced. Certain tracks like Electodrome and Sweet Sweet Canyon have branching pathways that require a choice. While most of these split pathways are equal distances, it is important to consistently use the same one each lap in order to build up a practiced route. I drive the exact same path every time I race a course. On Electrodrome, I take the pink split pathway every time; I cannot remember ever taking the green one, except when forced to by an item or another player. Time trials are a great place to practice tracks without CPU players interfering, and also provide opportunities for course exploration.
By now, most players are aware of the items available for use in the Mario Kart games. Relying on items to finish in a top spot is a risky strategy, and I would recommend focusing more on the drifting and course practice. That being said, items still play an important part in every race when used intelligently. Mario Kart 8 is commonly mistaken as an offensive item game, when in reality, playing more defensively yields better finishes.
Mario Kart 8 changes some of the abilities with items, requiring a change of strategy. In previous installments, players could drag items such as bananas or shells for protection from red shells, and then pick up a second item. In Mario Kart 8, players can only be in possession of one item at a time. If players choose to drag an item for protection, they are not able to get additional items. Dragging items while in first place is not the most aggressive strategy, but it prevents others from attacking with projectiles. This is not a bad idea in second place either, as a blue shell could always take out the leader allowing for an easy pass. (The new horn item that can destroy blue shells is another popular defensive option.) The entire franchise is based on fun, so expecting to win every race is unrealistic. Instead, protecting a second place finish can be much better than trying to get first after a certain point in the race.
Like the original game and the 3DS entry Mario Kart 7, coins resurface to play a stealthy yet significant role. Each player is able to collect up to ten coins to make the racer and kart the best they can be. Collecting coins as often as possible is a good way to increase a kart’s stats, but it also prevents others from increasing their own. Making coins a priority early in a race gives a player an edge in stats sooner than the rest of the participants. The easiest and most efficient way to maximize coin collection is again to be familiar with the tracks and have a practiced route.
The recent DLC adds new racers, karts, courses, and an unprecedented 200cc class in racing. Not only have veterans of the game needed to familiarize themselves with these new tracks, but also with an entirely new racing speed that has completely changed the way experts play the game. By allowing faster speeds on the current courses, Nintendo allows racers who have already mastered the original game to experiment with a fun alternative. Mario Kart 8 was not created with 200cc in mind, so the current courses are too small to open the throttle for the entire race. Players actually have to use the brakes to complete the tracks successfully without flying off into the abyss. I was previously unaware that players could brake while drifting and still get mini turbos at the end (reminiscent of turning with the brake on in the Nintendo 64 racing game Diddy Kong Racing). One benefit of DLC is that it can create new ways to play an old game, and I hope we have not seen the last of the updates for Mario Kart 8.
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