Review by Anclation
"Occasionally maddening, but all in all a tremendously entertaining game."
If you have ever owned a Nintendo console, chances are you have also played a Mario Kart game. Ever since Super Mario Kart for the SNES turned out to be the surprise hit of the year, most subsequent Nintendo consoles have been graced with Mario Kart games of their own, and they have consistently been among the most popular games available for their respective systems. Accessible, appealing and most importantly, a whole lot of fun, Mario Kart games tend to go over well with all kinds of different gamers. Mario Kart Wii is the latest Mario Kart and in many ways the best yet, boasting a number of innovations, excellent tracks, tons of unlockables and a superb online experience. However, it also suffers from a number of rather serious flaws that keep it from being the definitive Mario Kart game.
Mario Kart Wii is the sixth and latest Mario Kart game (excluding the arcade ones). Like the other games in the series, it's a kart racing game light on realism, but with a heavy dose of Mario. The playable characters are all from Mario games and the tracks often reference various Mario characters. One big part of the Mario Kart racing experience is the items, which you can pick up by running into item boxes placed at different spots on the tracks. The items can do everything from briefly making you invincible, superfast or gigantic, to hitting all of your competitors with a shrinking lightning. There are also the weaker projectile items such as koopa shells, defensive items like the banana peel and trick items like the fake item box. The worse placed you are, the better items you pick up from the item boxes, evening the playing field and making life difficult for the best placed drivers.
While all the traditional elements are still in place, Mario Kart Wii is not without its innovations. For starters, this time around you're not limited to karts, you can also use bikes in the races. A trick-system has been introduced, allowing you to pull off tricks in midair, which give you a small speed boost upon landing. The game also takes advantage of the Wii's motion controls and even comes bundled with the Wii Wheel, which you can use to play the game (don't worry though, the game has plenty of other control options as well).
Graphics & Sound
While Mario Kart Wii is hardly the most visually impressive Wii game out there, its graphics do represent a noticeable improvement over Mario Kart: Double Dash for the GameCube, being cleaner, sharper and more detailed. It's certainly a colorful game, and a couple of tracks in particular look very pretty indeed. Another strong point is the great draw distance, and I also liked how the retro tracks had gotten a visual facelift that nonetheless stayed true to the original designs. Oddly enough, the character models - which looked pretty horrible in the character selection screen actually look decent during the races, and show off some funny animations. All in all, Mario Kart Wii looks quite good for a Wii game.
The music is pretty much standard Mario Kart fare, i.e. upbeat tunes that are quickly forgotten. It serves its purpose though, and works well enough within the context of the game. The sound effects are generally good, though some of the noises the various characters make when performing stunts can get kinda annoying.
There's certainly a lot to do in Mario Kart Wii. For starters, you can compete in the Grand Prix, with all its different cups and difficulty settings. The Time Trials return, testing just how good a driver you are, and how good a time you can achieve on the various tracks. Then there is the VS Race, allowing you to race competitively against computer opponents, while at the same time being able to customize the racing experience to suit your every need. Finally there is the Battle Mode, where you either have to pop the balloons of your opponent or collect the most coins within a limited amount of time, with 10 specialized tracks at your disposal. Of course, there is also the multiplayer, as well as the online mode. But when you get down behind the wheel, how does the game actually play?
Fortunately, the driving experience in Mario Kart Wii is great. A lot of this has to do with the excellent, responsive controls, which make the game very easy to simply pick up and play. Moreover, Nintendo has really gone the extra mile when it comes to including different control schemes: You can play the game with the Wiimote alone, or use the Wiimote-Nunchuck combo, or the Classic Controller, or the GameCube controller. Last but not least you got the Wii Wheel, which you can pop the Wiimote into for a more authentic driving experience. The Wii Wheel works well even for competitive races, is comfortable and fun to use, and quickly became my favorite way to play the game, much to my own surprise.
The races themselves move along at a decent pace, neither particularly speedy nor particularly slow for a racing game with karts. The trick-system turns out to be a really neat addition, driving onto jump ramps and pulling off stunts midair quickly becomes second nature and is easy and fun to do. The bikes also prove to be a great addition to the game and they also handle slightly differently compared to the karts, having their own set of strengths and weaknesses. And while the bikes have proved to have a slight edge over karts in the Time Trials (due to their ability to get small speed-boosts by performing wheelies), the balance between karts and bikes turns out to be quite good in actual races.
One major change from past Mario Kart games (most notably Mario Kart DS) is the elimination of snaking. Snaking was an advanced technique where the player would perform a series of drift-boosts on a straight part of the track, and thus go faster than if he were to simply drive in a straight line. Not only an annoying, tedious way to drive, the existence of snaking would ensure that non-snaking players driving online would quickly be left behind in the dust, hardly making for a fun and competitive online-experience. Good riddance to snaking then. If you want to dominate in Mario Kart Wii, you'll have to master a greater number of basic techniques, like manual drifting, turbo starts, slipstreaming, on-the-spot turning and crucially, learn to use the various items as effectively as possible. Oh, and let us not forget the most important thing of all, namely taking advantage of the many shortcuts offered by the tracks in this game.
There are a total of 32 tracks in Mario Kart Wii, 16 of them being retro tracks from past Mario Kart games, the other 16 being brand new ones. These new tracks are generally excellent, very creative and imaginative, probably the best tracks of any Mario Kart game thus far. The size and length is just right, there are plenty of shortcut opportunities and a lot of stuff going on. You'll be driving through factories, bouncing on giant mushrooms, cruising shopping malls, exploring gold mines and even be experiencing one brilliant track (Koopa Cape) with sections that could just as well have been in F-Zero GX. The winter sports track (DK Summit) is particularly cool, featuring everything from Half-pipes to a bumpy section that makes you think you are Mogul skiing. Recurring tracks like Rainbow Road and Bowser's Castle have also gotten the star treatment.
The 16 retro tracks are pretty good as well. With tracks from a total of 5 different Mario Kart games included in the retro selection, the variety is certainly excellent. You got everything from the short and flat, yet still charming SNES tracks and the long, relatively uneventful, but well designed N64 tracks to the elaborate, impressive tracks of Mario Kart DS. While not all the retro tracks included really deserved to be back, I'd still say the 16 retro tracks of Mario Kart Wii are all in all superior to the 16 retro tracks included in Mario Kart DS.
Unfortunately, the items in this game are more frustrating than fun. For starters, I don't really like the new items. The POW Block in particular is annoying, seeing how it affects all racers placed ahead of the user, and with a lot of computer opponents on the tracks, chances are you will get hit by this item several times during the course of one race, nothing you can do to stop it. There already existed several items that hit all the drivers, why do we need yet another one? Old annoying items return too, most notably the blue shell, practically unavoidable and the scourge of all first placed drivers. If it's the last lap and you're in a narrow lead, nearing the finish line and then suddenly BAM get hit by one of these, you are going to lose despite having done absolutely nothing wrong, and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.
Another annoying thing is how a number of items not only hit you, thus slowing you down and hurting your chances at winning, but also cause you to lose your own items, punishing you twice. This is all the more troublesome when you consider that there is no brief period of invincibility after having been hit by an item, no handful of seconds in which you can recover from taking the hit, so being hit and then left completely helpless sets you up for even more punishment. The possibility of suddenly being robbed of your items also makes it inadvisable to try to save particular items for just the right moment; chances are some crappy computer opponent will just end up using a POW-block or a Lightning Bolt and make you lose it. Items, rather than skill, can sometimes determine whether you finish in 1st or 11th place, which is not how it should be.
The Grand Prix mode is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, with a total of 8 cups to play and 4 difficulty settings, it will certainly keep you busy for a good while. You are also graded on each cup depending on how well you performed, adding replay-value. Finally, there are now 12 racers competing in the Grand Prix as opposed to 8 racers in past games, making the races more action-packed and competitive. However, the Grand Prix mode does suffer from the annoying and often unfair items (the 11 computer opponents making it even more frustrating than in past games), a problem compounded by the rubberband AI (if you sometimes get the feeling that the computer opponents cheat, it's because they do). Still, even the 150cc and the Mirror Mode are not all that difficult, so you won't suffer too much, unless you attempt to get a star rating on each cup (which is pure torture!).
Mario Kart Wii features the best Time Trials mode of any Mario Kart game, and I'm not just saying that because I like its tracks the best. This time playing time trials really pays off, because now you can actually unlock a lot of cool stuff by playing through the various tracks and achieving good results. There are also several ghost datas on each track to compete against, motivating you further and also giving you new ideas on how to approach each track. If you go online, you can send your best ghost datas over to your friends and receive their ghosts, and you can also go check out the leaderboards, take a look at how the top players drive and download their ghosts. You can even enter competitions against pre-selected ghost datas, testing just how well you drive under pressure. The last time I remember playing a Time Trials mode this much was back when Super Mario Kart first came out.
The VS Race is a really neat option. Here you can race against the computers opponents, but without the constraints and limitations of the Grad Prix mode. You can select what tracks you want to play, adjust the difficulty, speed and even item potency (you can even turn all the items off, but unfortunately, you can't do as in Smash Bros. Brawl and remove some items while leaving others in). You can also try out team racing, which unfortunately often boils down to you having to win every race to make up for the awful performances of your computer allies. All in all though, the VS Race offers plenty of welcome customization possibilities, making it a nice addition.
The Battle Mode used to be one of the best aspects of the Mario Kart multiplayer experience. Not so with Mario Kart Wii, because this time around Nintendo has made a lot of changes to the traditional Battle formula, these changes ranging from the unnecessary to the idiotic. For starters, you now play in teams of 6, with 12 players going at it at once. There is also a time limit on each battle and a score-system, as opposed to simply letting the last guy with balloons intact win. The tracks you play on are usually gigantic, even for 12 players, and in order to make it easier to hit your opponents on these massive, open tracks, all drivers now move really slow.
These changes pretty much destroy the Battle Mode. Being one out of 6 team members leaves you with only a limited ability to affect the final outcome of the battle, meaning you usually win or lose because of your team-mates, which is just annoying. The tracks are simply too big, and the action too slow to be really enjoyable. Sure, some of the new tracks are actually pretty clever despite being so oversized (and I was pleased to see that my favorite DS track, Twilight House, made it into the retro selection) plus you can actually escape the many team-mates when playing with friends, but still, there is no avoiding the fact that Nintendo really messed up this time.
Bad news first: There is no Grand Prix mode available when you are playing with friends, so competing or cooperating in the Grand Prix is out. Also, as I was just pointing out, the Battle Mode has been severely gimped. That leaves the VS Race, which thankfully makes for excellent multiplayer entertainment. Heck, you can even customize the competition to mirror the Grand Prix cups, making the loss of the Grand Prix multiplayer option suddenly seem much less disappointing. Mario Kart games are famous for being some of the best party games around, and Mario Kart Wii certainly manages to live up to that legacy.
The best part of the game. Getting online up is quick and painless, joining a group of racers also goes pretty fast (and while waiting for the ongoing race to finish, you can actually watch and keep your eyes on individual racers, thus sizing up the competition). Most importantly, the online races themselves are incredibly smooth and consistently lag-free. You can play with up to 11 other gamers from around the world, and the gameplay experience will still be as smooth as if it you were playing by yourself with just computer opponents. If you are used to the online mode of a game like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the leap in quality Mario Kart Wii represents will be quite a shock. This is an online mode with no real lag, barely any connection problems, plenty of stats and other goodies, and most importantly, the online multiplayer experience is quite simply incredibly fun and addictive. 12 players competing at once and not one cheating computer opponent in sight? Count me in!
There are a few minor issues that mar the otherwise excellent online mode. One is how there is no voice chat feature (only a limited text chat before the races when playing with friends) another is how you still need to exchange friend codes in order to register friends. Also, the item-system is frankly not designed for races with only a few players: Say you are two people racing online, and one guy builds up a huge lead. You'd think the game would give you some pretty awesome items to help you catch up, right? Wrong! After all, you are in 2nd place, and therefore you keep getting rather weak 2nd place items, despite being dead last in the actual race and way outpaced. Still, even considering these issues the online multiplayer of Mario Kart Wii is excellent, arguably the best the console has to offer.
With plenty of different options available and a superb multiplayer mode (be it offline or online), Mario Kart Wii should last you a long while. There is also a lot of stuff to unlock, be it hidden characters (as well as the ability to use your Miis during races), secret karts and bikes, or ghosts for the time-trials mode. There are even two brand new online competitions arranged every month, kinda similar to the Missions in Mario Kart DS, only this time they are online and getting the best possible time is the main challenge. Considering the amounts of content and the great replay-value, Mario Kart Wii is easily worth your money.
At times Mario Kart Wii is so frustrating and unfair that it will drive you up the wall. The items are more unfair than ever, the Battle Mode has been wrecked while the rubberband AI still remains. Despite that, the game is far more often a source of great entertainment than of frustration, and at its best it's one of the most fun Wii games available. An essential purchase despite its flaws, Mario Kart Wii might not be the perfect Mario Kart game, but all in all it still represents a step forward for the series.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/06/09
Game Release: Mario Kart Wii (EU, 04/11/08)
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