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Drifting down memory lane with Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 for Wii U adds a brand new mechanic to a traditional series, in a move that surprises no one.

They say you never forget how to ride a bike; I'd imagine the same is true for go-karts. Mario Kart 8 for the Nintendo Wii U had only just been announced, but within seconds of picking up that quirky tablet-controller at Nintendo's E3 2013 press briefing, I'd fallen into the old ways--drifting expertly through unfamiliar curves, scooping up coins, and smiling genuine smiles with gamers I'd never met.

Still, it's Mario Kart--again--and familiarity can often breed contempt. Fortunately, there's plenty of the old magic here, with new courses, lush new visuals, and a disdain for gravity that introduces new dynamics to the kart-racing experience.

The game looks great--all vibrant colors and soaring vistas--powered by the relatively beefy (for Nintendo) Wii U hardware. The three stages I played during my demonstration offered a showcase of the new features in the series, and while I was made to play at the game's slowest setting--presumably to give everyone a fair chance--you can feel the game's speed scratching at the seams.

The new antigravity feature is a subtle tweak that is anything but superficial--pass over particular boost pads and you'll zip off of the ground and onto walls or ceilings, your kart (or motorcycle) wheels transforming into hovering discs. It's the best sort of disorienting. The race maintains its lively pace, you're just... upside down or screaming along a wall glancing over at the pack exchanging blows on the street below you. The hovering effect alters a vehicle's handling dramatically, all but eliminating grip and leaving things light and airy--I'd imagine it will take more than a few races to get the hang of the rapid, repeating transitions between walls and road.

The antigravity mechanic introduces a delightful new stratagem: hovering karts spin out of control when they collide, but can convert that momentum into a sudden speed burst. The hover segments suddenly devolve into a minuscule arena as generally fragile karts attempt to barrel in to one another to flummox opponents and gamble on getting an extra burst of speed.

We saw only three tracks Tuesday, but the ones Nintendo showed off take advantage of this flirtation with verticality, tossing in hang-gliding and submersible segments in a nod to Mario Kart 7 on the Nintendo 3DS. The game runs at a crisp 60 frames per second, offers competitive races between up to 12 players, and includes player-curated highlight reels in a section called Mario Kart TV for that critical community-building aspect. So that's all well and good.

But that doesn't change the fact that this remain Mario Kart. Nintendo, for better and for worse, has built something of a dynasty on reviving or rehashing old franchises. Yesterday's first-party hit becomes tomorrow's system seller, in a generational cycle that all but guarantees new outings for Mario and friends. And while that has worked for years, inexpensive mobile devices and an increasingly widening gap between Nintendo and rival Microsoft and Sony have seen interest wane--even from diehard fans.

You know what? I'm OK with that. Truth be told, the only thing I'm really clamoring for is a course editor. This is a series that long ago mastered the art of wringing fun out of every treacherous curve. So while it remains a familiar game staring familiar faces, the smiles of the folks around me as we traded blows and stole the lead from one another evoked that same genuine joy we probably felt back in 1992. I don't need to juggle hundreds of vehicle upgrades, view gritty crash cams, or bump along to a dubstep soundtrack. Just friends, snacks, and a couch. I, for one, will be assembling all three and snatching this up when it drops sometime in the spring of 2014.

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