At a recent Nintendo event in London, we got to go hands-on with a few sample tracks from the upcoming game in split-screen multiplayer, as the dastardly Wario, controlled by our site editor, took on the lovely Princess Peach aboard her motorbike. Much like in the other games, there's a minor trade off of sorts at work here - bikes are a tad faster than the huge buggy Wario needs to get him around the level, but they're also slightly harder to steer. With trade-offs galore between different characters and vehicles, you can be sure of a pretty close ride, as no-one will have a full advantage over anyone else, leaving the game still remarkably easy to pick up and play. As we were about to find out.
First up was the obligatory Mario Kart circuit around Peach's Castle, which is a fairly standard track as far as games like this go. With Wario controlled using the motion sensors on the Wii U GamePad, and Peach tilting a Wii Remote, the stage was set for a tough encounter. Tight, narrow streets, and fair few jumps made for a rather twisting race, while there's even a choice of two paths half way through the lap, letting you either bounce over the tops of some stalls, or weave your way between them on the ground. No matter which route you took, you had a fair few obstacles to overcome - but, as is always the sign of a great game, things were always pretty tight until the very end of the race. Trading places between first and second throughout, bumping into each other as we skidded round the corners, Wario ended up stealing it right at the last second, thanks to picking up a red shell power-up, which he fired at Peach just before the finish line, leaving a clear run for himself. Wario 1, Peach 0.
So far, so familiar, and so Mario Kart, then - but then came the Boo Mansion level. With warped, wavy haunted hallways, hammer-wielding skeletons and branching paths that can potentially give you access to a short cut (if you know your way around the kart's glider), it was here things started to get a bit wild, and we were first introduced to the game's new feature - an antigravity transformation. At various points throughout the level, your Kart can "transform" into different forms as needs be - whether you have a giant hang glider spring out the back of it after taking a particularly large jump, letting you float your way back towards the ground (and scoot past your opponents if you're lucky), or a handy propeller to let you move underwater. The transformations are all handled automatically, with no power-ups or anything similar required - but the anti-gravity transformation is new for Mario Kart 8. Driving over blue markings at the roadside kick-starts the transition from wall to floor, giving you a quick and crafty shortcut, but it comes a bit of a trade off, too – get hit by an item while you're driving up the wall and you'll fall back down to earth with a serious thud. As your kart/bike's wheels rotate ninety degrees and send you driving up the walls, it can all be a tad disorientating at first, as you suddenly find yourself driving at a right angle, but as your steering remains the same, with no crazy inversions or anything going on, it's easy enough to get the hang of it.
Letting courses have much more elaborate designs, the anti-gravity feature is more of a tweak than a total revolution, but it does lend itself to some interesting possibilities. Although the trio of tracks that were on offer on the day were fairly straightforward, the Boo Mansion level gave us a bit of an insight into the more experimental gravity-bending courses Nintendo likely have up their sleeves for later in the game. At the same time, we're also kind of dreading what an antigravity version of the traditional final course, Rainbow Road will be like, what with it's awesomely coloured yet exceedingly difficult high-up-in-outer-space-with-nothing-to-stop-you-falling-off twisty turn-y track, which could suddenly become that much more evil...
While a full cast of characters has yet to be announced, all the usual culprits were present and correct in the pre-release version we played, from the mushroom-munching Mario, Luigi and their noble dinosaur steed Yoshi, to the pretty princesses Peach and Daisy to the great barrel-hurling ape Donkey Kong, and many more inbetween – and while there was no option for the Super Mario Galaxy's Rosalina, we're hoping she'll be in the scores of unlockable characters that will undoubtedly be included. The only thing that did strike us as odd during our time with the game was that the Grand Prix we played only had three tracks instead of the usual four, and each race only lasted for two laps instead of three. Considering these have stayed pretty constant between all the games, we can't imagine them altering things now, so for now we'll just put it down to them having cut it short for the demo – even if it did catch us off guard as we gained on the person in first place on our second lap, only for the race to come to an abrupt halt.
As a game that always works best in split-screen multiplayer with a group of friends and family, it probably goes without saying that Mario Kart 8 will support a wide range of controllers. On the day, we played with the Wii U GamePad, which can be used either as a jumbo steering wheel with the motion controls, or can be switched to working as a regular controller, steering with the analogue stick on the fly with a poke of the Touch Screen, while the usual compliment of Wii Remotes, with or without Nunchucks, as well as the more conventional Wii U Pro Controller are on offer too – but sadly you can seemingly only have four players at one time. With the Wii U GamePad having it's own private screen we were kind of hoping there'd be an option for a fifth player, with the other four sharing the same screen, but although we didn't spot an option for that, we wouldn't rule it out quite yet.
It may feel as familiar as a well-worn pair of blue overalls, but sometimes it's nice to have an old dependable friend to turn to – even if that friend is a moustachioed petrol head with a penchant for mushrooms. From what we played, Mario Kart 8 doesn't so much turn the series on it's head as nudge it up the wall slightly, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's still as fun as it always was, and should go a long way towards reviving the Wii U's fortunes when it speeds onto consoles sometime next year.