Review by mwallyn
"Somewhere, Mario ran off track"
Mario is as well known for is shenanigans when he ISN'T saving his damsel from distress as much as he is for when he IS saving his her. He can be most commonly found on the race track, which brings us to Mario Kart Wii, the latest version of the long-running series. The big hype over this game was the addition of the Wii Wheel. Essentially a steering wheel that's hollowed out for a Wiimote, the Wii Wheel gives a much more immersive feel of driving a kart around. Hype aside, though, MK Wii is a mixed bag of a game with some truly innovative additions but also with some glaring gameplay flaws.
The fundamentals of Mario Kart remain the same here; choose a character and race around several different tracks and use an array of classic Mario items like Mushrooms and Banana Peels to get into first place. Like Mario Kart: Double Dash, you can select from a set of Karts to drive during the races. There are different sets of Karts for each weight class, so there are plenty of different Karts to choose from. And don't worry, there are a multitude of drivers to play as, so if you're worried about being able to play as Baby Luigi, then there's good news for you. For the most part, these things are the same bread and butter that has made Mario Kart a major racing franchise over the years. A small complaint, though, is the character choice. It's always nice to have options, but some of the character choices make no sense. Funky Kong? Baby Daisy?! Baby Daisy didn't even exist up until this game! Why not include people who actually have some driving experience, like say someone from F-Zero? After all, they do include a cameo from the series, so why not make that addition? It is but a small criticism, and I'm sure there are people who are begging to be able to play as Funky Kong and the like.
New to the game is the addition of Motorcycles. Motorcycles tend to be a bit slower and are much lighter than Karts, but they handle significantly better than their 4-wheeled counterparts. If you race in the Grand Prix, 100 cc forces you to race with motorcycles. But fortunately, the Bikes are done well enough that being forced to use them isn't too serious of an issue. Bikes are a very fresh addition to a tried and true formula like MK's, and are a joy to use. Also new to the gameplay is the ability to do tricks off of jumps and ramps for a big speed boost when you hit the ground. Because of this, many of the tracks take advantage of this and feature either a lot of jumps or several ramps dispersed throughout an otherwise-flat level. There are eight Grand Prix each with four tracks. Four of the GPs consist of entirely original tracks, while the other four feature retro tracks from every previous iteration of Mario Kart.
As mentioned before, the Wii Wheel was the much hyped addition to Mario Kart. Generally, it works, though it feels slightly sluggish at times. You can ditch the Wii Wheel, however, for a Wiimote-Nun-chuck combo or a Gamecube controller. All three work very well, but I find myself using the Gamecube controller the most. Having a joystick gives significantly better control over your kart than using just a Wiimote. It almost feels tacked-on, given that you don't even need to use a Wiimote at all to play and it can be played without any motion control whatsoever. A joystick controls best, but using just a Wiimote isn't a handicap or anything close to it. MK Wii is still very controllable, no matter how you choose to control it.
Things start unraveling in two places. The first problem is the driving. Whenever you come in contact with a wall, no matter with how much force, it slows you to nearly a stop. Obviously, this makes sense if you hit a wall head on, but simply grazing a wall or a barrier takes you to near-zero speed. Physically it makes no sense, and it is pretty frustrating when the AI is always breathing down your neck. Now, this isn't a serious problem for the original tracks given that they're all fairly wide, but it can be problematic on the retro tracks since they weren't originally designed for 12 drivers. Delfino Square is particularly guilty of this, having to drive in narrow-back alleys for half of the course. Things get even more out of hand if you're driving as a heavier character, as they are fairly difficult to control. Though not a game-breaking issue, it still leaves you scratching your head (or throwing a wiimote when everyone passes you) and could've used some work to fix.
Physics are a mere trifle, though, compared to the severely broken items. In past games, the items were there as a side mechanic to add some flavor to a decent racing game. All items were fairly balanced, with the few powerful ones appearing only rarely. Unfortunately, MK Wii goes way overboard with the powerful items and even adds MORE into the game with the Bullet Bill item and the POW Block. Not only are there more overpowered items, but the frequency at which they appear has increased as well. On top of that, the fact that there are now 4 more racers means that the likely-hood of being hit by something goes up by half again! Effectively, the game is penalizing you for winning. Being in first means that you're the exclusive target of the infamous Blue Shell, you get vastly inferior items compared to anyone else, and items like Lightning have a more potent effect on you. This STILL wouldn't be a serious issue if it weren't incorporated with one of the worst rubber-band AI's on the console. It's not uncommon to be hit two times in a row with an item, or even three or four! Needless to say, taking several hits from enemies who are always on your tail is devastating when you drop from 1st to 9th in 2.5 seconds. Nothing about that screams Fun racing game. Now, in a party atmosphere, this is actually fantastic; MK Wii is undoubtedly the quintessential party racing game for the console and makes things interesting for all those involved, as anyone can win. However, the same thing that makes it a great party game makes it an awful competitive racer. If you're looking for a truly competitive racing game, then it will do nothing but disappoint and frustrate because the game is more reliant on luck than actual skill in order to win. Again, this could be overlooked except that many of the karts/bikes and drivers can ONLY be unlocked by beating the various Grand Prix. If you want to unlock everything, then you're forced to deal with the poor AI and broken Item mechanics. Some may desire the change to the party genre, however, Mario Kart has competitive roots, so the new change to a party atmosphere is quite a shock and not liked by all.
Nintendo is a firm believer that HD graphics doesn't necessarily equal a good game. Mario Kart remains cartoonish and stylized as opposed to gritty and realistic, and MK Wii doesn't need to be. Since when has throwing turtle shells and using mushrooms as rocket fuel been realistic, anyway? Never, so MK Wii is perfectly fine with what it has. No, this isn't Gran Tourismo 5, but it doesn't have to be. Admittedly, it is somewhat odd looking at stages that were originally rendered with 2D sprites making the jump to 3D, but it still turns out looking pretty good. Some of the levels actually look pretty amazing, even for the Wii. Just try and stay focused when you're staring at the beautiful scenery for Rainbow Road, or the lava and fire of Bowser's Castle.
The one graphical gripe is the Miis. Once unlocked, you can race as any of the Miis stored on your console. Your Miis are given a slightly more realistic body, but they still seem rather out of place against the other characters in the game. Also, your Mii's appearance dictates its weight class. Being a taller individual, myself, I got stuck in the heavy weight class. If you prefer a different class, there isn't much you can do save for playing as someone else or modifying your image. Either way, playing as a Mii causes all images of the Nintendo characters in the various tracks to be replaced by your other Miis' faces. You can take it or leave it, but I find it rather amusing to see my face staring over the track as I'm racing on it.
Typical to most Mario games is a catchy soundtrack, and MK Wii does not fail to impress. Every song is catchy and upbeat, but they all remain quite distinct. I particularly enjoy listening to Rainbow Road and Maple Treeway. Retro Tracks have faithful renditions of their music, though some of the 16-bit songs have seen some slight touch-ups. Despite this, it brings back the nostalgia just as intended.
Voice acting isn't too prevalent, but what little there is of it is done fairly well. However, the sound effects for doing tricks and the resulting WOOHOO! from your character can get pretty annoying, especially if you do a lot of tricks. This isn't from poor voicing, per se, just a bad choice in sound effects. And get used to the sounds red and blue shells make, you'll be hearing those a lot, too. However, they aren't nearly as grating as the trick sounds are. Otherwise, ambient sounds are all very befitting of the game; nothing bad to report here.
Mario Kart Wii supports both local 4-player multiplayer and 12 player online matches. Local is nice if you're in one place with friends. However, the real charm here is the online component. You have the option of a race or a battle level, each with a total of 12 players. As usual with the Wii, you need to exchange friend codes if you want to be able to actually play with friends. However, the worldwide multiplayer isn't too bad. Hacking is relatively low, and lag is also surprisingly low, as well. Online players are ranked in a point system where everyone starts out with 5000 points, and gain or lose them based on the competition they win or lose against. This system keeps you from getting completely trashed by people who have higher ratings than you and it keeps the rankings fair. Given the poor AI, the multiplayer aspect is one place where Mario Kart Wii can really shine. It is an astoundingly strong effort from Nintendo on this one, and definitely worth some praise. Overall, it is significantly better than Super Smash Brothers Brawl, Nintendo's other high-profile foray into online gaming.
Your opinion on this game relies on how you choose to play. If you're more of a casual, party-type gamer who tends to play with a lot of people, then you'll have a blast with this latest version of Mario Kart. But if you're looking for a real test of skill, you won't find it here. A bad AI coupled with broken items renders any fun in this game null and void. If you're still interested in the multiplayer, though, pick it up on discount only; it's not going to be worth the $50 you'd have to invest in it. Despite some very interesting and positive additions to the core gameplay of Mario Kart as well as the fairly robust multiplayer, it still suffers greatly from its poorly balanced gameplay. Purchase at your own risk.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 01/31/11
Game Release: Mario Kart Wii (US, 04/27/08)
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