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Patrick Hope: Kart blanche

It’s hard to believe that “Mario Kart” is 22 years old. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was playing “Super Mario Kart” on the Super Nintendo with characters like “Princess,” because she wasn’t called Peach yet, and Donkey Kong Jr., because the current incarnation of Donkey Kong wouldn’t come around for a couple years.

Anyway, now in 2014, we’re up to the eighth incarnation of the original, and arguably best, racing spinoff series, so how does “Mario Kart 8” on the Wii U fit in with its predecessors?

Here’s your basic rundown. “Mario Kart 8” came out on May 30 and, if you’re keeping track at home, is Welcome to Bonus Stage’s first foray into both racing games and the Wii U. “Mario Kart” is a series that has been known for doing some crazy things in various entries (hi, “Double Dash!”), but the basic formula is unchanged. Throw together a bunch of Mario characters and have them race on tracks inspired by the series. Make sure there’s multiplayer, and let the fans do the rest. By this point, it’s little surprise that “Mario Kart 8” delivers on this, adding touches to make it stand out.

The big change this time around is that “Mario Kart 8” adds anti-gravity elements, which results in this kind of weird synthesis with Nintendo’s other racing franchise, “F-Zero.” Many of the tracks feel really fast this time around, complete with the huge jumps and shortcuts that one might expect from “F-Zero.” This leads to some really great experiences, like the spectacular version of series stalwart Bowser’s Castle or seemingly everyone’s favorite course, the rally-esque Mt. Wario, which starts in a plane above the summit and ends with a ski jump all the way at the mountain’s base. It’s a welcome evolution to the series and helps to keep things fresh, even on the classic courses.

Yes, classic courses — a staple of the series for many years — are still present, but all of them have obviously been upscaled to stay in line with their current-gen counterparts. The Royal Raceway from “Mario Kart 64” is now lined with some gorgeous blooming cherry trees in one of its stretches and Toad’s Turnpike has some anti-gravity sections where you can avoid much of the traffic on the track. It’s impressive enough that Mario Kart has been around long enough to fill out four circuits of tracks from previous games; it’s even moreso that said tracks could have easily been designed for “Mario Kart 8.”

And then there’s the roster. The roster of “Mario Kart” has always reflected what’s been going on in the main series, explaining additions like Petey Piranha to “Double Dash” or Rosalina to “Mario Kart Wii,” and “Mario Kart 8” follows in that tradition, adding the Koopalings, all seven of them, into the mix. So if you ever wanted to play as Ludwig von Koopa or Morton Koopa Jr., this is your big chance. Sadly, the roster doesn’t include series veterans like Birdo or Boo, but I guess we can’t have everything.

Also of note is that after seemingly everyone on the planet (and that includes you; don’t deny it) complained about how unbalanced “Mario Kart Wii” was with the insane power of items like the Blue Shell and Bullet Bill, Nintendo listened and tried to balance everything out. The result is not just an experience where the strategy of hanging near the back to avoid getting hammered with items and then making a move late isn’t optimal anymore, but one which adds a lot of excitement as racing skill and knowledge of the track tends to trump item spamming.

This is no more evident than in the addition of a new item to the “Mario Kart” universe — the Sonic Horn, which generates a shockwave around your cart, knocking out everything in range.

First, you can get this item while in first, which is huge. Second, this item can destroy Blue Shells. Yes, Nintendo created an item for the sole purpose of balancing out the Blue Shell which cost me more than a few races last generation.

This review would also be incomplete if I didn’t mention the production values in Mario Kart 8. As the first of the series in HD, it’s immediately noticeable that everything has gotten a graphical facelift. The environments are all great, with all the additional detail that HD allows. Also of note is the awesome soundtrack. Featuring a decent number of tracks recorded with real instruments, “Mario Kart 8” has a great jazz/rock/fusion soundtrack that will get stuck in your head for a long time, with some standout tracks being the rocking Bowser’s Castle, the smooth jazz Dolphin Shoals, and the orchestral Cloudtop Cruise.

“Mario Kart 8” is a huge shot in the arm for the struggling Wii U and really the first game on the system that’s gotten people excited.

It probably doesn’t hurt that it actually delivered only a week after the latest big-name release, “Watch Dogs,” was underwhelming. Honestly, “Mario Kart 8” is easily the best next-gen game of 2014 thus far and the best console entry in the series in quite a while. The Wii U hasn’t had the best run so far, but this may very well be the game that gets people to go buy one.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. In Mario Kart 8, he mains Toadette and Daisy.