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Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) review: The latest Nintendo kart racer shifts into high gear

Mario Kart 8 is a blast to play and is easy enough for almost anyone to pick up and enjoy. Its brilliantly designed tracks, inclusion of new weapons, and online refinements make it a no-brainer for Wii U owners.

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Jeff Bakalar
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Jeff Bakalar

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Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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Just as much of a no-brainer it is that each new Nintendo platform will inevitably receive a Mario and Zelda game, so too will be the case for an iteration of Mario Kart, the company's venerable go-kart action racer, which has roots that stretch 22 years, all the way back to the Super Nintendo.

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Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

The Good

The Bad

The Bottom Line

Mario Kart 8 finds itself involved with a console in quite the precarious situation. Wii U is a platform that is still struggling to find itself, making milestone releases like Mario Kart carry that much more weight.

The good news is that Mario Kart 8 is the best reason why anyone would want to own a Wii U, not just for the generous amount of characters, new items and tracks, but also for its universal appeal and sheer amount of fun it is to play.

Save for a few nuances, Mario Kart 8 is likely the best version yet.

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Nintendo

Mario Kart 8 doesn't take the series forward much in terms of innovation, but it's the overall polish and refinement of such a successful product that makes the package so attractive.

So what's new in Mario Kart 8?

A fair amount. There are obviously new tracks -- devilishly smart and expertly crafted in their own unique ways. They're filled with cleverly hidden shortcuts and gravity-bending designs, totaling 32 maps in all, with half of those being rebooted courses from the Mario Kart vault.

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Nintendo

There's also a healthy amount of new items. The piranha plant attaches a potted chomper to the front of your kart and will snag coins or attack opponents. The boomerang flower can attack another racer on its path out or back in. Pick up a "crazy 8" bonus and you've got eight classic power-up items at your disposal. Finally, while it's super rare (I've only received it once in my multiple weeks of play), the super horn will allow you to defend against attack items, including the dreaded first-place buzzkiller, the spiked blue shell.

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Nintendo

There are plenty of characters to choose from, and you'll also decide your vehicle and wheel composition of choice, which will dictate the characteristics of how your kart or bike will respond on the track.

Returning to Mario Kart is the flying or gliding mechanic, which engages during certain jumpoffs. Speaking of jumps, your character can perform a trick on any jump that will result in a speed boost once you touch the ground.

Speed boosts can also be activated by successfully drifting around turns, which proved difficult to master in the 150cc class. Mario Kart 8 also brings back coins to the equation, meaning you'll have better performance with the more coins you can hold onto. Remember, getting bumped or attacked by another racer will cause you to drop some change.

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Nintendo

During the course of a race you'll find your vehicle entering a hover mode after passing over blue pads. Hovering doesn't do much, but it does appear to cause your vehicle to experience an exaggerated drift.

At the end of any race, players can enter a highlight reel that lets you slow down the previous action and relive devastating attacks and artful tricks. It's not much beyond some serious eye-candy, but worth checking out nonetheless.

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Nintendo

If there's anything to skip, it's probably the new Battle Mode. Whereas in previous Mario Kart games this would be played in an arena-like environment, battling in Mario Kart 8 is done on regular tracks. There's no real rhyme or reason why this is, it just makes for an awkward experience. Sure, I never spent much time dabbling in Battle Mode in previous games, but this new approach is sure to keep that unchanged.

Finally, multiplayer in Mario Kart 8 is finally realized to its full potential. Online players have a gracious amount of options for online competition, and the experience is at the level of smoothness modern multiplayer games have trained us to expect.

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Nintendo

CNET verdict: On the fast track

Mario Kart 8 is a blast to play and is easy enough for almost anyone to pick up and enjoy. Its brilliantly designed tracks, inclusion of new weapons, and online refinements make it a no-brainer for Wii U owners.