Review by fishytoothy

"Nostalgia + Net = Near Perfection"

Any video game fan out of diapers knows that Mario Kart has been a staple of every Nintendo console dating back to the SNES. The past three iterations of Mario Kart have been so successful that even the most casual of gamers can tell you the difference between a red and green shell. With a lackluster lineup of games at release, and a potentially awkward motion-control technology, Wii skeptics stood by as believers braved four-hour lines content with the knowledge that the newest facelift to their favorite game series were waiting just over the horizon. With the release of Mario Kart Wii, the final piece in Nintendo's Galaxy--Brawl--Kart triple whammy, Wii owners will be pleased to discover that Nintendo saved the best for last.

As an owner of all three previous console Mario Kart games, any thing with "Kart" in the title holds a certain nostalgia value. As I fired up my disc for the first time and Mario appeared in the upper left of my screen, I felt a little rush as if for a moment I was in grade school again, plunging a brand new cartridge into my system. Being a Mario Kart veteran, I flipped through the simple but passable menus, and went straight to the 150cc GP, Wii wheel in hand, ready experience next gen Kart in all its motion sensing glory. A minute later, after one lap of swerving and fishtailing around Luigi Circuit, watching eleven computer players zooming off ahead from a patch of rough grass, I had a sinking feeling that Nintendo had just gimmicked their prized racer into a mediocre money cow.

What I didn't know in my disastrous first race was that the options for handling your racer are much more varied on the Wii than they had ever been in a previous Mario Kart title. In the past you had light, medium, and heavy characters, whose carts accelerated at different rates, and had different top speeds, with slight variation in turning, but they all more or less handled the same: you could easily jump from one character and cart to another without much adjustment. In Mario Kart Wii, each cart and bike feels noticeably different from the others. Some can make very tight turns, and remain straight throughout, while others will fishtail almost perpendicular to the track if you skid around a tight corner. The Wii wheel can be fun, but mastering will take a lot of practice, so for old schoolers, (and lazy people) you have the option of plugging in your gamecube controllers. You also have the option of manual and automatic handling--automatic can help the less steady racers, or those new to the Wii wheel steer more easily at the cost of being unable to generate "mini turbo" boosts on corners.

When I got familiar with the vehicles and picked a control option that suited my taste, I found steering to be tight and intuitive. With sixteen brand new and sixteen retro tracks, pieced together from all the console and handheld Mario Kart titles, and a record number of unlockable characters and vehicles, the single player mode was every bit as fun as its predecessors. Upon finishing the final GP, despite the same great game play I expected from Mario Kart with crisp, smoothing-running, (though not greatly detailed) graphics, I couldn't help feeling a tinge of disappointment. What I was feeling is the curse of all sequels: they are not expected to simply equal their predecessors--they are expected to surpass them. But Mario Kart has never been about the single player modes, however entertaining; they have been about multiplayer battles--a track full of strategically placed banana peels and last minute mushroom bursts, golden cups, glory, and gloating. Finding myself with a lack of willing guinea pigs to reminisce in split screen chaos, I decided to connect to Nintendo Wifi hoping for little more than the disappointment that Nintendo passed of as an online component for their other flagship title, Smash Bros Brawl. What I found was an assortment of amazing features that push Mario Kart Wii to the level of its SNES ancestor and beyond.

The first thing you'll notice when you race online is the number 5000 next to your profile. This indicates your VR or "versus rating" which will increase or decrease depending on your performance. You can choose to race opponents worldwide, or regionally (I assume for better connectivity) and are automatically paired against up to 11 opponents. It usually takes less than a minute to connect to a group, but you will often need to wait until your group completes a live race before you can join for the next one. By the time I had beefed my VR to 6000, I was having a blast racing intelligent opponents that didn't always follow the same predictable paths and item usage patterns. It was not quite the same as beating your being able to elbow your best friend to screw him up on a difficult shortcut, but it was new and exhilarating. (You can race your best friend online, however, by exchanging friend codes) The VR system adds a huge value to the online component by making a tangible reward for racing well, and a loose barometer as to the skill and experience of your opponents. Generally the game will try to pair you against similarly ranked players, but sometimes the field will be quite varied. It can be exciting as a less skilled racer to go up against a "pro" with a 9000+ plus rating, since being clobbered by an expert does little to harm your rating, while if the expert loses they will suffer a huge drop in points. A very skilled racer must consistently rank in the top few spots to maintain their rating or they will quickly drop back down.

Perhaps the largest outcry against Mario Kart Wii is that items oftentimes determine the outcome of races. A badly timed blue shell or lightning bolt can make even the best players fall from first to the middle of the pack, which some claim is too random, or unfair. I say: that's Mari Kart. While time trials are better than ever with downloadable ghosts and world rankings, the heart and soul of Mario Kart has always been in it's frantic, item-filled versus races. Avoiding and utilizing items well has always been part of the game--it's no coincidence that the best players find ways to minimize unfortunate strings of mishaps and persevere.

Bottom line: Mario Kart Wii offers the same great racing experience we expect from Mario Kart, with a strong online component that adds tremendously to the depth and replay value of the game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/04/08

Game Release: Mario Kart Wii (w/ Racing Wheel) (US, 04/27/08)

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