Mario Kart 8 is Nintendo's first HD Mario Kart, released on May 30th, giving a huge roster of characters and incorporating anti-gravity in the racing, allowing you to drive at any angle on a surface (similar to F-Zero). The bikes and ATVs return from the previous games, coins are on the field again to help with small speed boosts, and like the Wii version, 12 racers are on the field at the same time.
Another great first for this game is that it's the first time they recorded live musicians for the soundtrack of a Mario Kart. According to Kenta Nagata (composer of Mario Kart 64 and sound director for Mario Kart 8), he felt that "live recorded music would work very well in conjunction with [high-definition graphics]. It really creates a vibrant, live feeling, and amplifies the scale of the game as a whole." The atnoshing visuals in the game, from the flashy colors of rainbow road to the dust and dirt whirring from the tires of the speeding karts, are really brought out by the lively music.
You still get the classic MIDI synthesizers on certain tracks, but there's a clear focus on a live jazz fusion feel with the music. From this model, the music can transform from jazz to electronic, salsa, big band, heavy rock/metal, and even bluegrass and celtic folk at some points, all depending on the track you race on. To top it off, each track now has its own respective musical track, giving you constant chances to hear something new with each level.
Let's explore a few of the musical tracks as examples of the wide variety of genres in this game.
1.) Main Theme
Sounds like something Berklee would produce and put at an orientation week concert! That's a huge compliment as well. From the first 6 notes and fast bass solo intro, you immediately get a sense of the expanded dynamics in this game in the main theme, which plays in the intro and loops during the first menu. The tune does a great job at introducing the instruments you'll be hearing throughout the game. The brass and saxophones trade off the melody with a solo electric guitar as the slap bass guitar, grooving drums, and quarter-note keyboard hits provide the rhythm section of the piece. Eventually the keyboard turns into a bright synth and plays its own melody, the harmonic rhythm becoming a little slower and more driving toward the cadence of the piece. A solo trumpet comes in singing its own piece, the saxophones play a fill, and then a solo alto sax leads the ensemble into a rendition of the main theme from Super Mario Kart, giving the game's nod at its previous successors.
From the start, you become aware of the game's live music, bouncy rhythms and change of speed/mood in the harmonies, and the mention of melodies/instrumentations used in past Mario Kart games. I heard this and immediately felt immersed and ready to start racing. Let's start our kart and get to it.
2.) Dolphin Shoals
An Afro-Cuban drum intro leads us to a Latin-rhythmic song that sounds like Kenny G taking a trip to South America.
Ok, maybe I'm not coming up with the best segues to these song reviews, but I promise you, it's a fantastic track! I'm not sure if this is an alto sax or soprano sax (might have to ask my friend Brian Seymour, who is a blazing saxophone player), but this sax player gets an extremely nice opportunity to shine, along with the guitars and active drums in the background. This level leads you to the aquatic world of Dolphin Shoals, where you actually spend most of the track underwater.
And here's the interesting bit. The sax is awesome, right? It's so awesome and amazing that the game lets you hear it only when you are over the water. When you're underwater, the music lays the dynamics back in the music and instrumentation. To hear what it sounds like, I recommend watching this gameplay video. (I'm going to marvel at the fact that not only does the audio cut off at the final lap during this video, but that I can't find a good-quality video of the final lap of this level. Apologies.) If you watch it, you'll notice that the melody is played by steel drums in the beginning. As you progress in the level, the music becomes even more filtered and laid back, especially as you approach the eel. There's no real melody, just ambient rhythms played by the rhythm section. There's a slight sense of maybe a high-cut filter being used for the music to take away the high frequencies and immerse you into the underwater feel of the level.
But as soon as you pop out of the water... BOOM, the music livens up and the saxophone becomes alive! It's a beautiful transition and use of interactivity with the music. The saxophone layer of music stays put during the final lap of the level as well.
3.) Moo Moo Meadows
Some of you may remember this track from Mario Kart Wii. Nintendo took a drive in making a live rendition and did really well on it. Now you have a fiddle and an Irish tin whistle carrying the blazing melody in this folky track. I love the sense of a group of folk players standing and playing this track. The live instrumentation helps with the pretty visuals of racing through the acres of a farmland in an evening setting. It's pretty catchy when it speeds up during the final lap, too. The fiddle gets a really nice chance to solo throughout the piece and at the end of the musical loop, too, before the strumming guitars set the cadence to loop back to the beginning. You can hear more folky bluegrass as well when you visit Yoshi's Valley from the N64 redone.
Ah, there are the synthesizers! Some driving ones, too. As the track name describes, you're basically racing inside a dome that has colorful visuals pulsing from an electronic groove that pumps throughout the race. A classic uhn-tss-uhn-tss beat with classic Mario-sounding synths that phase and vibrato throughout the melody. The harmonic flow of the song is neat as well, as it sounds like it switches from a major key to a more minor pentatonic key. I haven't taken the time to analyze it, but the modulations in the chords are really neat to hear in this electronic track.
It's really neat seeing the entire dome act like the visuals of a graphic equalizer. It helps taking a look at the visuals and musical interactivity as well. There's a neat part where as you drive on the striped purple road, a high-cut filter and ambient pad come in, as if the road is interacting with the music. Before one of the big jumps, you come across these cool bumps that each make musical hits that move chromatically upwards before you fly off to where the goal line is.
5.) Music Park
A super interactive level that literally has instruments as the road is Music Park, which was featured on the 3DS. The music is driven by a very fun toy-sounding synthesizer solo, and later a guitar that trades off with the melody. The actual level itself is where more of the music does happen. The piano, xylophone, and marimba roads each make 16th note runs that synchronize with the music. You are surrounded by string instruments and moving brass valves that and horns that move with the beat of the music. As you're racing, you can jump on tambourines and must dodge these huge, fat eight notes with eyes that are bouncy on a ground that makes timpani hit sounds. A retro track from 3DS brought out even more by the live instruments. If you listen closely, you'll also here small snippets of 8-bit sounds from the synths as well. A nice little detail. All of it will make you bop your head to the music as you race. Don't let it distract you too much, though, it's easy to fall off the marimba/xylophone's twisty roads. :)
These are only a few tracks and a couple of them are updates of tracks already done for past Mario Karts. There are still a ton of other great tracks, one of my favorites being heavy metal-esque Bowser's Castle. The updates to the musical interactivity are fantastic as well. One little rendition they do in this game, too, is during the Lightning item. When you get hit, in past games, you hear the music get quieter and a high-pitched synth run loops as you become smaller and your character's voice is much more higher. The same thing happens for the most part, but now instead of that synth run, the music gets only a little quieter and the melodies sound like they're going through a hilarious vibrato or high-intense chorus effect that makes everything go up and down.
There's a great amount of musical interactivity and great music in general in Mario Kart 8. This games overall utilizes a model of live jazz fusion that eventually transforms into many genres of music. Nintendo has taken a huge leap in its already great use of audio in games and took it to the next level to match the amount of work they've put into the visuals. Even if you don't find Mario Kart to be your thing, I highly recommend listening to this soundtrack.
The composers/arrangers for Mario Kart 8 are:
Shiho Fujii [New Super Mario Bros. Wii]
Atsuko Asahi [Pikmin 3]
Ryo Nagamatsu [Mario Kart Wii]
Yasuaki Iwata [Super Mario 3D World]
I look forward to what else Nintendo will have in store for us in future games.