- "Mario Kart 8," the latest in the popular series, was released Friday
- It comes as Nintendo's Wii U suffers from lackluster sales
- Nintendo is hoping the software will help sell hardware
- Early signs are good -- Wii U sales are up big in the UK
It's the gaming industry's gold standard, once named by Guinness World Records as the most influential video game in history.
Now, Nintendo is turning to "Super Mario Kart" once again, hoping the beloved, 22-year-old franchise can save sales of its faltering Wii U console.
"Mario Kart 8" was released on Friday. It comes at a time when once dominant Nintendo has already slashed its sales forecast for the Wii U down to just 3.6 million for the current fiscal year.
By comparison, sales of Sony's PlayStation 4 console, released nearly a year after the Wii U, have already eclipsed the Nintendo's total Wii U sales since its 2012 launch.
Among the 5 million Wii U titles sold this fiscal year, "Super Mario 3D World" and "New Super Mario Bros. U" have been among the most popular, and a new "Super Smash Bros." title, featuring Mario alongside other classic video game characters, is due later this year.
But "Mario Kart 8" might be the Japanese company's best chance for the popular plumber to help the slow-selling console regain its footing.
Early results are promising.
Nintendo reported the game sold 1.2 million units across Japan, Europe and the Americas during its first weekend.
The game's release in the United Kingdom corresponded with a 666% increase in Wii U sales there, according to a British retail tracking company. Nearly 82% of the consoles sold in the UK during that time were part of a bundle deal that included "Mario Kart 8."
No exact figures were available in the report, from the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment. But it was reportedly the best week of sales yet for a Wii U title and "Mario Kart 8" was the nation's second-best selling title behind highly anticipated "Watch_Dogs," which is available for Xbox One, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, PlayStation 3 and Windows PCs (A Wii U version is coming later this year).
"The early response to Mario Kart 8 demonstrates that the best days for Wii U are still ahead," said Nintendo of America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime in a press release.
Mario Kart has always been a boon for the console it was released on since "Super Mario Kart" hit for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) 22 years ago.
"Mario Kart Wii" sold more than 35 million copies since its release in 2008. That's more than the total number of Wii U games sold, according to numbers released by Nintendo.
Long-time fans are always looking forward to a "Mario Kart" game when they get their new device and "Mario Kart 8" is no exception.
"Nintendo's developers are always looking for new and interesting elements to bring to a franchise," said Marc Franklin, director of public relations for Nintendo of America. "It's a delicate balance to preserve the feel and integrity of a beloved franchise like 'Mario Kart' while also making it fresh for longtime players."
Since the new title will remain a Wii U exclusive, Nintendo hopes that well-established fan love will push gamers off the fence and get them to buy the new console. Franklin didn't directly answer a question about whether "Mario Kart" will boost sales over the long haul, but he sounded upbeat.
"There's no doubt that 'Mario Kart' is one of Nintendo's most enduring franchises, and we're grateful it has been well-received by fans," he said. "As always, it'll be up to fans to decide whether this installment lives up to its pedigree. Based on initial reviews and fan reactions, we're very encouraged."
"Mario Kart 8" has drawn mostly positive critical reviews from nearly all corners of the gaming press.
Gameplay features were designed to deliver a fan experience that is new, yet true to what players love about the franchise. They include "anti-gravity" racing, new weapons (including a Super Horn that finally can deflect the franchise's dreaded blue Spiny Shell), and a high-definition look.
The game also includes new racers, karts and courses never seen in previous Mario Kart games, Franklin said.
But it could be an uphill struggle. In a pre-release analysis, gaming site Polygon predicted "Mario Kart 8" will be the worst selling title in the franchise's history because of the relatively small number of Wii U consoles sold.
If all 6.2 million or so Wii U owners bought a copy, it would still be the second-worst selling title. The site projected "Mario Kart 8" will sell fewer than 2 million units by next spring, based on past sales vs. the number of consoles that existed for each of those games.
Of course, Polygon acknowledges, if the game does indeed spur new console purchases, that number could trend upward -- though probably not enough to match the blockbuster sales of previous "Kart" titles.
At least publicly, Nintendo remains bullish on its games-first policy and thinks "Mario Kart 8" is a big part of it.
"Nintendo is preparing for a very strong first-party software line-up that people really want to try out," Nintendo President Satoru Iwata told CNN last June when the company let people try out six new Wii U titles including "Mario Kart 8."
"By selling the software, we'd like to expand the hardware sales of the Wii U system. That's our message. Software sells hardware."