Review: Mario Kart Wii

Mario Kart Wii is quite possibly the strangest beast I’ve ever had to review in my five years of evaluating video games. Seriously, I’ve scrapped and restarted this piece no less than three times. It is a fickle mistress, who giveth and who taketh away; at times you will loathe its coders, and at others, you will praise the title as a gift from the heavens.

Which action you take depends largely on how much of a personal investment you have in Mario Kart as a series, and right off the bat, this game seems dead-set on giving the raspberry to anyone who’s ever played a past Mario Kart title, near to the point of spite. Let’s go down the list:

Classic game modes have been reshuffled or changed entirely. Remember 2-Player Grand Prix? No longer present unless you end up jury-rigging its circumstances by fiddling with a bunch of sub-settings in the multiplayer mode menu. It’s just not the same.

Battle Mode, meanwhile, has been outright ruined. This is neither hyperbole nor paranoia; there is just absolutely no reason to play it anymore. There’s no more free-for-all to see who’s the better battler, or even just who’s the last (wo)man standing. Mario Kart Wii’s Battle Mode is now entirely team-based, with computer players mandatorily filling in for up to eleven empty spots, no matter what. Forget about grudge matches with your buddies, or tournaments, or anything like that; there’s too much riffraff and noise in the way now. In addition, the matches are now timed, even in the “three hits and you’re gone” balloon matches, erasing the point of said matches entirely.

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In short, half of the appeal of Mario Kart has been wiped off of the face of the earth. What could possibly have prompted this? Even Brawl, with all of its concessions towards people who didn’t eat, sleep and breathe the game, allowed people to play the way they wanted to, and in ways that made sense.

Mind you, we’re nowhere near done with the list of black marks on this title. The use of items has always been controversial in Mario Kart, even more so than in other car combat games, but this installment really takes the cake in terms of ridiculousness. Mario Kart DS added items expressly engineered to mess with pack leaders, and Mario Kart Wii continues the tradition. The Bullet Bill returns, allowing people to speed through half of the ranks without ever having to touch the controller. The Golden Mushroom, upgraded from MKDS, is pretty much infinite nitrous for about ten seconds. The all-new POW Block specifically targets everyone ahead of the person who activates it (though this is the easiest to thwart). The Mega Mushroom is Lightning in reverse, causing a driver to grow to huge sizes for a speed boost and the ability to crush all in their path; and the Lightning Cloud, the worst of the new additions, forces you to play hot potato or get shrunk after ten seconds. Good luck with that if you’re in first place with no one to be found.

Of course, even without the advent of these new cheap items, the Blue Shell (which has been around since Mario Kart 64, and the sole purpose of which is to fly to the head of the pack and target the person in first with a nigh-unavoidable nuclear explosion) is still the absolute stupidest and most horrific item ever devised in the history of combat racing. Such is my ire towards this item that it is my sincerest hope that the person responsible for it has since lost their job in the video game industry and been subsequently forced to live, penniless, until this very day. (Of course, knowing my luck, it was probably Miyamoto.)

If these items don’t sound all that bad to you, wait until you see the computer use them on you—in an air combo. Yes, the computer in this game is positively nuts, which wouldn’t be so bad if the unlock requirements for over half the items in this game didn’t require sheer racing perfection on a number of fronts. Good luck achieving anything close to that perfection when, on the last half of the last lap, you’re invariably hit by Lightning, juggled by a Blue Shell, land on a Banana Peel, and then get run over by the entire pack as a coup de grace.

Make no mistake, this can be overcome (after ten hours of cursing, I managed to unlock Daisy, my favorite character, by surviving a hellacious 150cc Special Cup challenge), but one wonders if it’s even worth the trouble, because the kind of stuff the computer pulls really should have been left back in the days of the SNES. It’s inexcusable. The upside is, you emerge from the other side a much better racer, and the game’s offline modes become much more palatable afterwards.

(Oh yeah, and some people will likely be bummed that snaking/aggressive mini-turboing has been all but eradicated. I am not one of these people. In my day we had smart item usage, acceleration, and power-sliding, uphill both ways—and we liked it.)

We’ve established that old-timers and hardcore gamers will have a heck of a time adjusting to this puppy, but what about the Wii generation? What about the kids, the old people, the soccer moms, the 8-to-80 demographic that Nintendo is so aggressively marketing the Wii to? Is Mario Kart Wii a good fit for them?

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I’d say so, so long as they don’t ever attempt 150cc mode. Between the “don’t worry about losing” nature of the new items, and the “don’t worry about losing to actual people” neutering of the Battle Mode, it’s clear that Nintendo’s “blue ocean” stratagem is once again being implemented; after all, why allow people with low gaming skills to realize such and be motivated to practice, when they can just have stuff fly around the screen instead?

That was sarcasm, by the way—but what works works, I suppose.

Anyway, I’ve spent a whole lot of words complaining about this game… but you know what? There are also tons of things in here that make it a must-buy. I told you this game was weird!

Despite the baffling removal of Double Dash!!’s tag feature, Mario Kart Wii’s driving mechanics are the best in the series. The addition of bikes alongside karts is welcome, and both vehicles are balanced in terms of their differing methods of boosting speed. Tricks off of ramps also come into play this time around, which not only look cool, but can allow for additional speed-ups in a pinch. In addition, each racer has separate attributes from the available karts and bikes, encouraging experimentation with rider/vehicle combinations. The roster of both is quite extensive, provided you can muster up the fortitude to unlock everything.

Speaking of racing mechanics, every copy of Mario Kart Wii is bundled with the Wii Wheel, and allow me to say that it isn’t “forcing” a peripheral on you if said peripheral happens to be suitably awesome. Trying to be “hardcore,” I at first futilely thrashed around with the Gamecube controller for a while, and then decided to try the Wii Wheel for comparative purposes. The result? I may never want to play another racing game without it again.

The Wii Wheel is actually a triumph for the system’s much-touted motion control; it just feels right in your hands, and contrary to popular belief, it does give you precise control of your vehicle, while adding a much-needed novelty to the racing experience. The Wheel is probably not for everybody, but if you get this game, I strongly urge you to try it out. Odds are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! Even if you’re not, the game supports every controller Nintendo’s ever made since last generation, so you’re sure to find something that fits your style.

The game looks and sounds quite nice. I’m not sure the Wii’s being pushed to the limit by these graphics (especially given the blocky character models), but in 480p, they’ll do well enough, and there are lots of nice details like how every vehicle in the game has a custom style depending on the character using it. The retro tracks also look great in the new graphics engine. The soundtrack is classically addictive Mario Kart fare, and goes well with the all-ages fun to be had here; the voice acting is probably grating to every single person on Earth but me. And so it goes.

Finally, the online functionality is Mario Kart Wii’s final huge selling point—and when I say huge, I mean huge. It is simply glorious to behold. Barring the occasional hiccup/disconnect, it is reliable, lag-free online racing that supports all twelve players.

Things get fast and furious in a hurry, as the computer is no longer around to cheat, and get the items its wants for any given situation. The pack is no longer quite as tight, and the items actually show their purpose in making sure that no lead is safe, but that skilled driving, cornering, and item usage is still rewarded. In short, online Mario Kart Wii actually manages to be fair and balanced. It’s Mario Kart as God intended—even with that stupid Blue Shell around.

Even Battle Mode is fixed compared to its offline counterpart. It’s completely free of the AI menace; and while it’s still teams-only and still timed, it’s also still great fun, especially when you have twelve people (6-on-6) all gunning for each other on SNES Battle Course 4, retro music and everything. Good times.

Packaged with Mario Kart Wii is the Mario Kart Channel, which can be accessed from both the game itself, and the Wii Menu. The Channel is your key to making and finding friends (only thirty at most, but unless you’re one of those people who posts their friends-codes to gigantic online forums, this should not pose a problem), onilne tournaments, visual leaderboards, and utilizing the ability to download, upload and race against ghosts worldwide. It’s the perfect icing on top of an already robust and well-done mode.

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Closing Comments

In short, the online fixes just about every gripe one could have with the offline—another curious point design if I’ve ever seen one—which makes our final question simple to answer: should you buy Mario Kart Wii? For anyone who has their Wii up and running online, you should definitely take the plunge, because the game’s strengths will outweigh its flaws. If you can only play this game offline, however, then unless you’re a masochist (or someone psychotic like me, who actually managed to get to the final stage of F-Zero GX’s crazy-hard Story Mode) pass on this; in fact, I’d go so far as to advise you to run in the other direction.
score3.5
Version Reviewed: Wii