Find out whether the world really needs another Mario Kart game.
The sixth game in Nintendo's mascot racing series is now available, and Mario Kart Wii continues to nudge the series forward in various ways. It is definitely not a major advancement in arcade racing, nor is it even the best game in the Mario Kart series. Where it does succeed is in providing the most streamlined and full-featured online experience of any game Nintendo has ever released. It also manages to be a very enjoyable, easily accessible party game for the casual market that Nintendo is now dominating with the Wii platform.
Your level of cynicism with the Mario Kart series is probably closely tied to how many of the games you've already played and how you tend to play them. For new Wii owners who are unexposed to the previous Mario Kart games, or who perhaps haven't played one since the SNES or N64 versions, this game provides a lot of exciting new content and cumulative upgrades that are sure to please casual players. It's an accessible, family-friendly racing game that is best enjoyed with a roomful of people who are there to have a good time and don't take the competition too seriously. As a party game, Mario Kart Wii is unquestionably successful.
The trouble with the game is that it also attempts to serve other levels of play, and it fails utterly in many regards. As a single-player game, it provides a massive amount of content: 32 tracks full of shortcuts, dozens of characters and vehicles, challenging unlockables, built-in staff ghosts for time trials, and even a license card that tracks your achievements. Grand Prix is the primary solo mode, and it promises plenty of diversity with three engine classes that differ significantly in speed, aggression, and vehicle selection. Unfortunately, your desire to play through every Grand Prix iteration is likely to die off quickly due to a number of factors. Any experienced fan will find 50cc and 100cc to be mere introductions to the tracks, as the computer opponents put up little opposition at these levels. Playing through every single cup (twice) just to unlock tracks and characters is rather tedious when the game is so easy. You will, however, probably get angry on the rare occasions when you do lose races, as it will almost always be due to item assaults on the final lap, when it's too late for you to recover.
This frustration is merely foreshadowing the 150cc Grand Prix, which has to be one of the most infuriating experiences I've ever had playing a Nintendo game. These racers are fast, and they are at least as aggressive as human players. That should make for fun, challenging gameplay in which you have to fight for every single rank. Instead, it means that most of the twelve racers stay bunched up in a tight pack, and if you get ahead of that pack, you will immediately meet a barrage of combat items against which there can be no defense. Falling from 1st or 2nd place to 12th in a matter of seconds is not just a possibility - it's the norm. The result is that winning and losing in 150cc becomes arbitrary; you need top racing skills just to compete, but you also need very good luck to win consistently enough for a trophy. Yes, this dynamic is what Mario Kart is known for, and it totally works in a group setting where you can all laugh at the proceedings and congratulate the winner, regardless of how he or she pulled ahead at the end; however, it doesn't work at all when I'm playing against computer racers, and there is some valuable unlockable feature on the line if I can win the tournament.
One of the changes to Mario Kart Wii that makes Grand Prix and some other modes more annoying than before is that every race now includes twelve racers. Note to Nintendo: just because you can add more doesn't mean that you should. Having a more crowded field makes an already messy and unpredictable game begin to resemble total chaos, and chaos is not a game because the player has no control over the outcome. The deeper field of racers is particularly unwieldy on some of the classic tracks, and it forces the Battle Mode arenas to be uniformly gigantic and thus poorly designed for anything less than the maximum number of players. Another major factor in the Grand Prix problem is that there are too many "attack everyone else" and "automatically jump six ranks ahead" items, including those from previous games and a few new ones. Now we have so many wide-area attacks, so many racers using these attacks throughout the race, and so few means of strategic defense against these attacks, that the only solid plan to win the 150cc Grand Prix is to get so far ahead that you can be struck by lightning, pounded with a POW block, nailed by a blue shell, and then tracked down by a trio of red shells all in succession and still recover in time to pick up first place anyway. Such a chain of misfortune was possible but very rare in previous Mario Kart games; when it happened, we could just laugh at our own misfortune and then get back into the race. In Mario Kart Wii, it's more shocking when this doesn't happen in every race.
It's time to jump over to more positive aspects of the game. The new track designs are excellent, so much so that they make the classic tracks seem dull in comparison. Taking cues from other Nintendo racing titles like Wave Race and Excite Truck, the new Mario Kart tracks have alternate paths, unique per-track elements, and dynamic features that change from lap to lap. The one exception to my praise is the new Rainbow Road, a roller coaster of a track with such poor sight lines that you're likely to drive right off the edge without realizing you're in danger, and speed boosters that tend to shoot you into the abyss unless you slide into them at the perfect angle. It's a track that demands memorization and perfect steering just to survive, and that's in direct conflict with the spirit of this franchise.
Bikes and tricks are seemingly important additions that turn out to be minor, though pleasant, enhancements of the core gameplay. The motorcycles don't feel terribly different from karts, but there are some subtle distinctions that change how you steer and plan your advancement through the ranks. It's also important to note that the bikes and karts are well-balanced; each type has its own advantages in certain situations, and both types are fully viable throughout the game in the hands of a good player. Motion-controlled tricks aren't really a "system" like you would find in SSX or Tony Hawk games; rather, tricks are just one more chance for a little boost whenever you catch air from a ramp (or any ramp-like object). Looking for trickable jumps adds an element of racing tempo that is most commonly associated with Excitebike and Excite Truck. Tricks also open up some new racing lines on the classic tracks.
One addition that doesn't turn out to be so great is motion control with the Wii Wheel. It's easy to see why Nintendo wanted to include this feature and its (free, well-built) accessory, but the implementation is disappointing. When I had over a group of friends to play Mario Kart Wii, everyone wanted to try the wheel right away. One by one, each of my friends decided that it made the game too difficult, and they gave it up in favor of the Remote/Nunchuk combination. Even players who stick with the wheel have to admit that it's an extra challenge. In fact, Nintendo themselves have indicated which players online are handicapped by the wheel – and yes, it's extra demeaning to be defeated by these people. The other three controller options are far more precise, easier to manage, and don't result in power sliding the wrong way, which seems to happen frequently with the motion controls.
On the other hand, tremendous praise is due for Mario Kart Wii's online features. Compared to Super Smash Bros. Brawl and especially to Mario Kart DS, this game is as much a modern, painless online experience as we can expect to have under Nintendo's self-imposed restrictions and technical limitations. Friends can be registered without trading additional codes, and the game will let you know when they are looking for a match. Random matching is quick, and you can keep racing the same group of people even as individual players join and drop out between each round. It's also great that you can participate in these online modes with two players sharing the same Wii system. Downloadable ghosts, friend list rankings, and Nintendo-sponsored tournaments are all handled seamlessly and have real potential to keep you playing the game for months to come. I'm not sure that the Mario Kart gameplay is the best example of something you'd want to do online, but if you do enjoy online racing, there is no doubt that this game's features make it a more attractive package.
Mario Kart Wii is ultimately an uneven package with as many omissions and flaws as there are clever additions and solid ideas. Forgive the list, but…why is Battle Mode now limited to teams? Why was cooperative play needlessly removed? Where are the tracks based on Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros.? Why are there so many lame secret characters? Where are the deep customization options for multiplayer? Why not bring back more popular tracks, like Wario Stadium, and leave out annoying ones like Ghost Valley 2? After the relatively innovative Double Dash and the conservative but carefully balanced Mario Kart DS, this Wii sequel feels like a step sideways. It stands out from its predecessors but is not necessarily improved, except in the area of online features. The game is definitely fun in certain situations, but like some other Nintendo franchises, the core ideas are growing stale, leaving a strong impression that Mario Kart needs a total reboot.