With Mario Kart 8 just two months away, Nintendo is beginning to ramp up its push for one of the most important titles coming to the Wii U. The series is a perennial best seller, but this time out, more rests on Mario and company's shoulders than ever before. It's a good thing that this latest entry is up to the challenge.

We spent a few hours with the game during GDC last month, and took the Koopalings out for a spin (this is the first time they are playable since their introduction in Super Mario Bros. 3). Each of Bowser's seven minions controls differently, with Morton the heftiest of the bunch. Nintendo also let us play three newly announced returning racers: Metal Mario, Shy Guy, and Lakitu. We were also able to customize wheels, gliders, chassis, and other parts to tune vehicles for better acceleration, handling, and speed.

Our demo included four different Grand Prix events, each consisting of four tracks. Two introduced new courses, with the remainder featuring updated classic tracks making use of Mario Kart 8's extremely enjoyable new anti-grav feature.

As we raced around the tracks, we crossed into blue zones that sent our karts and bikes into hover mode. This isn't just glitz. Rather, it changes the fundamental rules of the road. Instead of slowing down when bumping an opponent, collisions result in speed boosts.

In the earliest tracks, the hover zones are simply part of the course. On more complex stages, they offer shortcuts and ways to avoid obstacles. Driving up on the walls can provide a dizzying and delightful perspective when your opponents are weaving in and out of the way of each other's shells and fireballs.

We had the opportunity to sample 16 levels – some new, some re-envisioned classics.

New Levels
Mario Kart Stadium
Water Park
Sweet Sweet Canyon
Thwomp Ruins
Mario Circuit
Toad Harbor
Twisted Mansion
Shy Guy Falls


Classic levels
Moo Moo Meadows (Wii)
Mario Circuit (GBA)
Cheep Cheep Beach (DS)
Toad's Turnpike (N64)
Dry Dry Desert (GCN)
Donut Plains 3 (SNES)
Royal Raceway (N64)
DK Jungle (3DS)

In addition to classic pickups, Nintendo has added two more for this outing. The boomerang is a skill-based weapon that hits and stuns everything on its way out and on the way back. Each pickup allows you to throw it three times, with the final toss sending it on its way.

The piranha plant simply affixes to your vehicle, snapping at opponents and road hazards like banana peels and goombas. Each chomp gives you a little speed boost, making this a great one to find in your item box.

Mario Kart 8 allows you to compete locally, online, or online with a friend on the couch. The title supports up to 12 players.

Nintendo is also introducing Mario Kart TV, which allows users to capture and share videos via the Miiverse. More details on this are coming in the future.

As for controls, Nintendo is giving players options. The gamepad, Wii remote (and wheel), Wii remote and nunchuck, and the pro controller are all supported. The gamepad and Wii remote can be toggled between buttons and motion control.

The pro controller worked well (as expected), but I was surprised by how improved the Wii remote option is over the last series entry. I felt more in control than I remember with Mario Kart Wii. I'd still rather play with a traditional input scheme, but steering with remote seemed improved.

There is a lot riding on Mario Kart 8, and the series typically puts up big numbers. There's no doubt in my mind that if you have a Wii U then you should be paying attention to Nintendo's returning racer. The question is whether it will help move more consoles. From where I'm racing, that seems like a given.