Review by Eternal_Helix

"Mario Kart Wii delivers great control, fun races, and an outstanding online component"

Usually when a new Nintendo first-party game is coming out, I get very excited. From ‘Super Mario Galaxy' to ‘Super Smash Bros. Brawl', I would scour the internet before the game's release, viewing screenshots and videos, finding out as much as I can, and counting down the days till I'd be able to play it. When that day finally came, I would almost always be impressed. Say what you want about Nintendo, you can't argue with the power and quality of their core titles.

So was it the same for Mario Kart Wii, then? Well, not really. Try as I might, I couldn't get genuinely excited about the game. My reasons were numerous, but mainly it was the fact that the series has, for me, gotten a bit stale as of late. Sure, each new iteration brings with it a graphical overhaul, new courses, and new characters, but it just doesn't seem enough. Now don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed playing all the games in the series so far. But for me to label Mario Kart Wii as an unqualified success, it needs to keep to the spirit of its predecessors, while also bringing something new to the table.

On paper it does both these things. It's unquestionably the same game at its core as, say, ‘Mario Kart: Double Dash!!' on the Gamecube, but it brings three new features to the table. The first is the ability to use the Wii Wheel for motion-controlled driving, and the second is the potential for an online component that towers over that of its DS cousin. The third is a few gameplay tweaks which include being able to race on motorbikes, and being able to pull off air-based tricks. So does Mario Kart Wii deliver? The short answer is yes, but only to a degree. Some things it does very well, and others it falls slightly short. In the rest of this review, I'll try to explain why.

Start with the graphics, and your first impression will be that it looks remarkably similar to the Gamecube version. The character models have been given an overhaul, but apart from that it's simply not much of a leap up from last time. It's tempting to use the argument that the Wii is not that much more graphically powerful than the Gamecube, but this is simply not true, as Nintendo demonstrated themselves with the vibrant wonderland of ‘Super Mario Galaxy'.

Track design is another area where, in my opinion, things haven't moved on far enough. Included in the game are 32 tracks, half of which are brand new for the Wii version, while the other half are a collection of retro tracks from previous games. While the new tracks have good variety, I found that they aren't nearly as exciting to race on as I would have liked. This may be due to a reluctance to make tracks too hard so as to cater for the expanded audience, or the fact that the tracks have to be wider than usual so that 12 karts can fit on it (almost all races now have 12 karts on the track at once instead of 8). Either way, I feel a spark has been lost somewhere along the lines.

But how does the game actually play? Well, that really depends on how you control the game; Mario Kart Wii has a whopping 5 control schemes. Veterans will probably wish to use one of the analogue-stick based schemes, comprising of Remote and Nuchuck, Classic Controller, or Gamecube pad. Each has its pros and cons: the Remote and Nunchuck feel too loose in the hands, although the Remote's speaker provides audio warnings of impending red shells and such. The Classic Controller works well, although the analogue-stick isn't very well centered under your thumb. Gamecube is the best of the 3 in my opinion, although it's more difficult to pull of tricks (more on that later) as they've been mapped to the fairly inaccessible D-Pad.

However, if you fancy trying something new, you may want to give the motion-based controls a go. Both of these schemes involve holding the remote sideways and tilting it like a steering-wheel to turn. You can either hold the Remote on it's own in all its naked glory, or you can slot it into the Wii Wheel. This is a plastic shell in the shape of a steering wheel, and at the time of writing is packaged in the box along with the game itself. Both schemes control the same, and it's really down to which one feels best in your hands.

Motion-control is functional and essentially works, however I don't see it as an alternative for an analogue-stick if you plan to be doing any serious racing. It's fine for when your little brother or your Gran fancy a go, but ultimately it isn't sensitive enough to be of any real use for serious time-trialling or online contests. Also, drifting is difficult, tricks are unwieldy to pull off, and doing wheelies on your bike is a horrible experience involving tilting the Wii Wheel towards you and holding it there, which doesn't really work in practice.

Besides that, racing in Mario Kart Wii is as enjoyable as it ever was. The game feels well-balanced, with a good number of karts on the track, and a few new weapons that shake things up a bit. As mentioned above, there are areas of the tracks which allow you to jump in the air and pull off tricks with a wave of the remote, which reward you with a speed boost when you land. This works well and adds a new layer of strategy to getting the fastest time. Also, the drifting function (where you can get a speed boost by skidding round corners) has been tweaked, meaning that the old Mario Kart DS problem of “snaking”, getting continual speed-boosts through drifting on straights, has been mostly eradicated, which will come as a relief to most players when they venture online.

Oh. I've mentioned the “O” word. Perhaps the most pressing worry on your mind if you're a series regular is whether the online component of the game works well or not. After all, Nintendo doesn't have the best track-record of providing seamless and fleshed-out online experiences. Well, I'm happy to report that it does work. Brilliantly.

If you've had the fortune to play the very solid ‘Mario Kart DS' online component, you'll know what to expect, except the Wii version improves on it in almost every way. The limited 4-person races of the DS version are superseded in Mario Kart Wii by massive, 12-player matches that can take place on any track and with any character. You can even have 2 players racing online in the same room via split-screen, so you and your friend can battle the world, and each other, simultaneously. At the time of writing, the game runs very smoothly; I've noticed no issues of lag, and have only experienced a disconnect error once so far.

And setting up an online match is incredibly slick and easy. Simply select the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection option from the main menu, select whether to race or battle, and then set your character options. After that, the game automatically finds you a room to play in, showing the locations of your opponents on a world map. You then begin your race, and can keep racing in as many rounds as you like. Each player starts with 5000 points, and you gain and lose points each race depending on your performance. As I said, racing online is seamless, simple, and an absolute blast!

You can also play online 12-player battle matches, which are also pretty fun. These are Balloon Battle, an old favourite that is now played in teams, and Coin Runners, where each team must collect as many coins as possible. These, like the races, are a blast to play online with a good number of people.

That's not the end of Mario Kart Wii's online features. While Nintendo still persists with its convoluted Friend Code system, where you have to enter your friend's unique code if you want to race them online, it's very easy to link up with people already in your Wii's address book. It'll let you know when your friends are online, and you can then challenge them to a match. Unfortunately, if you're only racing a few friends online then inexplicably you can't enable computer players, so you're stuck with 3 or 4 people on the aforementioned wide tracks. Unless you have a lot of friends online at once, racing in this way can be a very lonely experience.

Apart from racing friends, you can trade ghost data with them in the Mario Kart Channel, a specific area of the game menu that can be downloaded to your main Wii Menu for easy access. This area also lets you view your times in relation to worldwide rankings for all the tracks, and see the worldwide top 10 for each. You can even download the ghost data of the worldwide number 1's, so you can view their techniques and race against them if you think you're tough enough.

Also, Nintendo will be releasing periodic challenges that you can download. Although none are available at the time of writing, these will most likely take a form similar to the missions of ‘Mario Kart DS', challenging you to, for instance, race a track while slaloming between cones. Nintendo reports that you will be able to practice on these challenges, and then submit your best time/score when you're ready, which will then be compared with your friends and the rest of the world.

The last portion of the game that I've not mentioned is local multiplayer, and this is also where I have my main gripe with the game. This area has always been Mario Kart's strong-point, and while it's still fun to get your friends round and play 4-player matches huddled around one TV, it's not as good as it could have been. Racing works fine, but Battle mode just doesn't function as it should offline. By forcing you to work in teams, Battle mode turns into a rather bland affair that isn't nearly as exciting as it could have been. Bizarre design choices include the fact that losing 3 balloons in Balloon Battle doesn't kill you, merely re-spawns you a few seconds later with a penalty. The battle maps are too big, which sometimes makes even finding another player difficult. Overall, a very real missed opportunity.

Along with that, I have a few miscellaneous niggles. Sometimes the menu system, particularly in the Mario Kart Channel, is awkward and unintuitive. There also isn't a simple list of all your time-trial rankings, you have to view them track by track. The music is entirely forgettable, and the retro track inclusions aren't the best selection I've ever seen.

It does sound like I'm being very negative, but Mario Kart Wii isn't a bad game. Single-player is the same as always, which is no bad thing. It's a solid, enjoyable experience and is essential to unlocking all the characters, tracks, and karts. Multi-player falls short in the battle mode, but is still a good laugh with some mates. The online component is where the game comes into its own. Nintendo has done a sterling job here, and this is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown.

So should you buy Mario Kart Wii? I would definitely recommend it. Even if it's only for the online aspect, it's well worth a purchase. This is the premier online experience on the Wii so far, better than ‘Super Smash Bros. Brawl' and ‘Mario Strikers Charged'. I know that I'll keep playing Mario Kart now and again even after I've completed it, just to enjoy the thrill of racing against 12 strangers, and beating them all. Self-assured? Perhaps. But I plan to do a lot of practising…

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/16/08

Game Release: Mario Kart Wii (EU, 04/11/08)

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