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Mario Kart 8 preview: Nintendo’s time-guzzler returns

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Nintendo's famous "Mario Kart" returns with its eighth installment, due out for the Wii U in May. (Nintendo)

The “Mario Kart” game franchise is perhaps the most ubiquitous and far-reaching game series in video-game history -- and it’s coming back to a console near you to try and eat up even more of your free time.

But the question is: will it offer a new racing experience, or just try and capitalize on dreamy nostalgia?

The first installment, “Super Mario Kart," released for the Super Nintendo back in 1992, was a gaming revolution. A fun, colorful, simple and multiplayer-friendly title, “Super Mario Kart” essentially invented the "karting" genre of video games, and no imitator would ever really come close (with perhaps the exception of Nintendo’s own “Diddy Kong Racing”) to taking Kart’s crown.

Consequently, Nintendo has released six sequels since then, and in May will release a seventh for the Wii U, appropriately titled, “Mario Kart 8."

In some ways, “8” faces the series' biggest challenge yet -- staying fresh.

For the last 22 years, Nintendo has (wisely) stuck to the basic formula set out in the SNES original, making only aesthetic and minor gameplay tweaks here and there. The downside is that with each game, the series has started to feel a bit stale, riding somewhat on the back of its own success.

But initial impressions are good -- "Mario Kart 8" looks like it might bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to the series.

FoxNews.com got its hands on the game in Nintendo’s NYC offices and zoomed around a few of the tracks, and can report that signs are good that “8” will manage to walk the fine line of retaining the Mario Kart essence, while still advancing the series.

The first thing that needs to be said is that “Mario Kart 8” oozes beauty. As the first Mario Kart with HD graphics, the tracks look incredible, with so much detail -- try racing around the new Sunshine Airport without getting distracted by the passenger jets -- that it risks drawing attention away from the racing. That'd be a shame, as the gameplay has received some important improvements.

The biggest upgrade is the introduction of zero gravity. I was concerned this would be merely an aesthetic attribute, giving the impression of racing off the track and up the walls, while not really affecting gameplay. But in the zero-g segments of races, bumping into opponents gives you a speed boost instead of slowing you down. Although that sounds like a fairly minor upgrade, it changes the entire strategy for racing, as you immediately look for other karts to bash into. 

This requires a different way of playing -- and promises some interesting moments in multiplayer modes.

Also, fans of the Mario series will be happy to see a whole host of new playable characters in Bowser’s Koopalings, although it remains to be seen if they have significant attributes of their own to draw players away from their already existing favorites.

Finally, two new items are introduced: a piranha plant and a boomerang. Although I didn’t get much chance to experience these two, it’ll be interesting to see how these introductions change the gameplay balance.

Fans will also be happy to see the retention of aspects of past series, such as multiple types of vehicles, customizable karts, 12-person multiplayer and eight retro tracks that boost the track total up to 32 and tap into some of the classics of the past. Core gameplay mechanics are still there -- and, of course, the pesky blue shells are there to relieve you of first place at the final corner.

“Mario Kart 8” is not looking like a karting revolution by any stretch, but with HD graphics, a new bank of characters, zero-g racing, and other features that Nintendo has hinted at but not yet revealed, it is shaping up to be a significant development in the series. Signs are good that “Mario Kart 8” could once again take the gold.

Check back to FoxNews.com for a review of “Mario Kart 8” when it is released for the Wii U on May 30.

Adam Shaw is a News Editor for FoxNews.com. He can be reached here or on Twitter: @AdamShawNY