10 Years Ago, Nintendo Quietly Perfected Its Most Popular Franchise

One of many Wii-U exclusives that could have been forgotten.

With every new Nintendo console, there are a few iconic franchises that fans can’t wait to see cleaned up and reimagined with new ideas in tow. Games like Super Smash Bros., the Mario platformers, and the Zelda series are the bonafide system sellers that have kept Nintendo relevant since the 80’s, and they continue to be the beating heart behind the gaming giant today.

But only some of these franchises have the universal appeal of the Mario Kart series. Since the Super Nintendo days, Mario Kart has defied age groups and brought together gaming hobbyists and casual players. Ten years ago, Nintendo quietly perfected the competitive, high-speed party racer and it almost went by without any of the long-term fanfare it deserved.

Mario Kart 8 was released on the Wii U in May 2014 and made one heck of a first impression. It was the first high-definition game in the series and only the third time players would visit the Mushroom Kingdom with this level of fidelity. While Mario Kart was never about the visual, flying by the vibrant, imaginative world of Mario and friends at absurd speeds of 60 frames per second felt especially novel. It was a gorgeous game to see in motion and an exciting new benchmark for the company that stuck with standard-definition gaming for far longer than it should have.

Seeing the Mushroom Kingdom in high definition was still a fun novelty in 2014.


From a gameplay perspective, Mario Kart 8 has the luxury of following 2011’s Mario Kart 7. The 3DS racer struck a balance of pick-up-and-play simplicity, a good selection of fair offensive and defensive items, and skill-based mechanics like earning boost by drifting. Thanks to the Wii-U’s rumble functionality, these elements returned and felt a bit more tactile during races.

Rather than following up the best kart racer on the market with something entirely different, its Wii-U follow-up expanded on some of the wackier ideas its predecessor introduced. Mario Kart 8 added anti-gravity sections to race tracks allowing players to drive on walls and ceilings. This seemingly minor addition added a dimension of chaos and unpredictability to the 12-player races. Players on anti-gravity sections could bump into each other for an additional boost, a tactic that could be used both offensively and defensively. These sections controlled extremely well and rounded out the underwater and air-glide mechanics introduced in the previous game.

The game also featured a huge roster of characters and an excellent mix of tracks new (like the sunny Sunshine Airport) and old (Toad’s Turnpike from Mario Kart 64 and Wario Stadium from Mario Kart DS). It was also the first Mario Kart to have DLC, including the addition of Animal Crossing’s Isabelle and The Legend Of Zelda’s Link and playable drivers, giving players plenty of reason to get friends over for split-screen fun long after launch. Finally, the Mario Kart TV feature added a social wrinkle to the experience, allowing players to upload clips of close finishes and funny moments for others to see online. Who can forget the first time you saw an angry Luigi round a tight corner with a red shell in hand?

Mario Kart 8 marked the first time non-Mario characters joined in on the fun.


Mario Kart 8 took everything fun from the most recent entries in the series and perfected it with great visuals, an abundance of content, and ultra-smooth playability. But despite doing so much so well, there was just one problem with Mario Kart 8 — it was trapped on the Wii U hardware.

Compared to Nintendo’s success with the original Wii, the Wii-U was a flop. Its tablet-like controller, which allowed for remote play away from the television, proved to be a little too ahead of its time. Third-party developers didn’t know what to do with the second screen aside from sticking a map or inventory on it.

And as great as it was to see Nintendo embrace more modern hardware and HD gaming, the console launching six to seven years after the competition meant the Wii U mostly saw ports of older games with Wii U-specific features tacked on. It also launched at the tail end of an uncharacteristically long console generation a year before people were preparing themselves for more powerful hardware.

With Mario Kart 8’s 2017 re-release, Nintendo’s kart racing magnum opus got a well-deserved second life.

The Wii U’s many shortcomings translated into poor sales. It sold just over 13 million units, a fraction of the more than 101 million units the Wii sold, making it Nintendo’s least popular console since the Virtual Boy. Nintendo discontinued the Wii U after a little more than four years on the market. Because of the console’s brief lifespan, Mario Kart 8 was doomed to become a forgotten gem in its series left to languish on a platform few owned.

Thankfully, like so many games from the Wii U era, it found a second life on the much more successful Nintendo Switch. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was released in 2017 shortly after the Switch’s launch, packaging all of the DLC from the original release into a definitive version of the game. The Deluxe version received the universal acclaim from fans that the original release deserved, becoming Nintendo’s best-selling game ever (not counting Wii Sports, which was bundled with Wii consoles). Not bad for a Switch port.

Mario Kart 8 should be remembered for being a compelling culmination of a fan-favorite series. It’s a game so good that I can’t imagine how Nintendo will follow up with a sequel that surpasses it. But Mario Kart 8’s re-release also served as an important early reminder that the company’s least memorable console still had an excellent lineup of first-party games worth revisiting. Mario Kart 8’s success on the Switch is likely why Nintendo chose to bring more of the Wii-U’s underperformers, including Super Mario 3D World, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and Bayonetta 2 to the console-handheld hybrid. For that alone, Mario Kart 8 is one of the most important Nintendo games of the modern era.

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