Review by K_0SS

"Don't expect a revolution here; it's Mario Kart with a refreshing make-over."

This is one of those games that you wait for such a long time to play that by the time it actually gets here you have to renew your interest all over again. As one of them European types I was able to snap this up long before my American gaming counter-parts, and the world certainly felt backwards. Firstly I was unable to procure it as it had sold out from three fairly proximal outlets in my town within a day, and I was denied the last copy in my local Argos by what appeared to be a 12 year-old emo girl; backwards indeed. Fast-forward a couple of days and I was going into the main city just to procure this game and its plastic wheel of uncertainty, and within a few hours I was getting stuck into a game Americans could only wonder about (or import). Now it may sound like I'm a little too happy with this mild role reversal, but I'm living in a country which still won't have Brawl for 3 months and, rue as I might, will not surrender some damn fine RPGs, which I can only assume are lost in some magical land between America and Europe.

But now I can dry my proverbial tears with everyone's favourite violence-ridden, annoying-noise saturated racer. If you haven't played a Mario Kart game before then the basic deal is that you race around a track playing as and against characters from Mario games, including, of course, the jolly, fat plumber himself. The catch is that items can be obtained which either power you up somehow or can simply be used to send other racers awry. The mushroom item, for example, can be used to give a powerful speed boost which sends you hurtling down the track for a moment and will fling any racer in front of you to the side. The prevalence of short-cuts which often require the mushroom (or its golden brother) is a staple which has remained ever since the SNES's iteration and somewhat of an equalizer for those who find themselves repeatedly at the back of the pack.

This brings me neatly to what really makes this different (and sometimes more fun) than other racing games. If you're the best at a track in Gran Turismo in your group of friends, you've played it loads and you win every time, you're going to win if you play it again. In Mario Kart this is not the case, as item distribution noticeably favours those in lower positions, with group-affecting items always having the larger effect on those close to, or in, first place. This frequently will either lead to you snatching up first place against all odds with your star and your golden mushroom while the person skilfully taking the corners sharply and racing with focus attempts to feebly protect himself with a banana, or with you wrought with rage because the skilless bastard behind you was lucky enough to inherit godly items X and Y to catapult him to first and you to some dismal double-digit position.

This is not to say that there is no skill-factor here, and indeed, this iteration feels slightly less communist than past versions, with the dreaded blue shells not rearing their ugly spiked hides quite seemingly so much. It really feels like there's more room to breathe here, but this might be because the last console-based Kart experience was Double Dash, a game where a semi-skilled player could quite easily pick up two items at the same time. If there're twice as many items in play then you're twice as likely to be beset by the buggers if you're the front-runner, with the ability to hold two bananas at once not much of a consolation when you're getting nuked by a plethora of red and blue. With ‘Mario Kart Wii' I've frequently held a nice lead and kept my grasp on it when the ****-storm erupted. Sadly in a close race if you get hit by a blue shell at the end of the third lap there is quite literally nothing you can do.

Something which annoyed me in past games was winning a race with a large gap between you and the second place NPC (non-player character) on the easier difficulties, and waiting for them to trickle past the finish line so you could play the next race. This is something I thought was masterfully done away with this time by the game predicting who was going to come where if the race continued, but sadly not so. I was in a 150cc race (the hardest of difficulties, behind the coveted mirror mode) and was on the verge of second place. At the end of the race a blue shell was coming up from behind (it basically explodes the player in first place), and just hit the computer right before the finish-line. I, followed by many other computers, sped past this pre-destined first-place computer, and I was anxious to see his points get hammered on the score board. To my great dismay he, apparently, came in second. I thought for one second and then it clicked that the moment I crossed the finish line the computers' current positions were simply put forward as their race positions despite the fact that I watched the others beat him, and it felt extremely insulting; why should I be subject to extreme position-perversion at the end of the race, when these computers' positions are almost set in stone by this appalling code!?

But this isn't something I let get me down, as this game has such a lot going for it. The characters' previous unique items have been removed, which ostensibly sounds like a bad thing, but when only two characters are allowed to have the golden mushroom and you might have to settle for having a really big banana instead, something's up; character balance is a lot more noticeable in this game. There are three different weight divisions here; light, medium and heavy, each with its own distinct selection of karts and the new option of bikes. Characters themselves now are chosen merely for a very slight difference in racing stats and their corresponding weight class's yielding of vehicle choice. Oh, and they make unique annoying sounds, too.

The new option to race on bikes is something I very much welcome, as it adds a nice new dimension to the game. The fact is bikes race differently to karts. In a kart you're likely to be sliding all over the place trying to achieve as much of the boosting golden sparks as possible, which are now awarded, rather than a quick left-right left-right on the analogue, by turning sharply in to a corner while on a slide; the sharper you slide inwards the quicker you get to blue and then golden sparks at the wheels. Bikes cannot get golden sparks, and so can't boost quite that much after a corner. Bikes, however, do not drift when they power-slide so much as they turn sharply; it's something which I've gotten used to so much that going back to a kart feels like I'm racing on some kind of theoretical frictionless ground as soon as I come to a corner. This sharp turning inevitably means less sliding, and so to make up for this and the lack of the greater boost potential from the kart you are able to perform a wheelie on straights which provides a modest speed boost. I know this biking option isn't everyone's cup of tea; they're lighter, the drastic drift change throws the average Mario Kart enthusiast into chaos at first, and wheelies quickly become a burden if you get so much as nudged while performing one (resulting in a large loss of speed), but you can't argue with the choice you're given. This carnation of Mario Kart hosts an impressive choice of vehicles, with a nice amount of stat-variance to be seen.

There feels like a deficit in levels here. There's thirty-two in all, sixteen originals and sixteen remakes. The originals feel like there's a lot going on, with much of them having something of a twist to make them stand out. Seldom is one of the new tracks just a track; one sees you race down a tree, and another around a crumbling volcano. The problem is, though, that with all the craziness going on in these levels you can't help but wish there were simply more tracks in lieu of such crazy design. The older tracks visibly lack the detail and work of their new counter-parts but are tight tracks to race on never the less. Also, if I hear another person claim that a mirrored version of a track is, in fact, a different track, I might just explode; I simply don't consider the exact same track but where you turn left instead of right to be something of an original.

A new addition this time around is tricks which can be performed off of ramps, small jumps or half-pipes. If your control in-put involves a Wii remote which isn't attached to a classic controller then these are performed with some good old-fashioned waggle upon leaving the ground. Also, when using these control schemes performing a wheelie is performed by flicking the Wii remote up. When not using these control schemes and opting to use a more classic pad like, say, the Classic Pad, you have to remove your thumb from steering to initiate a trick or wheelie by pressing the D-pad. When you need to turn onto a ramp and sharply turn after this can be quite painful and is one of the reasons the less conventional control schemes are worth sticking with. The actual bonus you receive from performing a trick is a nice little speed boost as soon as you touch the ground, but keep in mind that much of the time it's faster to simply try and take a corner nice and tight than to do a fancy trick for its speed boost; many a time has too much want for tricks left me suspended in the air slapping my monkey-feet together while the computer takes the opportunity to sail past un-challenged. Tricks certainly have their place here, though, and give a good advantage when used correctly.

Of course, the big thing Nintendo are doing here is pitching a game to their hardcore and casual fan-base, perhaps hoping to sell a preposterous amount of units on the strength of two wholly different demographics. To bridge this gap the 50cc cups are laughably easy, also possibly to allow people to come to terms with the Wii Wheel which, while far above my expectations in terms of responsiveness and general usability, was obviously far more sloppy for me than my precious traditional controller. This is likely the case for any of you who have ever remotely gotten a grasp of a Mario Kart game in the past. Nintendo, though, sweeten the deal by displaying the wheel in online races next to your name, just so your enemies know; when one encounters a player able to tightly clear courses as a race-long front-runner who also has the wheel of honour next to his name, perhaps there's supposed to be some feeling of insignificance evoked in you. Of course, when I beat him in the next race all I could think was “shouldn't have used the wheel, after all, eh?”

It seems an odd thing to leave ‘til last, but the graphics completely slipped my mind. Who can blame me? The frame-rate here only becomes slightly reduced when things get hectic in four-player and as for the suffering of visuals in split-screen, I found it to be a fair reduction in resolution, but still easy on the eyes. In single player the graphics look immaculately smooth, with very little looking out of place in the strong colour sets and, indeed, most of the scenery being very pleasant to look at. The sixteen tracks from past games that have, in some cases, been completely remade to fit a 3d game don't have quite the level of delicious detail, but make up for this with the fact that they are very faithful recreations, at least aesthetically.

All in all this is a very well-put together game that feels tweaked to nigh-perfection in the realms of multiplayer, especially so with an online mode that works exactly how you think it should. It has plenty of choice in racing style—far more than previous titles here, anyway—and a pleasing aesthetic. The sound can assault the ears, but doesn't detract from the fun in a multiplayer context. The only true down-fall here is that it's just too damn easy to complete and could use some more tracks, remakes or otherwise. I can say with certainty, though, that this game will be played socially by me and my friends for a long time to come; you might just find the same.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/28/08

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

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