Educated Guesses A pre-release competitive analysis of Mario Kart 8. Six years ago, I'd just blown something like $150 on importing Super Smash Bros. Brawl and a region-free disc from the USA. I couldn't stand to wait another six months (this was a time when the idea that Australia existed was still fresh in video game publishers' minds). Unfortunately, the game had the depth of a water cracker and the netcode of a 19th Century telephone, so within a few weeks of getting my hands on it, I had realised my terrible mistake and was instead trying to take my hands off it. Perhaps I shouldn't have covered them in superglue. On a boredom-induced whim, I grabbed some new kart racer on launch. The jury is still out on whether or not this was a good thing, but then again, I don't need a jury to tell me that I enjoyed the hell out of Mario Kart Wii. What was it about Mario Kart Wii that kept me interested (though not necessarily playing) for the six years it's been out? Mario Kart Wii has a unique combination of mechanical skill, strategy, and luck. This combination makes every race different, even if every race is on Luigi Circuit because that one person keeps getting picked twelve times in a row (this is one of many highlights of the GameFAQs Pro Lounge from 2008). The game is fun, chaotic, and hilarious, but it can be tamed and even mastered. I spent these six years trying to do just that. While it's hard to say if I succeeded or not, I did learn enough about the game to be able to draw wild conclusions from the few vague scraps of Mario Kart 8 information that we've been thrown. Through this article series, I shall attempt to elaborate on these conclusions, and hopefully give people an idea of what to (and not to) expect out of Mario Kart 8. Karts Only One of the defining features of Mario Kart Wii was inward-drifting bikes. While an exhaustive list of bikes' advantages over karts would see us comfortably through to the heat death of the Universe, it's easy to see why they were so dominant. Bikes had the world record time trial 31 of the 32 tracks in the game, the only exception being the result of a kart-only shortcut on a track already known as one of the least bike-favoured. They also had much smaller hitboxes, and a cute little advantage in that holding items out reliably blocked red shells. Perhaps most importantly, they were agile. Avoiding an item in a bike is almost trivial, and the wheelie mechanic means there's almost no time loss. Avoiding an item in a kart could lose over a second, while also screwing your racing line so hard that it often took half a lap to be back to optimal—by which point you've been redded five times through the enormous gaps between your triple shell defence, and you've watched helplessly as five people pass you with bike-only shortcuts and low tricks. Then you get hit by a POW and find yourself facing backwards and well on your way into orbit. I'm actually not exaggerating that much. It was a lovely view from that high up. Regardless, bikes are returning for Mario Kart 8, but curiously, wheelies and inward drift are not part of the package. Bikes do have different cornering physics than karts—bikes can steer in a manner similar to inward drifting (just without the whole "drift" part), and their drift seems to be a sort of hybrid of outward drift and inward drift—but, we've been told, the differences are almost entirely cosmetic. I say "almost" because bikes do still have their advantages. They are still much smaller than karts, meaning defensive items are reliable and their hitboxes are smaller. Smaller hitboxes also means it's probably easier to take Grumble Volcano rock hop style shortcuts with reasonable consistency. Does this mean that bikes will be overpowered? Probably not. The differences are minor, and may well be offset by low speed/accel/weight stats, or some other mechanic we haven't heard of yet. Heavy Days So, what will be the dominant combination? In almost all racing games, the dominant vehicle for online play is the one with the best combination of the following: - Speed - Handling - Agility Speed is exactly what it sounds like, Handling is the opposite of what it sounds like. Agility is pretty much a bullshit abstract term that I came up with five minutes ago. So, let's start with the easy one. As some of you might be aware, the player who wins is the one with the least amount of time between the start of the race and the moment they cross the finish line. Therefore, whatever gets you there faster is going to be important, and high speed is the most direct means of doing so. The faster you can go, the less time you have to make up with items; the more of that speed comes from your vehicle selection, the less work you have to put in as a player. Handling follows a similar logic: you want a vehicle that loses the least time around corners. However, it's not a simple matter of picking a vehicle with more handling. The time-based miniturbo mechanic means that a vehicle with low handling will charge miniturbos faster around any given corner than a vehicle with high handling. So, you need a vehicle that can take corners comfortably, while also having as low a handling stat as possible for more miniturbos. Agility, then. Consider what I said earlier about how MKW's karts are basically at the mercy of whatever happens to be occupying the same part of the track as they want to be (i.e. most of it), while bikes can just do a couple hops and a wheelie will keep them up with the pack, no trouble at all. This is a fairly logical conclusion; the easier it is to avoid items, the less time you lose to them, and therefore the faster you go. But it's what agility replaces that matters here. Acceleration is conspicuous in its absence. Consider that the Mach Bike and Flame Runner/Bowser Bike in MKW were the two slowest-accelerating bikes in the game. Yes, SMTs made that not really a big deal, but their speed and agility meant that, where a vehicle with faster acceleration (such as the Bullet Bike or Dolphin Dasher) might be less prone to multiple-hit combos, a player capable of avoiding items entirely and reaching the front of the pack would be unstoppable with one of the Big Two. The GameFAQs Pro Lounge was an interesting place for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons—in hindsight—was the way that vehicles trended. The top players in the Pro Lounge, early on, were Cef (Ev Shiki) and Crrrrrrr. Both of them mained the Bullet Bike for most of the first month or so after release, and both of them had winning records on essentially everyone else. The Flame Runner was well known as being the best vehicle for time trials, but even after SMTs were discovered, the Bullet Bike was still seen as the best vehicle for online play. However, by July, nearly everyone was using the Mach Bike or Flame Runner. You might be thinking this is the point where I say that the Bullet Bike fascination was unfounded and the product of a lack of knowledge of the game, and you'd be half right. The Bullet Bike, just like Accel combos in the early days of Mario Kart 7, was seen as the best vehicle because it was the best vehicle—no matter if, now, the best vehicle is something else. When you are racing against eleven other players of varying, but still relatively high, skill levels, without too much in the way of game knowledge, you are going to be hit an awful lot. You can't expect to avoid every item because you don't know how to avoid every item. You can't expect your racing lines to make up the acceleration difference because you don't have good racing lines yet. As players get better, so too does their understanding of the game. This has two results: first, the players themselves are better at avoiding items and playing defensively, and second, newer players will be forced into the back of the pack with increasing frequency. These two things mean that there's generally more order in the higher positions, meaning that high acceleration is no longer necessary. To use one final example, consider a random worldwide with, say, four good players and eight newbies. The top four will break away most races, sure, but if one of them doesn't get off to a good start, they will be constantly bopped by items, and their low acceleration will only worsen the matter. This brings us to my first wild prediction: Acceleration combos will be optimal in Mario Kart 8 for around a month or two, before a gradual shift toward speed combos when everyone starts to get better at the game. Furthermore, the eventual vehicle of choice will be one that has as much speed as possible with only the bare necessity for handling. Since heavyweights tend to have these stats precisely, you can expect to see mostly heavyweight characters (assuming they retain these stats) about a year out. So, what do you all think—in general—about competitive Mario Kart 8? What are you hoping to see (or not see)? How do you think you'll manage the switch? Check back tomorrow for the next part of this analysis, wherein we examine item mechanics in Mario Kart 8. What made lightning dodges so powerful, and will lightning remain dominant? How does the removal of item stacking change things? How much will items matter in Mario Kart 8? And, perhaps most importantly, how fucked are we for the fire flower being available in 2nd?