The Usual Suspects In the last part, I talked a bit about vehicle stats. The conclusion that I reached was more or less obvious: speed is king, accel not so much, and handling is a hindrance beyond a certain, low, point. Specifically, however, I mentioned that a good vehicle must be able to work with items flying around the track. Items are key to Mario Kart. A single item hit is enough to offset whatever advantage a world record holder might have over someone who's just "good". It's no coincidence that the best players are those who are either fantastic at dodging items, or are fast enough to get ahead early and stay there. Mario Kart 8 is bringing in a lot of new changes, but perhaps the most important are the ones relating to item use. There are a bunch of new and returning items, some of which geared very much offensively. Furthermore, items can no longer be stacked—items that have been activated, with the exception of stars, continue to take up your inventory slot until they've been completely used up—and other players' items are visible both as part of the character model and on the GamePad's item spy. Let's start with the new items. The Fire Flower is a returning item from Mario Kart 7; for those who never played it, it's a mid position offensive item that lets you throw small fireballs. The fireballs will spin players out in the same way a Banana would, and while the item lasts a long time, using a fireball will eat up a small amount of the duration. We know from GameXplain's footage that it's available in 2nd place out of 12. One key change from Mario Kart 7 is that fireballs don't expire faster once there are more than three on the track; there's footage floating around of at least six or seven fireballs at once. The Boomerang is a new mid position item in Mario Kart 8. It's very similar to triple green shells, in a way; it's a three-use, straight-fire, ricocheting, projectile item. However, the projectile moves much faster than a green shell, and when it reaches a maximum distance, it returns to the user to be thrown again. Interestingly, the item is removed from your inventory when the boomerang has been thrown once, and returns to your inventory when you catch it; we don't know if you'd be able to grab another item or not (thus ending it early), unfortunately, but since the boomerang continues down the track on the final throw, it could be that grabbing another item simply makes the boomerang not return. While it's obtainable in at least 6th, it's very likely that it will share similar distribution to Mega Mushrooms. Another new mid position item is the Piranha Plant. When used, a Piranha Plant pops out of a pot at the front of your kart, and starts snapping at nearby players and coins. Whenever it lunges, you get a small boost. It doesn't defend you against items or anything like that, so while it is a fantastic offensive item, it leaves the user very vulnerable. It's sort of like a Thundercloud that doesn't completely screw you over in that sense. A top position "item" (of sorts) is the Coin. When used, you get two coins. Cool. Conspicuous in their absence from MKW and MK7 are the Fake Item Box, Mega Mushroom, Thundercloud, POW Block, Lucky 7, and Tanooki Tail. There are two more items that have yet to be seen in action. I won't be talking about those here too much, but they'll likely be lower-mid position items (similar to the Mega Mushroom and POW Block that they are "replacing"). Other returning items are the Banana, Mushroom, Green Shell, Red Shell, their Triple varieties, the Blue Shell, Lightning, Star, Golden Mushroom, Blooper and Bullet Bill. Notable changes are that Triple Bananas and Mushrooms automatically spin around you (similar to shells). Notably unchanged is the ability to use a star without it taking up your inventory slot. Before anyone panics about mid position items being available in 2nd, I should point out that Mario Kart Wii's GP mode used the Frantic item setting, i.e. powerful items were more common and available in higher positions. It's very likely that a similar setting is in place for the MK8 GP mode, so even though we've seen some crazy things like 2nd place Fire Flowers and Triple Red Shells, it's not necessarily going to make it into the online mode. These changes are all fine, but what will they mean? The removal of item stacking, the addition of the item spy, the addition of at least two items with powerful offensive but zero defensive capability to the middle positions, and powerful mid position items being distributed to higher positions will result in a less chaotic but more aggressive metagame. In other words, you're going to be hit just as much as you were in Mario Kart Wii (probably more), but it will be because the person hitting you was specifically aiming in your direction. I'll give you a moment to collect your sides, which must be approaching escape velocity at this point. How the hell could less items result in more item hits? The answer can be found at the start of this article. Educated guesses. More specifically, the lack of them. This is the single largest change from Mario Kart Wii to Mario Kart 8. Guessing Game Mario Kart Wii's item strategy revolved around imperfect information. The only things you could see from other players were the items they use, the speed they're moving, and their face on the minimap. And yet, by making educated guesses from this information, as well as detailed knowledge of item distribution (where items are available and how many can be held at once), you could reliably determine what someone was holding after a couple of seconds. Good strategy in MKW revolved around risk management and careful observation, and the very best players were the ones who could do all that while also maintaining solid lines and avoiding items. Mario Kart 7 reintroduced the item spy, which explicitly told you a lot of the information that you would have been using guesswork for in Mario Kart Wii. Furthermore, the ability to see items on the minimap, as well as the reliance on coins for speed, necessitated a very defensive play style. Mario Kart 8 retains the item spy, but completely destroys defensive play. The best defence in Mario Kart 7 was a good defence. The best defence in Mario Kart 8 will be a good offence (For those wondering, the best defence in Mario Kart Wii was a good internet connection). But what is good offence? You can't just throw items around anymore. Not only do you not have enough of them, but you'll get slapped as soon as you leave yourself vulnerable. You have to pick your targets and take them out. With extreme prejudice. At least, I think that's what they said in Call of Duty. If you are behind someone, you can check their item with a quick glance at your GamePad. You know exactly what they have, and they can't be hiding a shell behind them anymore. Improved Red Shell AI and the inability to stack items means that, if you throw a Red Shell at someone who has no defence, they will get hit. The game of trap-and-chase that 1st and 2nd played in Mario Kart Wii will be replaced by a game of trap-and-hope-that-you-don't-get-a-coin-item-because-you're-screwed-if-you-do, wherein 2nd place getting and holding a Red Shell more or less guarantees that the track will be clear for the next five or six corners—unless 1st risks a red shell hit to trap a corner before some item boxes, baiting the red shell and establishing their safety for a little longer. But the lack of items also means that the days of twelve discarded green shells lying on one corner of the track are gone. The races will still be chaotic, but it will be a sort of organised chaos that, far from being a luck-based affair, will actually be tameable. Every hit that comes your way will either be a mistake on your part or an offensive action on someone else's. Mario Kart Wii was many things, but rarely was it a fair game. Mario Kart 8 might yet beg to differ. Shock and Awe One thing that has not changed at all, however, is the back of the pack. Lightning is less common, sure, but the Bill is as powerful as ever, Goldens are just as fast as Mario Kart 7's, and Stars can still be chained (they're the only item that can be, in fact). This raises an important question for those of us who played competitive Mario Kart Wii: Will Troy be able to say "Bam, Shock Dodge!" ever again? The answer is, unfortunately, that it's too soon to tell for sure. Without knowing what lightning is capable of, how common it is, or what item distributions are (they might be unlimited like Mario Kart 7), it's still very much up in the air. But the very fact that it is up in the air is indicative of something, and it's not just that I might have a knack for meteorological plays on words. Lightning dodges themselves are just as powerful as they were in Mario Kart Wii, but it was the aftermath of a successful dodge that made it the strategy of choice in that game. With a mid position dodge, you could be in a high position with a powerful item and take a shortcut to guarantee a high spot. While you can still chain Stars for power items, the offensive metagame will force you to use them early—suboptimally, most likely, unless you use predictable strategies—and it's quite likely that people will be getting powerful offensive items to deal with your dodge crew. Another important change is the scoring system. In a 12 player race, the scores for 1st through 12th were 15, 12, 10, 8 to 0. In Mario Kart 8, 12-player races give 15, 12, 10 to 1. The key here, and this is also an argument for why Lightning strats are weaker in MKW 6v6, is that dodges usually result in one or two high spots, one bottom spot, and two or three mid spots for the dodging team, with one high spot, one bottom spot, and three or four mid spots for the other team. If you're keeping track, mid and bottom spots now give one more point, all the way from 4th to last. Whereas two top spots in a MKW race almost guaranteed a race win, in MK8, the result will not be so lopsided, provided the other team can muster strong mid positions. Which brings us to this next conclusion. Mario Kart 8's team metagame will probably include, but not rely on, lightning strategies. They will be useful, but by no means dominant or even necessarily powerful. While the initial dodge will be effective, dodgers will be vulnerable to the aggressive items available in the middle of the pack, without the defensive options to deal with them. So, what do you all think about the items you've seen? Was my outburst on Skype about 2nd place Fire Flowers warranted? Will we be seeing the end of sandbagging strats? Check back next time for the conclusion to this article series. I'll be taking a closer look at some of the concepts mentioned above, as well as what this all means for team-based competition. I'll also be ending with a few predictions for May 30, 2015. Let's see if I can get anything right.