Eurogamer's Game of the Year 2014
The new generation of consoles aren't so new now, at the end of 2014. In the past year they've become a familiar fixture in our living rooms and under our televisions: familiar, too, has become the endless dance of downloads, patches, system updates and slightly underwhelming experiences in what's been a low-key debut year for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. We knew it'd be a slow start, but nevertheless there's disappointment in the lack of something truly new to latch on to once you look beyond the inflated resolutions.
So it's down to a slightly more aged, less bombastic member of the new generation to deliver the truly spectacular games of 2014. Nintendo's year hasn't been stacked, its releases thinly spread out - but what games they've been. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and Super Smash Bros. bookended the year with charm and polish, while the slightly more unruly Bayonetta 2 showed a clean pair of gun-strapped heels to the other platform exclusives.
There was one game that stood out above all others, though: a welcome slice of pure pleasure that was arguably the pinnacle of one of Nintendo's most lucrative and well loved series. So without further ado, here's a few of us on why Mario Kart 8 was Eurogamer's game of 2014.
Martin spent most of the year in a strop that there were weren't any proper racing games coming out that let you do serious stuff like change the tyre pressures, but did take solace in the likes of Assetto Corsa and RaceRoom - and, of course, Mario Kart 8.
It's not been a particularly happy year, one way or another - 12 fairly sour months in which the more poisonous elements of gamer culture became truly toxic, and when publishers in kind served up games that were incomplete or just plain broken. Thank heavens, then, for Nintendo - a small oasis of quality and excellence, and a welcome, smiling face in a 2014 that was mostly told in snarls.
This hasn't been the same embarrassment of riches we witnessed flow forth in 2013 from the company, when the 3DS made a convincing bid for immortality with the likes of Fire Emblem: Awakening, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and A Link Between Worlds while Tokyo EAD delivered another fine Mario adventure with 3D World, but what has come from Nintendo this year has been peerless.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, while understandably not earning universal acclaim, was deceptive in its breeziness: Retro Studios' second revival of what, truth be told, was once a lacklustre series boasted meticulous craft and stirring art, from the stern challenge served up from the off to what surely stands as 2014's finest soundtrack. Later in the year, Bayonetta 2 and Super Smash Bros. mixed fan service with sublime mechanics, while - in the US, at least - Captain Toad was a slightly understated reminder of the wealth of imagination operating at Nintendo's standout studio.
It's Mario Kart 8 that stands out above all those, though. It's tempting to think that it's earning its accolades thanks only to what's been a mediocre year for games; that it's being rewarded for not having a multi-gigabyte day one patch, for the fact its servers stood firm or for how it refused to mock its players with an infinite, relentless grind.
Mario Kart 8 deserves more than that, and in any year it'd surely be recognised for its excellence, and for its effortless engineering. You'll find that in the brilliantly supple drifting mechanics, in the new selection of weapons and items that restores a balance seemingly lost to the series for well over a decade or in the euphoric thrust of its live orchestrated soundtrack.
More simply, you'll find it in the half-drunken thrill of getting friends together to partake in the bustle of its multiplayer - how telling it is that in a year when the anonymous internet mobs turned so nasty we all discovered the pleasure of going offline and enjoying the company of familiars - and in enjoying an old classic restored and, perhaps, perfected.
Nintendo often draws criticism for sticking to the same trusted brands and series, for taking a shift towards the crass annualisation exercised by the likes of Ubisoft and Activision - something that, the titling of the last two Mario Kart games suggests, is something it's perfectly happy to confront. It's fair enough, but in light of everything else that's happened this year, Nintendo's brand of play that's pure and bright, and pleasures that are both simple and deep, has never felt more vital.
When he's not busy bossing everyone around and telling them how to spend their money, Ian's spent much of the year entertaining our YouTube audience with his livestreams, as well as brushing up on his Mario Kart 8 skills.
Christian has a one-year-old daughter, so 2014 has passed in a bit of a blur. He did find time to kill a few whales, though.
I've played Mario Kart 8 for about fifteen minutes in total - and I can be relatively sure of that, because the fifteen minutes in question were the fifteen minutes during Microsoft's E3 conference in which the new Crackdown game was announced.
Now. Normally I would step over an injured family member to get a closer look at a new Crackdown game. Normally, I would push emergency workers out of the way to see the screen when the agents take to Pacific City. This time, however, I couldn't be budged from my seat next to the other office telly. Tom Phillips had just handed me a Wii U controller and explained that this was the Mario Kart where you could drive up walls. Then he loaded up a track and the rest of the world dimmed.
That's what it feels like with Mario Kart 8 - like the world outside of the screen has been dialled back while the Mushroom Kingdom erupts in front of you. Solid colour! Waving grass! A track that you feel you could reach out and touch. Sure the AI cheats and the items make the game into a bit of a lottery, but for those fifteen minutes I was transported.
And then it was over, and I was back in a dark corner of the office while everyone else was raving about Crackdown. Crackdown. I think I remember that name...
This year, Oli became Eurogamer's editor and, more importantly, got to act out his childhood dream and play at being a film critic, during which experience he witnessed an actual Mark Kermode facepalm in the wild.
It's odd to claim that a game like Mario Kart 8 sneaked up on you. It was hardly a sleeper; this was a much-hyped entry in one of gaming's most popular series by one of its greatest studios. Its earliest antecedents are burned into our communal memory and its home console predecessor, Mario Kart Wii, is one of the best-selling games of all time. It was the definition of a sure thing.
And yet sneak up on me it did. I just wasn't that bothered. I'd played it at E3 the previous year and thought it was fine, I guess, predictable though, nothing new. I wanted Nintendo to be more adventurous. I didn't need another Mario Kart, I thought. So when Simon Parkin handed in a 10/10 review, I raised my eyebrows and debated it with him. He was passionate, so the score had to stand, but I still couldn't see what it was about the game that had made the same reviewer turn around from a position of respectful indifference about Mario Kart 7.
And then the disc arrived and I popped it in the Wii U and had a huge grin pinned to my face before I'd even pressed a button - as that energetic horn section punched out the intro music and then, oh my God, segued seamlessly into the chirpy theme of Super Mario Kart, transporting me to a mid-90s student flat and my rediscovery of the joy of video games. It pretty much did the trick again. An hour or two later I was emailing Simon: "Jesus Christ, you weren't wrong, were you."
For my money, Mario Kart 8 is the best game in the series since that Super Nintendo classic, and one of the greatest arcade racers of all time. It holds that knife-edge balance between luck and skill better than any Mario Kart since the first, and locks the player into the zone with an exquisite stack of boost tricks that give you something new to think about every second and a half. It's also an audiovisual wonder: the most beautiful game of the new hardware generation to date, a game that lights up your synapses as it laughs off the Wii U's horsepower deficit in a riot of colour, brilliant animation and blistering performance; a game that evokes the dazzling, long-lost wow factor of the arcade.
But the best thing about Mario Kart 8 is that it is defiantly old-school and thrillingly modern all at once. It incorporates some of the best features of contemporary social gaming without jumping on any bandwagons that might lead it astray. It offers depth and customisation and a long tail of unlocks, but it doesn't put grind before purity. Online, it's competitive but friendly, with excellent ranking and matchmaking, a level playing field and - something previously thought impossible - a charming lobby. It's a game you keep playing again and again and again because you're having fun, not because you're working towards your next meta-goal. It's even got an add-on that's worth buying.
At the start of 2014, like many Nintendo fans, I feared that its strange trajectory over the last decade or so - from niche has-been to casual gaming monopoly and back again - might have rendered it a lovable anachronism. From this end of the year, things look very different. Mario Kart 8 in particular shows Nintendo as one of the few major studios that can fulfil everything a 2014 video game should be without turning its back on what it games were to us in the past. Games like this don't come along very often. A bad year? Mario Kart 8 makes it a great one all on its own.