As I leap and skid Toadette’s kart around Mario Kart 8’s Moo Moo Meadows—a reimagining of the same track from the franchise’s Wii iteration—the setting sun winds my long shadow over the dirt track, stretching out to the side of my kart and then twisting out in front of me like a sundial as I turn the corners. I leap into the air over a jump and, for a moment, I can look beyond the low hills of the meadow, beyond the bright glare of the sun, at a horizon crowned in reds and purples and up-lit clouds. It’s a far cry from the track’s Wii iteration, with its flat, towering green hills and singular deep-blue sky box. It used to just feel like a race track in a kart game; now it feels like a place.
Mario Kart 8 looks phenomenal. It is one of the most vibrant looking games that I have seen for some time. Its presentation, polish and attention to detail have all combined with its Gran Turismo-esque replay mode to create new memes out of the most mundane green shell throws. It looks so good it has sold Wii U consoles (not least of all mine.) But there’s more happening here than simply a new iteration of an old franchise looking good. This isn’t just “better graphics” making a prettier game; it’s a close attention to detail to the textures and after-effects giving these tracks a substance, a depth, a tactility. A sense that I could reach out and touch these places.
The tracks of a kart game are often like the rides of an amusement park: a quick dash through a series of novel rooms evoking places or narratives from other entries in the franchise. Like a rollercoaster evoking a certain film, a Mario Kart level evokes Bowser’s castle or the Mushroom Kingdom or a haunted house. Mario Kart 8 is no less reliant on these same worldbuilding techniques, but the sensation of these worlds and my presence in them are so different. I’m not in a theme park ride of Moo Moo Meadows, I am racing around the Moo Moo Meadows. This is Bowser’s Castle. This isn’t a series of cardboard cutout attractions—this is a world tour.
There is no one visual element I can point to that is responsible for this sensuality the game permeates. It is emergent from all the tiniest effects that make these tracks feel real. Not “real” in the vapid, meaningless way that videogames about zombie apocalypses and magic military superheroes are often deemed “realistic.” Rather, “real” in the sense that this is a world with depth and textures and objects made out of different materials: the dirt sticking to my wooden wheels in Wario Stadium; the dribbling, spurting lava in Boswer’s castle; the rubbery sheen to Toad’s head when he emerges from the water in Sub Coaster, and the shadow his head casts over his face against the neon glow of Mario Kart Stadium.
Another reimagined track: the Super Nintendo’s Donuts Plains 3. As you skid around its corners in the original game, the parallax scrolling spins around a horizon of Super Mario World-esque tall, oblong hills. These implausible hills still exist in the background on Mario Kart 8, they have not been flattened and imperfected into more “realistic” hills. But they have been shaded and given depth, and interspersed with a middle-ground of tree-specked hills. They are reflected in the muddy puddles of the race track. This is a world that exists.
The way my kart tips and nearly topples as I take a corner underwater; the way Toadette’s pigtails whip around in the wind; the leathery clothes of my Mii; the rays of the sun beaming out from behind a tree; the distant nighttime city beneath Rainbow Road; the burned rubber or blue sparks from the previous lap still etched into the road on the next lap; the way I can tell Sweet Sweet Canyon’s hard candies from the spongy cakes from the crispy cookies just by looking at them. All these little details do so much more than provide pretty window dressing for the game. They are fundamental to its sense of space and place and my sensation of being present in that place. These don’t feel like levels or tracks I want to rush around; these are places that I want to visit and spend some time in.
Brendan Keogh is the cofounder of Press Select Publishing and has written for Edge, Polygon, Unwinnable and more.