It's you vs. the world (and the blue shell), and this time it works.
With five previous instalments spread over as many platforms, Mario Kart's arrival on Wii was only ever a matter of time. However, given Wii’s revolutionary features and runaway success, what form Mario Kart would assume this time was somewhat less assured. The introduction of motion controls and a packed-in peripheral may broaden its appeal still further, but – for better or worse - Nintendo has decided to remain largely faithful to the Mario Kart formula it has spent sixteen years tweaking and tuning. Despite some significant detractions, the ability to stage twelve-person online races coupled with Nintendo's most functional online structure yet make Mario Kart Wii very effective in extracting multiplayer thrills from its chaotic racing template. However, it also leaves the impression that more considered, comprehensive modifications to the series (if not outright reinvention) are now overdue.
Excluding its lifeless title screen, Mario Kart Wii presents itself as cheerfully as fans have come to expect over the years. While not especially impressive or distinct from GameCube's Double Dash!!, its graphics engine handles the (still unsatisfactorily) gentle pace of the frequently anarchic proceedings very smoothly. Trackside environments appear a little rough, with some blocky landscapes covered by indistinct textures, but the use of lighting effects creates a unique ambiance in some cases. The character models seem a tad crude when compared with many of Mario's other recent appearances, which doesn’t really matter during a race but is still noticeable. Appropriately enough, considering the characters are little more than avatars (vehicle performance is what matters), you can now race as your Mii. Though for such a casual-appeasing option, it’s a curiously tricky feature to unlock.
On the audio side, Mario Kart Wii's soundtrack maintains the game's cheerful mood with mostly forgettable music, which could benefit from more extensively tapping into Mario's rich musical heritage. When using a good surround setup, the effect of the many drivers' exclamations as they jostle for position can be quite immersive (albeit sometimes annoying), while the Wii Remote speaker provides some low-fi immersion with audio cues for approaching items.
Given the inclusion of the Wii Wheel with every copy of the game, it's natural to wonder just how integral this latest piece of white paraphernalia is to Mario Kart Wii. The short answer is "not very". Firstly, the controls have been configured so as to be compatible with the full range of potential Wii controller setups, and so those who would like to continue to steer using an analog stick can do so using the GameCube or Classic controllers in addition to the Wii Remote-Nunchuck combo. Secondly, the Wheel itself is only a shell, and therefore does not add functionality but rather eases the use of the Remote by providing a more comfortable grip and easier access to the B trigger (used for hopping to drift). In all fairness, the construction of the Wheel provides a nice feel and a sense of novelty, but there's no denying that it is truly a peripheral item in every sense.
The motion controls are somewhat constrained by the desire to maintain compatibility with the traditional Mario Kart control scheme, but they function fairly well as an interpretation of that scheme. The tendency to oversteer is commonplace initially but, given time to acclimate, you can get a feel for what kind of movements are appropriate and when it is necessary to execute a drift to take a corner at speed. However, drifting presents the biggest challenge to the motion controls, as the absence of the neutral position found on an analog stick means that a sudden change of direction cannot be executed as unerringly as with traditional controls. This creates the potential for power-sliding in the opposite direction to what was intended, incurring predictably disastrous results.
Despite the inevitable frustration (and likely desire to immediately revert back to more familiar controls) that such mistakes will provoke, using the Wheel can be fun and re-introduces something of a learning curve for even the most seasoned of Mario Kart vets. While it uses the Wheel as a means to convey accessibility, Nintendo also seems to acknowledge the challenges that it presents at the top end of competition by indicating whether someone is using the Remote-only scheme during online play and on Time Trial leaderboards. Its use can be worn as a badge of honour.
Mario Kart Wii introduces another motion-controlled element with its new trick system. This is fairly uncomplicated, involving a quick upwards flick of the Remote when your racer launches off a ramp or hill on the track. Doing so initiates a minor bout of airborne gymnastics on the part of your character, activating a significant speed boost for your vehicle when it reaches the ground. Experimentation yields a surprising number of opportunities to exploit this new mechanic on some tracks, and it makes the player more of an active participant in each race. Yet it remains a double-edged sword, as it’s indicative of the continued de-emphasising of racing fundamentals that used to be more critical to achieving Mario Kart success.
When using traditional controllers, the tricks are initiated by the use of the D-pad, which proves to be a little unwieldy when compared with the intuitive, highly accessible gesture method. This is where the merit of the Wii Remote-Nunchuk configuration is revealed, as it pairs the familiar precision of analog steering with the immediacy of motioning the Remote for a setup that's tough to beat for all-round functionality.
The series' familiar gameplay – accessible, gently paced racing amidst fantastic hazards and chaotic item duelling – has transitioned to Wii mostly unchanged, with twelve competitors only embellishing the frenzy that is Mario Kart. However, drifting (or power-sliding) has been modified, with speed boosts no longer accumulated by rocking the steering back and forth during a drift. Instead, the boost builds automatically, first to the blue sparks level for a standard mini-boost, then eventually to a higher level boost when the sparks turn orange. This progression occurs more rapidly the more you steer into the direction of the drift, so attempting to straighten out your course during a drift by steering against it will incur a longer delay before being able to use the mini-boost.
In this way, the controversial "snaking" technique - continuously power-sliding around the track - has been effectively eliminated. Drivers are now rewarded with quick boosts for cornering sharply rather than for the ability to rapidly wiggle the control stick/d-pad in perpetuity. Though some may bemoan the loss of that more skill-dependent element of Mario Kart, there is a considered design to the new system that goes beyond mere simplification for new and casual players.
In terms of features and content, Mario Kart Wii is clearly based on its immediate portable predecessor, with thirty-two tracks (half new, half retro) and the omission of Double Dash!!’s character-specific items and tag-team drivers. Almost all of the items from Mario Kart DS return along with a few interesting additions, and the number of racers has increased to twelve; however, Mario Kart Wii’s most significant new feature is a new breed of vehicle: bikes.
Upon taking control of the two-wheeled debutants, Kart veterans will immediately notice the bikes' much sharper cornering and propensity to get bumped off-course. The different handling is disorienting at first, but with time and practice the merits of the bikes emerge. Slender profiles and superb manoeuvrability can prove invaluable for weaving in between traffic and the ever-numerous track obstacles, and their ability to corner sharply with finesse makes driving the time-honoured karts seem awkward by comparison.
Bike-specific capabilities mean that they are much more than just smaller, quicker versions of karts, injecting meaningful gameplay variety into the mix. Performing a wheelie (executed using the trick input) will grant your bike a speed boost when travelling at good speeds, with the trade-off being compromised steering and increased vulnerability to clashes with other vehicles or items.
Initially, the use of this technique may remain confined to obvious coasting opportunities while out in front, but in time it can be frequently used when coming out of drift boosts or plotting narrow courses through your rivals. Above any competitive advantage that may accrue from its use, this active risk-reward mechanic (building on the new trick boost system available to all vehicles) makes for an involving racing experience that proves to be simply more fun than sticking with the old karts.
One downside to the surprisingly entertaining and useful nature of the bikes is that they have not been truly balanced with their kart brethren. While they are more susceptible to physical attack than their four-wheeled counterparts, that weakness doesn’t apply in time trial mode, making them the de facto choice to get the best times (as proof, have a look at the online time trial rankings). However, even in the heat of a twelve-competitor race, the threat of being shunted or the lack of a larger drift boost ultimately offers scant counterbalance to the supreme dexterity afforded to skilled bikers.
As a racing game, the lasting appeal of any Mario Kart title remains a function of the quality of its track designs. The sixteen new tracks begin very gently, but quickly venture into more dynamic, hazardous territory on a grander scale than we're used to seeing in the series. Some of this real estate is to accommodate the expanded number of racers, making the tracks generously spacious when competing in time trials or with just a few friends (the AI opponents can be turned off in VS. play). Over time, the designs reveal how they have incorporated the trick boost system for alternative routes, while also amusing by way of the sheer amount of danger through which the raceways sometimes wind.
The retro selection features some undeniable classics as well as a few curious choices, but overall presents a nice variety as the flat, angular courses from the SNES and GBA editions complement the more open, undulating raceways from 64, Double Dash!!, and DS. Their reproductions on Wii are mostly faithful, but there are some extra ramps and jumps put in place, while the presence of bikes and the new trick system can significantly alter how best to approach tracks mastered long ago.
Though the course designs are interesting and enjoyable on the whole, there is a lack of thematic variety vis-à-vis previous tracks in the series (which are themselves quite well-represented in this game), and frequently feel far from embedded in the Mario franchise. Alongside the rather generic music and some of the confounding choices made in assembling the character roster (four baby versions of other characters!), this contributes to the impression of the game paying lip service to its source material rather than thoughtfully mining it for content that fans of the series would really appreciate.
Only half of the tracks are available to play initially, and so taking on the various Cup competitions is necessary to unlock the rest (along with more vehicles and characters) for each of the three speed classes. Playing through a Grand Prix in one-player is much the same proposition as ever; you'll quickly be proficient enough to get ahead without too much difficulty, but staying there proves to be a matter of being lucky enough to avoid the appearance of the dreaded leader-exploding blue shell. This is a tolerably infrequent occurrence on the lower classes, but prepare to become enraged on 150cc when a blue-hued calamity drops you so far back that a seemingly insurmountable lead is erased by your rival. The ability to retry a single race (even once) in order to correct a particularly egregious screwing-over would be most welcome, but is once again absent.
While not quite as seemingly inexorable as in previous Mario Kart games, the blue shell's presence remains an extremely cheap and irritating way of impeding your path to victory. Its function is understandable (though not necessarily desirable) in the context of maintaining competitiveness amongst friends, but its position in one-player is simply untenable. Given that Nintendo continues to make unlocking much of the games' content contingent on playing through the GPs, it is long past time for a more thoughtfully crafted one-player Mario Kart experience, with unique item balancing and smarter AI opponents, that would feel like much less of a chore than it does here. The Mission mode of the DS version is also an unfortunate exclusion, though online "Competitions" should begin to fill this gap somewhat once the game launches worldwide.
Nintendo has most assuredly upped its online game for Mario Kart Wii. Races or battles against up to eleven opponents are nearly flawless, with no appreciable lag problems or framerate drops. The interface is also excellent. Using the Mario Kart Channel, you can view time trial leaderboards, invite people from your Wii address book to add your friend code without inputting a single digit, and check the status of your registered friends – all without having to put the game disc in the console.
With up to two players on the same console, you can challenge random opponents from around the world very quickly and easily. As the matchmaking takes place, you can see the Miis and location of your competitors, and then view their currently ongoing race before joining the next contest. The game still performs effectively online when running in splitscreen, and thus provides a welcome combination of the joys of playing with a friend in the same room while also seamlessly competing with a large field of human opponents from all regions of the globe. Races between registered friends offer more customisation, but the inability to communicate in-game beyond simplistic pre-race messaging remains a disappointment.
This effective online functionality is key due to the limitations of local multiplayer. The dual-driver system of Double Dash!! is gone, along with its uniquely entertaining co-op play. There are also sweeping changes made to Battle mode, the entire design of which has apparently been modified to mesh with the twelve-player standard for online play. Battles now consist of score-based contests in enormous arenas between two teams of six (with AI making up the numbers offline), with no alternative to play in a traditional four-player elimination bout. Such an option would likely have necessitated the design of more appropriately confined arenas, but the choice to play a twelve player free-for-all should have been included at the very least. As even online battles prove to be less than riotous fun, the trade-off chosen by Nintendo in this case is disappointing.
Mario Kart Wii is ultimately much the same game as Mario Kart DS, but this is forgivable due to its drastically improved online functionality along with some welcome gameplay additions and tweaks. Indeed, the capacity for enduring entertainment from racing online, challenging time trial records, and entering worldwide competitions looks to be immense. However, Nintendo's nonchalant, one-size-fits-all approach to the game's design holds it back from attaining loftier status. The speed classes remain inadequately differentiated from one another (the main difference residing in the cheap aggressiveness of the AI), while the option to eliminate the most powerful items in VS. play is welcome but falls short of the much-needed item overhaul.
By paying specific attention to crafting and balancing the one-player and local multiplayer modes as separate experiences, the series could have moved closer to becoming a truly great game for everyone. Instead, we simply have a very effective new way to plunder the age-old joys (and frustrations) of Mario Kart, so long-time fans of the series will have a blast if they are setup for online play. Newcomers are likely to love discovering its craziness for the first time.