Will ‘Mario Kart 8’ be a Blockbuster for Nintendo’s Wii U?

Nintendo (NASDAQOTH: NTDOY  ) just released its first trailer for Mario Kart 8, the eighth installment of its popular 22-year-old kart racing franchise. If that numbering scheme confuses you, it's because Nintendo didn't start numbering the titles until Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS in 2011.

To date, there have been four Mario Kart titles for home consoles and three for handheld ones. Those titles have spanned seven different hardware platforms and sold 97.7 million copies worldwide.

Mario Kart 8 will be released for the Wii U on May 30, and many gamers and investors are hoping that it boosts sales of the eighth generation Wii U, which has fallen behind Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) PS4 in the eighth generation console race. The PS4 has sold 6.6 million units worldwide since last November, compared to 5.9 million Wii Us sold since November 2012. Both consoles remain ahead of Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Xbox One, which has sold 4 million units.

Why Nintendo needs Mario Kart 8 to be a blockbuster
Both PS4 and Xbox One sales have been pushed into high gear by high-profile exclusive games such as Infamous: Second Son and Titanfall.

Infamous: Second Son and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes for the PS4 were the two top-selling games in the world for the week ending on March 22, according to Vgchartz's latest numbers. The top-selling Xbox One title, Titanfall, unexpectedly cooled off and slipped to number five.

No single Wii U title cracked the top 10, although Mario Party Island Tour for the 3DS came in at number six. That wasn't a surprise, considering that the handheld 3DS remains the top-selling console of this generation with 43.7 million units sold -- which has helped it receive better first- and third-party support than the Wii U.

Nintendo only expects to sell 2.8 million Wii Us this year, down 69% from its older forecast of 9 million units. There are no clear plans to release an eighth generation Legend of Zelda game in 2014, which could be the blockbuster title that the console needs to hold its ground against the PS4 and the Xbox One.

Unfortunately, the only confirmed Zelda experiences for Wii U owners this year will be Tecmo Koei's hybrid slasher Hyrule Warriors and a Zelda-themed stage for Sega's Sonic Lost World.

That's why Mario Kart 8 is such a critical title for Nintendo -- it could help the Wii U regain momentum this year against massive triple-A releases for the PS4 and the Xbox One.

The Grand Unification of the Mario Kart Universe
On the bright side, the odds are certainly in Nintendo's favor when it comes to Mario Kart. Take a look at the series' performance on home consoles over the past two decades:

 

Platform

Units sold (millions)

Metascore

Super Mario Kart (1992)

Super NES

8.76

N/A

Mario Kart 64 (1996)

Nintendo 64

9.87

83%

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (2003)

Gamecube

6.95

87%

Mario Kart Wii (2008)

Wii

34.41

82%

Total/Average rating

 

59.99

84%

Sources: Vgchartz, Metacritic.

Matching Mario Kart Wii's incredible sales of 34.41 million units (many of them bundled with new consoles) initially seems impossible considering that there are only 5.9 million Wii Us on the market. However, Mario Kart 8 could actually fuel new sales of the Wii U, especially if Nintendo is smart about its bundling strategies.

Mario Kart 8. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Nintendo should also plow a lot of money into marketing this title, especially since it highlights some of Nintendo's greatest strengths -- nostalgia, bright graphics, and family appeal -- while silencing common criticisms that the Wii U is graphically underpowered.

Mario Kart 8 could also finally be a chance for Nintendo to highlight the differences between the Wii and Wii U. The Wii U's second screen, which allows gamers to keep playing the game while the TV is off, is often considered a superfluous feature. However, the Wii U's handheld form factor could work in Mario Kart 8's favor, especially when we consider the past performance of Mario Kart titles on handheld consoles:

 

Platform

Units sold (millions)

Metascore

Mario Kart Super Circuit (2001)

Game Boy Advance

5.47

93%

Mario Kart DS (2005)

Nintendo DS

22.85

91%

Mario Kart 7 (2011)

Nintendo 3DS

9.38

85%

Total/Average rating

 

37.7

90%

Sources: Vgchartz, Metacritic.

With Mario Kart 8, Nintendo is tying together two sides of the universe -- the home console and the handheld ones -- on a console that resembles both form factors. To drive that point home, Nintendo smartly adopted a numbered release system to emphasize that the Mario Kart series is a linear franchise, rather than one fragmented between home and handheld consoles.

Is Mario Kart 8 a showcase of Nintendo's greatest strengths ... or weaknesses?
Mario Kart 8 is interesting because it reveals two sides of Nintendo -- the side that is stuck in the past and the side that is struggling to evolve.

Anyone who has played the original Super Mario Kart and its sequel, Mario Kart 64, knows that the game has remained roughly the same for over two decades. Everyone knows that red shells home in on opponents, a bolt of lightning shrinks everyone, and a mushroom provides a nitrous boost. That visual language immediately makes the title appealing to older gamers as well as younger ones.

Mario Kart 64. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Yet that also means that Nintendo is stuck in a cycle of remaking the same game repeatedly with prettier graphics. Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., and Mario Party haven't changed that much since the N64 era. Nintendo is more innovative with the Zelda series, by adding twists (shrinking, turning into a wolf, turning into a painting) to the traditional gameplay, but the designers generally never stray too far off the beaten path.

Looking forward, Nintendo should remember that some of its greatest accomplishments came from turning the status quo upside down. Super Mario Bros. was a huge leap forward from Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., Ocarina of Time was a daring leap into 3D, and the original Wii made motion controls a reality.

The final lap
Mario Kart 8 could finally be the hit the Wii U needs to get back on track. However, Nintendo needs to carefully balance its love for nostalgia with its investments in innovation if it wants the title to provide a permanent mushroom boost.

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  • Report this Comment On April 04, 2014, at 8:09 PM, NonCasualGamer wrote:

    I can't wait for this game. If this doesn't turn the Wii u around nothing will. Don't get me wrong, other games will be amazing, but Mario Kart has been running the show, hopefully for years to come.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2014, at 10:52 AM, EddieEsco wrote:

    I will never get the love for this game or other racers....its just so boring.

  • Report this Comment On April 08, 2014, at 9:28 AM, targeyone wrote:

    If you find this game boring, you have no soul.

    I've yet to see a room that Mario Kart can't bring together.

    Like NonCasual has said, this is one of the last plays the Wii U has to come back. If this and Smash can't turn things around, then the Wii U is going to have to sit this generation largely out of the picture.

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