Review by CascoreGamer

"The Spiny Shell Explosion Heard Round the World"

The Pros:
+ Massive cast of characters to choose from
+ Fun, inventive, and beautiful new tracks, as well as nostalgic Retro tracks
+ Online support is great and makes the game infinitely replayable
+ Supports every control scheme imagineable
+ The introduction of bikes brings in a new way to play the game
+ New trick system adds even more variety and strategy to the gameplay

The Cons:
- Some characters seem out of place and useless
- Muddy looking character models
- While Retro tracks are nostalgic, most are just plain boring
- Wii Wheel control scheme, unfortunately, is not as responsive as other schemes
- Items feel incredibly cheap and unbalanced
- Computer AI has a knack for being infuriatingly unbearable at times
- Actual karts seem to have become an afterthought
- Over half the game's content has to be unlocked

From the days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Mario Kart has been pretty much the definitive kart racing game for Mario fans the world over. Bring together an all star cast like that of the Mario universe, put in fun, inventive tracks that consisted of more than turning left every few seconds around the same two curves over and over, and combine it with the random, odd sighting of a banana peel in the middle of the road or a green shell blazing all about, and you have a series that has been alive and going strong for 18 years now. With such a strong history and as massive a following as the series has gained, one has to wonder whether or not the latest addition on the Wii can stand up to its past counterparts. What with the inclusion of bikes, tricks, online play, and several new items that may or may not fare so well with those who have to deal with them, Mario Kart Wii has quite a lot of new content to go around.

"Let's-a go!" "Wah-ha-ha-ha Wario!" "Everybody cheats but Waluigi!"

As expected, your usual Mario spin-off cast is here in full force. Of course, you have the main man Mario and his taller, yet younger brother Luigi, as well as the ever lovely Princess Peach and the ever scheming Bowser. The cast is assuredly vast and varied indeed. Though, one may go so far as to say that's it's a little too vast and a little too varied. Really, who exactly was begging to see Dry Bowser in a spin-off game? And who asked for Baby Daisy to come into existence just in time for this round of racing? Don't get me wrong, Baby Daisy is adorable and is actually one of my personal favorite characters, but the point remains: some of these characters just don't fit in with the grand scheme of things, and one really must stop and ask themself exactly why they were put into the game.

Character models, at first sweeping glance, look pretty okay. But, upon closer examination, particularly when looking at larger characters like Wario and Bowser, it's quite apparent the texturing for the characters is less than impressive, often making them appear quite muddled. This probably isn't quite as apparent in the smaller characters, but all others appear as if they belong on the Gamecube as opposed to the Wii. However, this isn't really a detriment to the game as a whole, for the vehicles you can choose from and the courses you'll find yourself on more than make up for the less than impressive character models.

The tracks in this game, the new ones specifically, are gorgeous. It's likely you'll be too wrapped up in avoiding items while trying to maintain your place in the lineup to notice in the heat of the moment, but the environments you'll find yourself in are simply stunning and wildly inventive for the most part. From flying through a treetop raceway that seems to be in perpetual, gorgeous autumn, to dashing through space on a road covered in the colors of the rainbow, the variety and beauty of the locales should be appreciated, if you can find the time to do so. However, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for some of the retro tracks, which largely consist of wide open, quite flat space. These tracks are mostly uninsteresting and, sadly, a simple bore to race on. At least the music that accompanies every track is fitting and rather catchy.

Adding to the charm of the more interesting environments is the clever inclusion of your own Miis standing at the sidelines of various tracks to cheer you on. They also appear in posters, as hazardous obstacles, and even as giant statues. And, to complete the Mii inclusion, racing as your Mii is even an option. This kind of personalization with your own creations makes the game feel ultimately more charming, and being able to play as your Mii in the midst of all your favorite Mario characters adds a certain flair to the enjoyment of the whole experience.

Doing a Barrell Roll in a Kart Can't Be Safe

With the Wii installation of the Mario Kart series comes the introduction of tricks. These can be performed by flying off a jump and either flicking the Wii Remote (if you're using the Wii Wheel or Wii Remote/Nunchuk combo) or pressing one of the directional buttons on the D-Pad (if you're using the Classic Controller or Gamecube Controller). Performing a trick increases your airtime by making you fly higher instead of farther, but rewards you with a boost upon landing on solid ground once more. This new mechanic adds more variety and pretty animation to the game, and can sometimes help or hurt you depending on your situation. Sometimes you may need that extra little boost to push yourself past that other racer, but other times you may want to opt out of doing a trick in favor of drifting around a tight corner that pops up directly after the jump. This adds a layer of strategy to the game, and ultimately enhances the experience just a tad bit more.

As mentioned earlier, performing these tricks differs depending on whether or not you're using a motion sensing controller or a standard controller. This game supports every conceivable scheme you can think of, but some seem to be favored in certain areas while other feel left behind. Particularly, the Wii Wheel, which you would expect to be the best choice for the game, is actually not quite as impressive to any of the other three schemes when it comes to playability.

While each controller has its pros and cons, the Wii Wheel seems to suffer the most detrimental cons. It feels more natural to play the game with the wheel, and it's generally much more fun and immersive to do so, but using this controller also results in less precise control and the occasional unfortunate malfunction. While it's terribly simple to perform tricks or pop wheelies by giving the wheel a mere flick, performing actions such as drifting, or ever simple turning, cannot be done as precisely as with any of the joystick controllers. It would almost seem that the choice between Manual and Automatic transmissions was included specifically to compensate for the wheel's lack of precision. Automatic allows for players to slip into a drift simply by turning at enough of an angle, but disallows mini-boosts, while Manual requires you to hold down a button while drifting, but rewards you with a mini-boost if you keep it going long enough. Basically, you're choosing to either have easier control and no boost, or to be able to mini-boost, but with more difficult control. Considering the Wii Wheel simply isn't as good with drifts though, you'll likely find yourself going Automatic just to avoid having to deal with it, or switching to a different controller so you can drift easier.

Another misstep with the wheel control scheme is the poor button mapping for holding items while using Manual transmission. You'll find that holding items behind you to defend yourself in a hairy situation is a must in this game, and the only way to hold singular items behind you is to keep your thumb pressed down on either the left or right directional button. This presents two problems. The lesser of the problems is the fact that doing this makes it impossible to look behind you to see if anyone is coming your way, which can be done by pressing the A button. So, unless you have a particularly wide thumb, it'll be an incredibly awkward situation trying to look back while holding an item. The larger problem is the button confusion that will set in, particularly when you want to drift. Holding down left or right on the D-Pad, holding B to drift, holding 2 to accelerate, and steering, all in the midst of furious item slinging/dodging, makes for a terribly confusing situation when it comes time to either end your drift or toss your item. You'll find yourself accidently doing one when you meant to do the other, doing both at the same time, or doing neither as you try to figure out which finger you need to move and when. I could just blame this on my own uncoordination, but I doubt I would be the only person who has problems with this.

The flaw with the Gamecube and Classic Controller schemes is a lesser matter than the wheel. In order to perform a trick, you have to remove your thumb from the joystick and press one of the buttons on the D-Pad. It's not difficult to see how this would be awkward. All in all, it would seem the best control scheme is the Remote and Nunchuk combo, which is a real shame, considering all the schemes should be equal in perfomance.

You'll Have to Win Gold in the 150cc Special Cup Before You Get That

For as much content is crammed into this game, it's rather remarkable that over half of it has to be unlocked before it can be used. For example, you begin with 12 characters, just enough to fill every spot in a standard race. This game has 25 characters total (technically, 26). Each class (Lightweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight) begins with 3 karts and 3 bikes each. 3 more karts and 3 more bikes for each class are under wraps. I was not kidding when I said half the game's content needs to be unlocked.

This is a game you really need to be patient with if you want the most out of it, and it forces you to refine your skills to a T before you can get absolutely everything. Really, it's not such a bad thing, for it does prepare you for the competitive online play, but for those of us who are casual gamers and don't have the time or dedication to fulfill the requirements for unlocking all the hidden content will find ourselves feeling short changed by just how much of the game is missing after first booting it up. That said, it does feel relatively satisfying when you find yourself constantly unlocking new characters and vehicles after every completion milestone, and there is a sense of pride in finally obtaining everything the game has to offer. Still, perhaps Nintendo could have been a little kinder with exactly how much they gave you straight out.

And it only makes matters worse when one takes into consideration how genuinely frustrating the Grand Prix mode can be when it's the main mode through which you can unlock the game's content. 50cc is fine, but every engine size and difficulty beyond that will prove to be a practice in frustration more often than not. While skill is still a major factor in your success, it's unfortunately overruled by not only the astoundingly unbalanced item system, but also by the "rubberband" AI you'll find yourself facing off against. The item system is basically a luck- and position-based roulette that begins every time you hit an item box. Depending on your position amongst your fellow racers, you have a chance of receiving certain items to use at your disgression. If you're far back in the pack, you're eligible for the stronger items in the game, like the Lightning Bolt or the POW Block, whereas if you're closer to the front, you'll get less useful ones, like a single Mushroom or perhaps a Red Shell. The usefulness of the items decreases the closer to first place you are, and, once in first, you will only receive bananas, fake item boxes, and green shells. It's basically a system that's around to guarantee that even players way in the back still have a chance to stay in the game while those in the front are prevented from separating too far ahead thanks to items. In theory, this is good idea. In practice though, it misses the mark.

Considering there are 11 other computer-controlled racers going against you in a Grand Prix, it's not hard to believe that items will be flying constantly, and, very often, right at you. The AI seems to exist for the sole purpose of messing you up, especially if you separate yourself too far from the main pack. Getting into first is an accomplishment in itself, but staying there oftentimes feels more like a miracle, as the AI will seem to constantly receive just the right item to impede you at just the right time. If you get too far away, either prepare for a bombardment of several items at once, or watch your mini map in awe as several of the racers previously leagues behind you gain an inexplicably huge speed boost and find themselves just pixels behind you in no time. The third lap of every race, which is also the most crucial, seems to typically be the time when the "rubberband" AI really kicks in. Prepare to practice building your patience as well as your skill, because being ruined by the computer at the last possible minute seems to happen all too often, and it's not a farfetched notion to believe that you'll find yourself becoming frustrated rather regularly.

Fortunately, there is a second way through which you can unlock characters and vehicles known as the Time Trial mode. This mode is substantially calmer than your standard race, for you can choose to either do a solo trial in which you go around the track by yourself which three mushrooms at your disposal to set a time, race a ghost of yourself in an attempt to beat a personal record, or race a ghost of a Nintendo staff member. Time Trials are a welcome and fun distraction from the usual Grand Prix mode that allow you to learn the layout of the tracks and discover fast routes in peace. Another cool aspect is that, if you beat a Nintendo staff ghost by a wide enough margin, you'll unlock an "expert" staff ghost, which is considerably faster than the original. Taking these ghosts on can be great fun if you're competitive and feel up to the challenge of finding the absolute best route through the track.

Mario Kart Wii, or Super Mario Motocross?

Among the more questionable additions to Mario Kart Wii was the inclusion of motorcycles. Nobody was exactly asking for bikes to be included in the series, and it's undoubtable that the idea has come under some criticism. Really, the inclusion of the new vehicles is a double edged sword. The new bikes do feel and look quite natural amongst the staple karts. Most will find themselves first introduced to bikes via the 100cc Grand Prix, and, though it takes a fair amount of practice to grow accustomed to the bikes' differing mechanics, they prove to be incredibly easy to handle and stand up to karts very well. Actually, they stand up to karts too well.

Sadly, in Mario Kart Wii, the actual karts feel like an underpowered afterthought. While Nintendo fixed the "snaking" problem that cropped up in Mario Kart DS by making the mini-turbos appear after holding a drift for a longer amount of time than before, the change in kart mechanics actually ended up making them inferior to bikes. Bikes can make tighter drifts easier and can pop wheelies, which gives the driver a speed boost at the cost of maneuverability and higher susceptibility to being rammed. This, in essence, gives basically the same speed boost as a kart successfully snaking in Mario Kart DS. Unfortunately, such a maneuver in this game is harder to perform and almost stands to be useless. The only advantage that karts have over bikes is the fact that they can receive a second, stronger mini-turbo by holding their drift for a longer time, whereas bikes can only receive a single turbo from a drift at most. This hardly makes up for the lack of precision control and ability to speed boost easily on a straightaway.

This "bike over kart" relation plays over into multiplayer as well, particularly when going online. When racing over the WFC, you'll often see players on bikes as opposed to karts, which really does make the game feel as if it were a motocross title instead of the classic kart racer we've all come to know and love.

A Spiny Shell, From Russia With Love

Online and multiplayer. These are the reasons you'll be buying Mario Kart Wii, the reasons you'll be determined to unlock all the hidden material, and the reasons you'll find yourself staying up late into the night playing for hours on end. Racing and battling up to four friends offline and with people across the WFC is the number one aspect Mario Kart Wii has going for it, and it most definitely delivers. Being able to play against other human players who can be anywhere from right next to you on the couch or clear across the world is a fantastic experience, and it's most definitely what you'll want to be doing for the majority of your time with the game. The same flaws that present themselves in the single player mode are still present, but they're substantially less frustrating if only thanks to the sheer fact that you know it's other actual people you're playing against, which also means that they'll be going after each other and not just you.

The WFC allows you to take part in a variety of different game modes. You can participate in monthly tournaments held by Nintendo, download and race ghosts of other racers from around the world, register and find friends so you can join them in races or battles, and join worldwide or regional rooms in which you can race or battle strangers. What Nintendo has done with the online in this game is extensive and well-executed, and any faults you may find with the single player mode of the game can be excused for the sheer amount of activity that can be found online.

The main draw is obviously racing online, and Mario Kart Wii allows you to go it solo or with a second player as a guest in a room of racers. The first apparent flaw with online is that it could use a bit of streamlining though, for you'll find yourself waiting to find a room, then going through a list of waving and smiling Miis that represent who you'll be racing, followed by the possibility of going into automatic spectator mode to view the rest of the race that's probably going on in the room at the moment. After that, you see a list of who you'll be racing again as well as their VR (Versus Rating, which goes up and down depending on how well you do while racing online), vote for a track to race on (or just opt for the Random option), wait for the roulette to choose which track will be raced on next, then you'll finally get to race. The process feels long and slow, but once things get going, it hardly feels like a hindrance, for the races themselves are just so addicting.

Surprisingly, online racing is pretty good when it comes to handling lag. It doesn't run as smoothly as a single player mode, but, unless you're really looking for spots of lag, it's likely you won't even notice the difference. Disconnecting is a rarity as well. In all, getting connected and staying connected is not a problem whatsoever.

The Battle mode is just as flawless as Versus when it comes to operating online, and it serves as a nice distraction when you find yourself feeling a little tuckered out from speeding along the track. In Battle mode, the players are split into two teams and face off against one another in one of two battle types: Balloon Battle and Coin Runners. Balloon Battle gives each players three balloons which they must protect while attacking other players to rid them of their balloons. Once a player runs out of balloons, they lose several points and are forced to wait until they respawn to get back into the action. Basically, it's a deathmatch to the finish. Coin Runners is a different entity altogether though. In this mode, the focus is more on gathering coins first and attacking the opposition second, in order to steal their coins of course. There's no need to worry about staying alive in this mode, but it's pretty easy to find yourself dropping precious coins left and right if you're not careful. In all, both modes are quite fun, and are different enough from each other to feel fresh. Unfortunately, the game automatically switches between these modes while online, meaning Coin Runners will come right after Balloon Battle, and vice versa, so, if you feel like participating in just one mode for a while, you'll fare better offline.

Battle mode stages, like the Versus mode stages, seem to be vastly different entities between the new Wii creations and the Retro stages from previous games. However, that doesn't automatically mean that the Retro stages are less fun; on the contrary, they're all quite engaging. The main difference lies in the size and design of the battlegrounds. While the Retro stages are rather small or well-sized and pretty plain for the most part, Wii stages are almost all quite massive and filled with new gimmicks to take advantage of the trick system, plus nearly all of them experience a dynamic change over the course of the battle to keep things interesting. Though, while Delfino Pier slowly being filled by water is cool indeed, it's hard to get over the sheer size of some of the new stages. For instance, Funky Stadium is absolutely massive, and with two teams of six people each driving around trying to kill each other in all that space, it's not quite so easy to target someone.

As We Ride Off Into the Sunset

All in all, Mario Kart Wii is a game you should buy if you're a Mario fan, an arcade racing fan, and if you plan to do most of your racing and/or battling with friends or online. You'll find endless hours of enjoyment with this game when playing with others, but, sadly, the same simply cannot be said for single player. This game has very limited value as a solo experience, and you may very well find yourself growing too frustrated with the single player Grand Prix mode before you even unlock everything. Online and multiplayer serve as fun distractions between rounds of having goes at the Grand Prix, and, once you've had all that out of the way, online and multiplayer will be pretty much the sole reasons for coming back. So I reiterate: If you want a fun online experience, get Mario Kart Wii. If you're looking for a long-lasting, solid single player game, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 02/02/10

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

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