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Mario Kart 8: Nintendo turns the series upside down

How much has really changed?

Mario Kart is one of the few Nintendo series where you can actively glimpse the series' history within each new entry. You can still buy digital copies of past classics via the eShop of course, but in each recent Mario Kart title the franchise's past is right there in the game, in the large range of returning retro tracks that complement each new roster.

Some are remixed slightly while the graphics are tweaked, but their core remains the same, rebuilt with a loving eye for detail. That Koopa Troopa Beach shortcut you always aim for is still in the same place, that Wiggler is still being a jerk in Maple Treeway. The inclusion of classic tracks works so well because the series' mechanics were honed more or less to perfection early on in the series' life and have remained fairly constant ever since.

Recent games have had their gimmicks, of course, and the series has adapted slightly to fit. Mario Kart 8's gambit is anti-gravity tracks - a trick borrowed from Nintendo's other great racing series while it lays dormant - and previously there have been two-man karts, motion controls and mid-air gliding.

But when it comes to rounding up what Mario Kart 8 really offers beyond this new gambit, well, it's difficult to say. It's also difficult to justify that it needs to. People play Mario Kart because it's Mario Kart. If you're after that again here, well, Nintendo isn't about to start disappointing you.

There are a couple of returning features from Mario Kart 7 - and motorbikes return from Mario Kart Wii.

The three Mario Kart 8 tracks Nintendo that served up as an appetiser were fairly standard early-game fodder, beginning with a souped-up Peach's Castle level that showed off the new wall-climbing anti-gravity mechanics impressively, the track snaking around and above the tall towers of the Princesses' famed home.

"What Mario Kart 8 really offers beyond its new gambit, well, it's difficult to say. It's also difficult to justify that it needs to."

Next up was a level modelled on the real world - in particular on the busy, tram-laden streets of San Francisco. Presumably it will be Mario Kart 8's token traffic-filled level, a map bustling with cars to avoid and also the city's famous stomach-churning drops in street level to boost off of.

And then it was back to the Mushroom Kingdom for the demo's final level, a track set in the Boo House locations from recent Mario platformers, populated by ghosts and skeleton fish. There are swathes of darkly psychedelic swerving floors to manoeuvre through and areas to break out Mario Kart 7's trademark glider, which returns here alongside that game's underwater propeller.

Series fans will also welcome the return of coins, back again from Mario Kart 7 after a long absence. Presumably you'll be able to spend these on kart upgrades again - Nintendo has confirmed that a more robust amount of parts will be available this time around - but the demo Eurogamer played didn't have this feature built in. Also missing - oddly - was the series' slipstream mechanic, although this may yet be added in before launch.

One thing that looked perfectly polished was Mario Kart 8's HD visuals. It's still a novelty to see the Mushroom Kingdom in high definition, and even the three basic levels on offer already looked stunning. Nintendo has also noticeably managed to keep the action at a smooth 60 frames per second, despite the huge number of racers on screen at any one time. Already, the anti-gravity sections feel a fun addition - and importantly, not one which tampers too much with the series' mechanics. The snaking, looping track courses are ripe for Mario Kart's trademark shortcuts - not that there's any lack of standard, right-side-up versions. But the sensation of being able to gaze aloft and see an opponent has somehow got themselves racing upside down above your head is a laugh out loud surprise. Like any good Mario Kart course, you'll want to replay the map until you work all of them all out.

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I played Mario Kart 8 with the GamePad, the standard controls for which are pleasingly similar to the feeling of playing Mario Kart Wii with a GameCube pad or Classic Controller. But, if you really want to, you can tap the GamePad touchscreen any time to switch the device into motion control mode. There's no need for any Wii Wheel-style controller attachment here, you just tilt to turn.

The GamePad can also be used to view a 2D top-down map of the course and to, er, sound your kart's horn. For a controller that was once supposed to be the centrepiece of Nintendo's system, its integration here - and increasingly in other titles - is hardly revolutionary. Even an option for it to show a rear view mirror would have been useful, as I couldn't find the option in the game already. At the very least, however, Nintendo has said that you can use it for full off-TV play.

The only real disappointment with Mario Kart 8 is that it won't be released in time for Christmas. It will instead launch sometime in spring next year - an odd choice for Nintendo to make, unless that really is the earliest it could be finished. The fact that only three levels have been shown in public rather than one full four-track cup does suggest that development is still in its early days. Regardless, it's especially disappointing considering how the 3D Mario and Mario Kart double punch worked so well to reverse flagging sales of 3DS, and how much the Wii U could now do with that same boost.

Whenever Mario Kart 8 does roll out of Nintendo's garage, it certainly looks like it will inject its own tweaks to the series, as others have before it, but does so while keeping the series' secret sauce intact.

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