On Friday night, something beautiful happened. Something I hadn’t experienced in roughly 15 years. 4-player split-screen local multiplayer.
For close to three hours, a group of four late-twenties somethings, two of which had rarely touched a controller since Nintendo 64 (let alone given a thought to the medium since), celebrated the beginning of their weekend with pizza, beer, and the newly released Mario Kart 8. There were no chat headsets, lag times, or slanderous rants. Just loads of laughter, blue-shell equalizing, and repetition of the reminiscent phrase, “I love video games.”
On May 15th, Nintendo lifted the review embargo for Mario Kart 8. Critiques for a game consumers couldn’t get their hands on began springing up across the web, heralding it as “the best pure Mario Kart experience yet” and “the king of the mascot kart circuit.” Nearly every day after the embargo’s end, journalists (game and otherwise) taunted would-be players, trumpeting the game’s brilliance.
I asked Polygon’s Ben Kuchera what he thought of the early embargo. His quick and brief response:
If my buying habits of were any indication of the market at large, he was right.
Not resting on chance from reviewers, Nintendo decided to offer up one of four free games when US and Canada Mario Kart 8 owners registered their game with Club Nintendo before 7/31/14. Expecting to see a slew of sub-par Wii branded titles, I was pleasantly surprised to see a selection of solid entries valued at $40 and up: New Super Mario Bros. U, Pikmin 3, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, and Wii Party U.
If a near certain purchaser was still hesitating to pre-order after stellar reviews, a deal like this would put them over the edge.
Playing that night, I’d go as far as to say that the four of us would fall as outliers on a graph of expected launch day players. The fact that I owned a Wii U was a shock in it’s own right. Our guests that evening had yet to even see the console a year-and-a-half after it’s launch.
What would have been a more likely scene would be clusters of parents that grew up with the franchise watching their own children tear into the game, possibly taking a swing at the old Nintendo 64 Rainbow Road now and again.
Outliers or not, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that the four of us were the only Mario Kart old timers celebrating on release day. It came as no surprise when I heard one of our guests convince himself that he would be investing in the console if only for Mario Kart. The mention that he could also download The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the system seemed to solidify his notion.
Mario Kart 8 proves that Nintendo is deeply in tune with generational gaming gaps. As our Link to the Past lover so eloquently put it, the ease of entry to Mario Kart 8 iterates on the tried and true idiom “it’s like riding a bike” with an updated “it’s like playing Mario Kart.”
From the first race to the last, we would chuckle at my fiancée’s incessant need to comment on how gorgeous the levels looked. Funny at first, I couldn’t help but look closer at the imagery in the courses. It became evident that Nintendo is unabashedly gunning for Disney-level aesthetics; a tactic to win over most demographics.
If a level of unmatched flow and fun can be reached seconds into the first race, franchise elders will certainly double take at the sight of the Wii U + Mario Kart bundle during their next visit to Target.
In ’91, with a 10-7 lead, the Dallas Cowboys bet on a Hail Mary pass against the Washington Redskins at the end of the 1st half. Troy Aikman’s successful touchdown pass to Alvin Harper would give the Cowboys a 17-7 lead to eventually topple the Redskins, 24-21; the first Redskins loss of the season after an 11-0 start. No early Hail Mary, no game ending win.
Nintendo gambled for positive reviews two weeks before launch, is now chalking up at least $40 in games to every US and Canadian Mario Kart owning household, and prays that their Trojan horse will be the spark to move units. Since release, the game has received stunning accolades, Club Nintendo has been brought down by what can only be assumed as immense traffic for free games, and at least one Wii U newcomer is being tugged at by curiosity.
When people think of video games, a large majority picture a mustachioed plumber in a red hat, but Master Chief and the Minecraft universe are only 3 points down. There are still many plays to be made but a well-timed, well-calculated marketing play this big could be enough to save the game. Mario Kart 8 may give Nintendo the lead they need to send a message to the HD Twins: Nintendo’s race is not over.