There's an advantage to being first.

When Nintendo launched the kart racing genre more than two decades ago, it was a novel idea. Mario and the gang would wheel around in go-karts, but there was a twist: They could toss turtle shells and other items to knock out rivals during the race. That unconventional idea has spawned plenty of imitators (Sonic and Diddy Kong among them), but no matter what characters they come up with, the competition still can't catch up to the popularity of the original.

The reason that "Mario Kart" dominates is that few can match Nintendo's stable of characters, and none has that comforting sense of nostalgia and familiarity with gamers. Players instantly know what red shells do and how a banana peel can mess up a perfect run. Fans can pick up any game in the series and know what to do.

NINTENDO"Mario Kart 8" brings great new visuals, new characters and new action to the beloved Nintendo series.
NINTENDO "Mario Kart 8" brings great new visuals, new characters and new action to the beloved Nintendo series. (nin)

With "Mario Kart 8," Nintendo's winning formula stays mostly the same. The noticeable changes come in the lush visuals, new players and items, online modes and the gravity-defying hover vehicles and tracks. This adds up to an evolution in the series, one that improves on the refinements on the Nintendo 3DS version.

Starting with the graphics, "Mario Kart 8" brandishes a beautiful sense of detail. The franchise was never known for its eye candy, but Nintendo outdid itself rendering each racer and the intricate tracks. The developers even revamped the replay mode so that players can get a close-up of the action and see how Mario's mustache flutters in the wind or how characters react to trading paint in a race. On top of that, there's an option to share those clips on YouTube.


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When it comes to gameplay, Nintendo added a few new tools and obstacles and new abilities. There are now more ways to take down rivals with power-ups such as the piranha plant and boomerang. But the game-changer is the super horn, which can nullify a spiked blue turtle shell and crash any nearby racers. It changes the flow of a "Mario Kart 8" race in that those in first place can stay there if they're lucky enough to get the horn.

The futuristic rides of each racer add a topsy-turvy spin to the courses. Because the vehicles can hover and stick to walls, the courses feel more open than before with new avenues on the track. For example, if players want to avoid Thwomps blocking their way on roads, they can take a ramp and glide across the walls. If that weren't enough, hovering vehicles also get a boost when crashing into each other and certain other objects. It's another tactical layer to an already deep racing experience.

Lastly, "Mario Kart 8" boasts the standard online and local play. It's fairly straightforward, except for the Tournament mode, which lets players enter short multirace events with varying rules. That's interesting, but the best way to play the game is on the couch with friends. That's where "Mario Kart" has always excelled, and this entry is no different.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/gcacho.

'Mario
Kart 8'

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Platform: Wii U
Rating: Everyone