You have to hand it to Nintendo from time to time. Mario Kart 8 is an approachable, intuitive and super-fun experience that lives up to the lofty expectations of one of Nintendo’s most storied series, and at the same breathes new life into an old formula with several well-crafted additions.
However, Mario Kart 8 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does Nintendo. While they essentially invented the genre as we know it (one could argue that games like R.C. Pro-Am beat them to the punch), other kart racers have entered the fray over the last couple of generations, which, at least in certain aspects, outdo Mario Kart 8.
SEGA fans will of course recognize Sonic & All-Stars Racing as one of these series. Sumo Digital has done some remarkable work in creating a fantastic racing series that clearly borrows from the Mario Kart formula but has found its own identity and advanced the genre in several ways, and Nintendo would do well to take notice.
Don’t worry Nintendo fans, this isn’t a pissing contest, and I’m not about to take a giant dump on anyone’s favorite new game. Mario Kart 8 is a great game, and if you’re having fun with it, then all is right with the gaming world. I’m only going to point out a few lessons that can be learned from the Sonic & All-Stars Racing series that could make the next Mario Kart game even better.
And no, I won’t even mention the new Battle Mode. That’s a lesson that Nintendo should have learned from themselves.
Let’s being with an easy one: the character roster. Mario Kart 8 has 30 characters to choose from, which, compared to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed’s 25, is a pretty healthy number, right? Now consider that seven of the Mario characters are Koopa Kids, two are “metal” palette variants, and five are “baby” variants. That really only leaves 16 unique characters that most players would really give much of a damn about.
The Sonic & Racing series, while a bit heavy on the Sonic characters (and the shameless inclusion of Danica Patrick), still has a lot more variation with the Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, Monkey Ball, Space Channel 5, Alex Kidd, NiGHTS, Golden Axe, Skies of Arcadia and Shinobi series all represented.
This allows for players to pick their own favorite character, one whom they really identify with. Not only that, but when I unlocked Joe Musashi in SASRT, I felt much more excited with the accomplishment than when I unlocked Baby Rosalina.
Now, I’m fully aware that some Nintendo fans don’t want their racing series to turn into Super Smash Kart, and the prospect of riding around Moo Moo Farm in a kart sporting button-shaped wheels as Samus Aran is admittedly nauseating. However, Nintendo’s portfolio is easily broad enough to accommodate a few other IPs that would fit right in with the Mario characters. Kirby, Ness, Olimar, Tom Nook, Cranky Kong, Mr. Game & Watch, Shigeru Miyamoto (long overdue), Tingle (why not?), and a couple of Pokémon (ONLY a couple) would round out the roster quite well; far better, in my opinion, than the annoying Koopa Kids.
If you’re still not convinced and believe the racing roster should be purely Mario-inspired, then fine. Nintendo need only to look back at their previous games to do better than Mario Kart 8. Birdo, King Boo, Dry Bones, R.O.B. the Robot, Diddy Kong, all of these characters have appeared in previous Mario Kart games yet were dropped so that we could have the privilege of playing as Pink Gold Peach? At least Shy Guy is still making the cut over a Cat-Suit Luigi.
On to some more low-hanging fruit: the tracks. Mario Kart 8’s tracks are great, and I have very little to complain about regarding their design. However, between Mario Kart, the New Mario series, Mario Party, Mario & Luigi, Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Luigi’s Mansion, Paper Mario, Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, and of course the core Mario series itself, I’m a bit burned out on both the look and sounds of Mario, and a few courses based on something else would be welcome at this point.
Much like its character roster, the Sonic Racing series provides gamers with environments inspired by a much wider variety of series, which leads to some truly awesome race tracks. Stages from After Burner, Panzer Dragoon, OutRun, The House of the Dead, and even more obscure titles like Billy Hatcher and Burning Rangers are all here, so if you’re sick of the all-Sonic-all-the-time show, then worry not! The next track will be something different, complete with a different look and sound.
I don’t expect for Nintendo to go the exact same route and provide the same level of track variety as the Sonic Racing games, but why not one, just one cup of only four stages that are inspired by other Nintendo properties besides Mario? I’ll drop in my unrealistic wish list here: Pikmin, Zelda (Skyloft), Game & Watch and Excitebike. I’d even take (*Gulp!*) a Pokémon track at this point. Just. Not. More. Mario.
Of course, any issues with either the character roster or available tracks could very well be addressed somewhat with incoming DLC. I fully anticipate a Nintendo Direct event (we’ll say late July-early August) announcing just that, and if this leaked image from a Spanish magazine is legitimate, it looks like we can at least expect to see Diddy Kong’s return at some point.
Now let’s turn to issues that really could only be addressed in an upcoming as opposed to DLC.
Let’s face it, we’re all SEGA Nerds, with the word “nerds” being the operative one here. We don’t all have a household of siblings or a healthy rotation of gaming friends to play with, whether on the couch or online.
With that in mind, Mario Kart 8 does not provide much of a single-player experience. Only the most basic modes are included: GP, Battle (sort of), Versus and Time Trials, but that’s it. Fighting games that ship with the equivalents of only Arcade, Versus, Online, and Practice modes are typically lambasted by critics as “bare bones,” and rightfully so. Mario Kart 8 could really have done more.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed includes a “World Tour” mode, which is a series of challenges designed exclusively for one player. These include boosting challenges, drifting challenges, pursuit challenges where you hunt down and destroy a tank, and, of course, a standard race from time to time. Each of the challenges has multiple levels of difficulty, and completing them is the key to unlocking the hidden characters in the game.
Even having played the game extensively when it came out, I was able to return to the World Tour mode well over a year later as part of writing this article and find plenty of things I had yet to do.
Let’s say I’m feeling the itch to play some Mario Kart 8. I don’t care to mess with online lobbies and the ever frequent connection error, and there is nobody else in the house to sit down and kart alongside me. The experience with the game is therefore pretty limited once you have played through all of the courses and unlocked all of the characters (which happens in pretty short order), and besting your personal records in Time Trials yields very limited reward or incentive to continue playing.
In addition, as we’ve recently seen with the Wii’s loss of online multiplayer, the Wii U is not likely to stay a viable online platform forever, so if you are someone who doesn’t sell off your games and likes to return to older titles from time to time, Mario Kart 8’s lack of modes will offer only diminishing returns.
On the topic of unlockable content, the characters and vehicle parts in Mario Kart 8 are all unlocked as you play the game and collect coins and score first-place finishes (with the exception of the golden kart). The problem with this system is that these unlocks appear to be random in succession, the extra racers are all unlocked far too quickly, and the player has no idea what part or racer they are working towards unlocking next.
To be fair, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed’s solutions for unlocking characters and kart mods aren’t necessarily the best solution for Mario Kart. The mods unlock through obtaining gameplay experience with each character. These are all character-specific, it’s a bit “grindy” and some of the characters hidden away in SASRT’s World Tour mode are so difficult to unlock, the casual audience typically attracted to the Mario Kart series are likely to be turned off.
The solution I would propose comes instead from Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, the first game in SEGA’s series. All of the extra characters, courses and even bonus music tracks are unlocked by spending “miles” in a shop, allowing players to pick and choose their next personal unlockable goals.
This would be a great fit for the Mario Kart series. You already collect coins on the tracks, right? Instead of making the unlocks random once you reach a particular benchmark, why not allow the player spend the coins collected in any way they choose? Why not add some bonus artwork, music, behind-the-scenes videos, or developer ghosts in this same shop? Sounds more interesting than this: “Congratulations! You just collected 1400 coins and unlocked a parachute shaped like a squirrel!”
This one is a bit nit-picky, but I think it warrants mention since we just discussed Mario Kart 8’s lack of a shop menu. Other than your Time Trials mode scores, there is no way to track your accomplishments in-game.
For instance, every time you finish a cup in first place with a new character or beat a staff ghost, you unlock a “stamp.” Okay, that’s cool. Let’s say you come back to the game a week later and want to see all of the stamps you’ve collected, and therefore get an idea of with which characters you’ve played through a full game. There’s no way to do it aside from booting up the Miiverse to see which of these stamps you may or may not have posted to it.
SASRT has a somewhat similar system in that you unlock “stickers” you can affix to your personal game license. These stickers represent all kinds of accomplishments aside from finishing first in a GP race, and some of them are tied to achievements/trophies if you are playing on an environment like Xbox Live or PSN. It’s not super-extensive, and finding the menu requires a bit of sub-menu surfing, but it’s nice to have if only to reminisce over what you’ve done previously.
The next Mario Kart game doesn’t necessarily need to go as far as giving you a stamp for every menial accomplishment, such as “collecting 10 items in one race,” but it would be nice to be able to see with which characters you’ve beaten a cup, which characters are your most-played, and to re-iterate a bit, which unlockable characters and parts you’ve unlocked. Just a simple tracking menu. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?
Well, SEGA Nerds, we’ve done a lot of pointing fingers at Nintendo today, and one could go on ad nauseam finding other little things that may irk us, but many of these are really matters of personal taste (although why, WHY do I always get friggin’ coins when I am in first place? Why are coins even considered an item? Anger! Frustration!).
But honestly, hot damn Mario Kart 8 is still a fine game, and with another entry into the Sonic All-Stars Racing series likely, there are actually quite a few lessons that it could learn from Mario Kart 8, as well. Which lessons are those? I won’t get into those just yet, as I’ve realized that this article has run far longer than I expected. Instead, I’ll post a follow-up soon, which will outline just how Nintendo’s efforts can positively affect the blueprint for Sumo Digital’s future endeavors.
So be watching for part 2: What the Next Sonic All-Stars Racing Could Learn from Mario Kart 8!