Review by DDJ
"The whole is much less than the sum of its parts."
Review in Brief
Game: Mario Kart with subtle improvements, new tracks, etc. You should know basically what to expect by now.
Play Time: 5 hours single-player, infinite multiplayer.
Good: Unique tracks, nice new features (both major and subtle), nicely varied characters and karts, good online suite.
Bad: Broken battle mode, overcomplicated tracks, bad AI, breaks the overall casual appeal of Mario Kart.
Verdict: Although each individual improvement is acceptable, they combine to make the game frustrating and unappealing to casual gamers.
Recommendation: Stick with Double Dash!! if you have it. If not, meh, buy Mario Kart Wii, if only because a Nintendo console without a Mario Kart game is like a cell phone without a free Tetris demo.
The whole is much less than the sum of its parts.
So when I borrowed Mario Kart Wii from a friend, I had absolutely no intention of reviewing it. None. It was going to be a few hours of good ol' fashioned mindless unanalytical video game fun -- nothing to get too in-depth about, just entertainment.
Why? Because it's a Mario Kart game. As much as we don't always want to admit it, Mario Kart basically found the perfect formula for a casual Kart racing game back in the Nintendo 64 iteration, and has just been rehashing it over and over ever since. Sure, there are minor improvements, but the appeal is the same as it was. And you know what? That's ok. It's a fun series, pure and simple. There doesn't have to be more than that.
So that's why I had no intention on reviewing Mario Kart Wii: there's no angle to it. It's the same old simple fun, and while I could write a review that says 'blah blah it doesn't do anything new' (and I guarantee dozens of others have likely written exactly that), it would be missing the broader point that it doesn't need to do anything good. It's a fun game, and we can leave it at that. There's no real angle to it.
Except, within a few minutes of booting up the game, I quickly discovered: there is an angle, and it's a negative one. In fact, it's negative for exactly the opposite of reason why people may have criticized it. Others will say it's just more of the same old Mario Kart, but while on the surface that's true, underneath it's very, very different, in a very, very bad way.
Unfortunately, to go about describing what's so bad here, I'm going to have to veritably blow your mind with an utter paradox: that the whole is much, much less than the sum of its parts. You might legitimately doubt my sanity and credibility by the end of this review because in one document, I'll praise game elements that later I'll absolutely criticize. Hopefully I can express what I'm trying to say here in a way that will actually make sense, but let me start with that disclaimer: if you walk away thinking "That review made absolutely no sense", it's likely because it didn't.
But in the end, I'll get back around to my point: with Mario Kart Wii, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. Each individual positive feature combines to create an overall much more negative game. It's subtraction by addition. It makes no sense. Perhaps that's the point.
Come on, it's a Mario Kart game, do you really need a description? Fine. Mario and his friends and archenemies have spontaneously decided to put aside their differences and race go karts. Well, I suppose first they decided to put aside their differences and construct enormous monstrosities that serve as race courses, devoting a decade (judging from the size of the tracks) to each. Oh, and including devilish traps and such, like lava, to trip each other up. So maybe they didn't put aside their differences.
Oh, what's that? I'm taking this too seriously? Sorry. Mario Kart Wii is really just a casual fun Kart racing game. It's easy enough to pick up and start playing immediately... well, kind of. We'll get to that later. The main game is the racing game, where you race around themed courses from the Mario world, hurling items at each other and trying to finish first. There are 32 race courses (16 new, 16 from old games) that you can play, multiple game modes (Grand Prix, verses, battle, etc.), and now there's Wi-Fi too for online Grand Prix and battle challenges.
Or, in other words, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a Mario Kart game at a high level.
Like every other game in the Mario Kart series, Mario Kart Wii stays true to the normal underlying Mario Kart framework while making small strides forward in specific areas. Each of these small strides forward is a positive feature of Mario Kart Wii, though when summed together... ah, I'll get to that later. For now, the good features.
Surprisingly Good Controls
When I first heard that Mario Kart Wii was going to rely on motion controls for steering, a little part of me died on the inside. I'd seen the motion controls at work in other games, and while they were passable for situations where big motions were necessary, I really couldn't imagine how you could get the kind of fine-grained control you'd need for a racing game. I imagined at any given point, you'd either be going straight or turning 45 degrees to one direction -- I didn't imagine the WiiMote could get more precise than that.
I was wrong. The WiiMote actually gives fairly precise control over the Kart, to the point where the basic control mechanism passes the fundamental design requirement: the control disappears between the user and the game. It becomes a natural way of controlling the Kart; the user doesn't have to actively think about turning the WiiMote, it just connects with their natural control impression for the game.
The motion control here might be the most important control in the game, but it certainly isn't the only one. You hold the WiiMote horizontally (or place it in the wheel, if you have one) and press 2 to accelerate, up and down on the D-pad to use items, and B to drift if you'd like. Drifting in particular has been adequately tweaked to allow some discrepancy between novice and expert players. In Automatic drift mode, you'll automatically start drifting when you turn a certain amount quickly, whereas in Manual you can choose when to start drifting. Drifting itself is more similar to the Mario Kart DS style, allowing a lot of control and letting expert players get substantial boosts. Titling the two modes "Automatic" and "Manual" was incredibly stupid considering those have very different connotations in racing games, but I'm not here to nitpick (yes I am).
The controls are surprisingly good, but I wouldn't call them excellent or perfect by any means. A major problem with the motion controls is that there is no "maximum" angle at which you can physically turn, meaning that when the player needs to make tight turns there is a definite tendency to turn it far past the point of recognition. You kind of have to learn yourself where the maximum is. There's also a definite tendency on tight turns to twist the WiiMote, which interferes with how the game interprets the turn. The horizontal nature of the WiiMote has also never felt terribly natural to me, but I do understand why it was important here: Mario Kart Wii depends on multiplayer appeal, and requiring four WiiMotes and nunchuks would severely dampen that appeal.
Still, overall I was pleasantly surprised by the motion controls. There's not inherently better than the traditional mechanism, but they're not worse either, and they do allow multiplayer to be accomplished more easily. Plus, there are multiple control schemes that let you use the more classic WiiMote and Nunchuk if you want to (or even GameCube controller), but none of the schemes are all that much better than the others.
Nice New Features
As I mentioned earlier, the Mario Kart series moves forward by including minor new features on the same classic appealing framework: just enough to make the new game more than a track pack, but theoretically not so much that it changes the fundamental fabric of the Mario Kart franchise.
Mario Kart Wii echos this same idea. There are some minor new features that are, for the most part, very well-implemented. They don't completely change the game, but they're unique enough that if you were to see a screenshot of one, you'd know it was Mario Kart Wii and not one of the previous installments (assuming the graphics didn't give it away).
One of the most common new features are half-pipes. Half-pipes are sections of course where you can race up the side of a wall and near-automatically come back down like a skateboarder or snowboarder. These often contain question blocks above them or boosts. They're used in multiple types of locations: sometimes they're at corners where you can opt to either take a tight turn or use the half-pipe to turn around, or in other places they're used more literally like an actual half-pipe on a snowboarding course. Overall, I feel they're overused a bit -- I think there's a half-pipe on almost every single course. Still, though, it's a unique new feature.
Another unique feature is the ability to perform tricks off of jumps for a boost upon hitting the ground. Basically, all you do is flip the WiiMote upwards as you're going off a jump to do a simple trick in mid-air; then, upon hitting the ground, you'll receive a quick speed boost. It's a pretty simple little thing, but it adds a nice little bit of polish.
Finally, as expected, there are new items. All the old favorites are here: bananas, blue, red and green shells, fake item boxes, mushrooms, bob-ombs, bullet bill, lightning strikes, bloopers and stars. Three new ones make an appearance though: the lightning cloud, the POW block and the big mushroom. The lightning cloud is initially an unfortunate item -- it follows you around, counting down until it strikes you. However, if you hit someone, you pass it off to them. The POW block is similar, except that it threatens to spin out everyone in front of you after a brief countdown. Finally, the big mushroom supersizes you, allowing you to run through obstacles, over competitors and through some parts of the course.
Other new stuff includes a few new characters and expanded online play, but I'll get to the latter later. Overall, there's a sufficient amount of new content to justify this as a new and separate game.
Subtle Game Dynamics
If you have trouble differentiating the last section, this section and the next section in terms of scope, don't worry: so am I. There's a very subtle difference between the three, but it's difficult to articulate.
The previous section was dedicated to big new features; here, I focus on some of the more subtle features which usually differ from track to track. These fall into that somewhat amorphous "finishing touches" category: things that are not fundamentally enormously important, but definitely add a subtle sense of polish to the game.
For example, in one particular track, there is water gushing around the course. If you ride in the water, you experience a subtle increase in speed: not a huge boost, but definitely beneficial. In another course, there are goombas wandering around the level: hitting them with a shell turns them into mushrooms that you can run through.
Again, it's hard to articulate what this category encompasses because the features are so subtle, but they take the game to a higher level solely by making it feel like everything on a track is working together and actually relevant; very little is solely for decoration.
Interesting Level Designs
Even after several Mario Kart games and over a hundred total tracks, the creators still manage to come up with interesting course designs. Granted it appears they might be running out of ideas a bit because some of the tracks here are a bit contrived and strange, but at least they're still unique.
The major characteristic of the interesting level designs is that nearly every course has some extremely distinctive feature to it, whether it be an interesting environment (in a tree, for example) or an interesting in-track feature. You might not remember the name of a track, but you'll remember "the track with the bouncy mushrooms" (and yes, there is a track with giant bouncy mushrooms).
These interesting gameplay dynamics are all over the place, making every single track distinctive. Just to rattle off a series of interesting features: cows, bouncy mushrooms, conveyor belts, giant chomps, escalators, snowboarding half-pipes, mine trains, traffic circles, water pipes, giant Wrigglers, falling terrain, falling pillars, oncoming traffic, a giant flame-throwing Bowser, and -- of course -- Rainbow Road. There's an extremely distinct feature to every single course in the game.
As I said, some of them are relatively contrived and feel a bit like they're running out of good ideas for tracks, but they do still take the ideas they have and run with them to their maximum potential. All the tracks are at least interesting, but... well, we'll get to that later.
Nicely Varied Karts & Characters
Back in the early days of Mario Kart, the differences between who you chose were minor: lighter characters went faster, heavy characters knocked others out of the way. Simple enough. As time has gone on, though, things have gotten a bit more complicated, with multiple karts and bikes to choose from, each with their own specific statistics.
This echoes a greater trend in racing games, and Mario Kart Wii chooses to join in on the fun. The important thing here is that while there are numerous different Karts, the differences between them are actually fairly easy to grasp. Oftentimes with statistics that describe car performance, it's hard to actually tell specific differences between cars, but Mario Kart Wii makes it fairly clear.
There are seven different vehicle characteristics, and they all describe very specific changes. Speed and acceleration are clear; some Karts are subtly faster than others, and others reach their own top speed faster. Weight impacts how far you jump and how you hit other players. Handling determines how easy it is to turn. Drift determines how quickly your car enters drift status, or how quickly you receive a miniature boost while drifting. Off-Road corresponds to your speed when off the track, and Mini-Turbo refers to the strength of that turbo after drifting.
All these characteristics have very clear impacts on your car; it's not a matter of relatively vague depictions of the different choices that might matter. There's also a nice enough selection of Karts (including all the unlockable ones) that allows you to get the feeling of nearly every possible combination of strengths.
Speaking of unlockables, there's quite a fair number of those as well. Fourteen unlockable characters. Eighteen unlockable karts. Sixteen unlockable tracks (included in the 32 total). Achievements for star ratings. There's plenty of incentive here to keep playing and unlock everything.
Online. It has it. There's not really all that much to say about it, but the fact that it's included is a major plus.
The online is about what you'd expect. There's random matchmaking against strangers, or you can race only against your friends. Finding a match is still pretty easy, although the number of people that drop between races is obnoxious. You can battle over Wi-Fi too, though that never seems to work terribly well.
One interesting feature is that the game shows you on a map where all your competitors hail from, but other than that there's nothing terribly distinctive about the online play. Still, online has the ability to infinitely increase replay value, so its inclusion is very important to note.
As I said in the introduction, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts in the case of Mario Kart Wii, and later in this section we'll see exactly what the problem is. There are a few other minor problems to iron out first, though.
They Broke Battle Mode!
This one's more of a pet peeve than a major criticism. Or maybe it's major. I don't know, read on and determine for yourself.
In my opinion, they completely broke the battle mode. Battle mode has always been a party favorite in Mario Kart games, but somehow Mario Kart Wii completely broke it. Balloon Battle isn't even fun anymore, and let's face it, Coin Battle never was.
How did they do that? For starters, there is no free-for-all battle mode. It's always teams. Six s. six, empty slots fill in by AI drivers. What? Why? Why no free-for-all? Free-for-all is just simply more fun for a party environment. It just is. Having a team option would be nice, but only teams absolutely sucks.
Contributing to that as well, the Balloon Battle always works based on a points system now. Your team gets a point for every balloon they burst of the opponent. When you lose all yours, you come back. It's no longer last man standing, which means it takes away the critical moments and interesting plays: you don't have a memorable death because you don't die, and you don't have a memorable game-winning move because it's hard to tell which move is game-winning.
Part of the fun of the old way was the situations it bred: two players on their last balloon, one with three balloons and one with only one, etc. There were interesting ways the match could develop. With this new team- and points-based mode, every match is basically the same. Nothing's memorable, nothing's unique, and nothing's engaging from match to match.
Compounding that problem are the crummy stages they included. They're terrible. The five new ones are all either too big and boring or too overly complicated. One involves you going into a pit just to get items, but if you go too far you die, and the pits randomly makes waves every once in a while. Another is just an enormous open plain dock with a couple hills. They just aren't fun courses. The retro courses that were included aren't bad, but aren't terribly great either.
The preset length of the matches is a pain too. Part of the fun of the old ones was that a single match on Block Fort did take a while because there was so much strategy and intrigue to it. With three-minute battles guaranteed, there's no strategy -- it's just madly shoot as much as possible as quickly as possible. There's also an automatic best-out-of-three limit: it doesn't matter if you want to play a lot more than that, first team to two wins automatically wins the mini-cup. You can't define how many matches to play. Why?
Overall, there's no way to shake the feeling that battle just boils down to whichever team gets more red shells. That's all. There's no skill, there's no strategy, there's no suspense. There's nothing interesting. They broke the battle mode. Way to go, guys.
Steep Learning Curve on Most Tracks
You'll notice that my praise for the track designs earlier in this review focused solely on the fact that they're unique from one another and from past Mario Kart games. That's very true, they're very unique. They're also, for the most part, very chaotic, unpredictable, incomprehensible, complicated, confusing and challenging. And not challenging in the good way, challenging in the bad way.
The tracks themselves just have far too steep a learning curve for a game like Mario Kart. In my eyes, Mario Kart Wii should be a game you can pick up and play without getting aggravated right away. That doesn't mean it has to be easy, just that it has to be easy to get into. Once you're engaged and not discouraged or frustrated, there can be room for improvement, but the important thing is to remain interesting to the casual player from the get-go.
The complicated tracks here are very counter-productive to that goal. Consider what a new player would likely go through: some problems with steering, not knowing where the track is going, not knowing the impact of some course obstacles, etc. To make it appealing to newbies, you keep these things from being overly discouraging, and you build the challenge and the room for improvement in on top of this basic framework.
Instead, we find numerous things that are extremely discouraging to new players. Many courses have places to fall off that are nearly unavoidable, or at least certainly not clear. There are lots of jumps in the game where being just a little bit off as you ascend will send you spiraling off the course altogether. Hitting even the slightest corner or off-road terrain carries such a drop in speed that you're basically restarting from a complete stop. Oftentimes it isn't clear at all when a turn is upcoming. And perhaps most obnoxiously, there is off-road terrain that blends directly in with the regular course.
One manifested result of these complicated courses is that it's oftentimes completely unclear when you passed someone, or when they passed you. I've run courses where I saw my location go from 6th to 2nd very quickly, without me ever seeing another competitor. The courses are so hard to follow that there's no true connection to what place you're in, and that's a very poor feedback mechanism.
Another is that it often seems like you can't drive for more than 15 seconds without spinning out in some way. Maybe it's an obstacle on the track you failed to avoid. Maybe it's falling off the track. Or quite often, maybe it's an item: with 12 competitors and they last several receiving items that can impact every competitor in front of them, you'll encounter at least one lightning bolt and POW block per level, in addition to the numerous banana peels, shells and fake item boxes.
All in all, it takes far too many runs through each individual track to get the hang of it just to the point of not being obnoxious. Once you're past that point, you can start to actually get good at the course, but there's a definite transition from bad to average, and 'bad' tends to mean 'discouraging', especially for a game like this.
I'll keep this brief since this problem is somewhat mitigated by the game's focus on online and multiplayer, but it still deserves repeating. The AI in the game is terrible. If you've ever played another Mario Kart game, you'll win every time you play the first time you pick it up. They're just awful. There's no challenge here.
"But wait, DJ. You just said the game is TOO hard." No, I said the tracks are too hard, and there's a pretty interesting difference. Because the tracks are so hard, you'll spin out, fall off and otherwise curse at your TV screen a dozen times per lap while feeling like you're doing absolutely awful... and then you'll win anyway. That's even worse, to be quite honest. Not only do you feel like you're doing terribly, but you still win, which removes incentive to get better. And it just exacerbates how bad the AI is: it's so bad, it can't even beat you, even though you suck.
The Whole is Less than the Sum of its Parts
Yes, that's the title of the review, but it's also the title of this final section. Time to bring it all back together.
The Mario Kart series is a simple, fun, casual racing franchise. It's meant to be simple and entertaining. For years, it has built its success on being simple and entertaining.
The problem here is that every little change that Mario Kart Wii is, in and of itself, a good thing. It's good to add a couple more items. It's good to have some livelier tracks. It's good to have unlockable characters and karts. It's good to have kart-specific differences. It's good to have drifting.
But is it good to have all of those? Quite simply, no. Not for a game like Mario Kart Wii. The game's roots lie in simple entertainment, and while it's possible to make little improvements that gently increase the complicatedness, Mario Kart Wii just takes it too far. I'm not the most dedicated gamer in the world but I'm certainly an experienced player, and when I'm talking about how the game gets too complicated, it's a fair bet that it's going to be even more frustrating to a new casual player.
The point is that each individual step that Mario Kart Wii has taken is certainly a justifiable step in a certain direction, but it diminishes the overall fabric of the Mario Kart franchise. It is no longer a simple fun casual game; it has become a much more complicated, nuanced, expert-oriented game, which really isn't what it was meant to become. This is especially ironic considering Nintendo's renewed focus on casual gamers: you'd think this would be the ultimate time for Mario Kart to stay true to its roots.
When you combine the frustrating, overcomplicated tracks, too many items, multiple kart types, multiple kart statistics, three dozen or more unlockables, completely dissimilar tracks (improvement on one track certainly doesn't carry over to others), complicated drifting strategies, and multiple major and subtle new track features, the game just loses its casual audience. No single effort is itself bad, but the aggregate total of all of them is certainly disappointing. I'm aware that some of these features have been introduced in other recent Mario Kart games, but Mario Kart Wii is the one that steps over the line. Mario Kart Wii is the one that loses the series' charm.
The game design is best described with an analogy. The developers quite adeptly sped around the track backwards, making tight turns and incredible jumps, and overall driving superbly. However, all the while they ignored that obnoxious Lakitu in their face telling them they were going the completely wrong way. While they got where they were going -- an overcomplicated, overly nuanced, no-longer-casual game -- with great precision, they weren't heading the right direction in the first place.
Each individual change made by Mario Kart Wii is itself somewhat acceptable. It's cool to have more characters. The new items are interesting. The tracks are all varied and unique. The drifting capabilities are nice. The multiple control schemes were probably a good idea. The unlockable Karts are kind of cool. It's a bit nifty that there are different Kart statistics. Each individual change isn't bad at all; in fact, most are good.
But the problem is that they take the Mario Kart series away from its roots in a bad way. The older games were simple, fun, casual experiences that you'd enjoy with your buddies on a Thursday night. Heck, it was even a game you could invite your girlfriend over to play (or, if you're a girl, you wouldn't get strange looks for enjoying). Now, though, it's no longer a pick-up-and-play simple experience. There are deep, complicated strategies that would be excellent for most games, but simply don't fit with the Mario Kart framework.
Overall, Mario Kart DS is better in every way. It retains that casual appeal while still inching forward appropriately. I'd probably even put Mario Kart: Double Dash!! ahead of it; it started some of the trends that doomed Mario Kart Wii, but it doesn't take them as far as this latest installment does. Overall, Mario Kart Wii is simply less than the sum of its parts; the new features combine to take the game a long way from its predecessors, but in the wrong direction.
Well, frankly, a Nintendo console without a Mario Kart game is like a phone without a Tetris trial. If you have Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, I'd just bust out the old GameCube controllers and stick with that. Or even if you just have the GameCube controllers, I'd go out and buy Mario Kart: Double Dash!! used.
But if you have neither, it'd probably be a good idea to buy Mario Kart Wii. I mean, you can't have a Nintendo console without a Mario Kart game, and it still outweighs Mario Kart 64 and Super Mario Kart when compared equally, not factoring in original release dates.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 05/13/10
Game Release: Mario Kart Wii (US, 04/27/08)
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