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Mario Kart Wii (Wii)
Game Reviews

Mario Kart Wii (Wii)

Nintendo’s ultimate mascot racer returns for its first appearance on the Wii console. Can it live up to its looney lineage?

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A criticism often labeled at the Nintendo Wii is the console’s lack of traditional, hardcore-style games. Another is the abundance of terrific first-party software, which is often blamed for the first criticism. Odd that these two gripes should negate themselves with the release of the anticipated Mario Kart Wii, which coming mere weeks after the release of Nintendo’s other core-market Super Smash Bros. Brawl, not only lives up to just about every expectation a Mario Kart fan could ever hope for, it excels and supersedes all predecessors with a surprisingly fluent online mode and more options than you could ever hope for. There’s few games that could ever list among its faults many of its strengths – this may be just another Mario Kart game, but then again…it’s another Mario Kart game!

Given how long the franchise has been with us, if you’re reading this impression, chances are you’re familiar with the basics. Mario Kart Wii backslides a bit from the two-person Kart action of the Gamecube’s Double Dash and returns the formula to the one-rider formula of the past. Much like the lauded Nintendo DS version, various tracks from the series come together for one gigantic and colossal mash-up that combine many of the series best moments and adds plenty of surprises into the mix. For the first time bikes are available alongside the standard karts, and thanks to a savvy online mode up to 12 players can compete in the most chaotic, panic-inducing races the series has ever seen. But ultimately its still Mario Kart and that alone is reason for celebration, because frankly, who doesn’t love tearing it up as your favorite Nintendo character now and again?

The gameplay retains much of the same straightforward, yet addictive aura fans should be more than familiar with. While this may seem like a let-down at first, the real joy of a Mario Kart title doesn’t come with surprises, but how well the total package manages to entertain and keep the good times rolling. Many felt that the Double Dash, still a fine game by itself, was a bit of a letdown, especially following the superlative Mario Kart 64. Mario Kart Wii thankfully returns much of the magic and insanity into the mix, sprinkling in plenty of bonus features to keep things fresh while never coming off as stale or superficial.

Although by no stretch the most graphically intense Wii game (scaled-back models and all), what the graphics lack in complexity is more than compensated for in silky-smooth frame-rates and blistering competitions. Bright, colorful backgrounds help bring the older tracks to a clarity they’ve never had before, and this is especially true for the older N64 levels. The newer tracks are a joy themselves, and more than make up for the lackluster (and smaller) mini-tracks that plagued the DS version. Although its a shame that the game’s music never reaches for anything other than the familiar, plenty of voice-overs from your favorite characters (for better or worse) help bring the action alive and sound just as good as they ever have. Again, nothing ground-breaking but the game’s presentation more than gets the job done.

Deciding how to play can be half the fun, as there’s never been more ways to play before. At your disposal is the stock Wiimote-on-side, Wiimote + Nunchuk, Gamecube controller, Classic controller, and I can’t leave out the included Wii Wheel attachment. Actually I’m sorry for listing the Wheel last as it performed surprisingly well and should help bring in players who’ve never touched a Mario Kart game before, and despite the mindless ramblings of certain gaming blogs online, was actually quite fun to play around with. The Gamecube/Classic controllers performed much like you’d expect, but the real shocker is just how well the Wiimote + Nunchuk configuration performed, which was nearly flawless for pinpoint accuracy and especially performing stunts. As a longtime Mario Kart fan, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced a better set-up than this, and with so many options available, there’s definitely something for everyone.

Some caveats that should be addressed are the game’s curious balancing, or lack thereof. The Mario Kart franchise has since its first SNES iteration become increasingly unbalanced, especially in the unfair use of overpowered weapons and a barrage of attacks from less-capable players. The latest Wii version continues this tradition, and there are instances when pure skill and determination alone won’t help your cause, your winning streaks will likely be hampered by a barrage of spiked shells and more-than prevalent POW blocks. Oddly enough these instances provide a harsher and somewhat unbalanced AI level than any I have seen in the other installments, going from first to last is strangely common almost on the verge of being considered cheap. Fortunately the experience is limited to higher GP CPU races and not much more.

It’s taken Nintendo a few attempts, but one department that Mari Kart Wii surprisingly excels is its online multiplayer. Those who’ve done their best to make do with the company’s previous attempts at securing a secure, proper online experience will undoubtedly bringing their Mario Kart skills online, lest a laggy experience and slow connection destroy the possibility of world domination, let alone fun. But incredibly, the gaming gods have heard our cries and not only is Mario Kart Wii a shining example of how Wii titles can play online, its a great experience no matter how you slice it. Of course the vilified Friend Codes system and lack of voice-chat are still present, but when balanced against the depth and complexity of just how well the game actually plays online, they’re hardly an issue. Thanks to a butter-slick interface and easy-matching system, finding opponents (regional and worldwide) is a snap with up to 11 other players competing in the most insanely populated and frantic matches ever. The entire system is practically instant, and the matches themselves flow with nary a drop in frames or online lag problems. In fact, during my experience with the game I can’t say I ever experienced ANY slowdown or troublesome lag during play. A fairly open-ended skill ranking point system is present, and if nothing else will help obsessive players become even more obsessive in their quest to become the best. Great appreciated.

Another triumph of the game’s superior online mode is the dedicated Mario Kart Channel, which can be installed onto the Wii’s dashboard menu and will provide would-be Mario Kart nuts a whole new way to keep track of what’s-what. Best lap times from across the globe are readily available, and if you’re feeling bold and looking to beat course times, they’re only a download away (in the form of Ghost Trials). The whole experience is a solo-affair, with hardly a distraction present, although be warned as many of the options can be fairly addictive (such as uploading, downloading tracks, or competing against random ghost opponents that come through online). Best of all are the Nintendo sponsored tournaments that should be a regular occurrence from now on, and should lengthen the game’s already infinite replay value. Note to Wii online developers – this is how it’s done.

I’m the type to exaggerate, but I can’t possibly see how Wii owners everywhere wouldn’t want to pick up Mario Kart Wii for themselves. In this day and age of endless chatter over the impending Casual Market revolution, rarely does the question of whether or not a game is actually fun come up. Given the steps Nintendo has taken with the various Mario Kart iterations over the years, its a wonder the series has managed to remain so accessible to newcomers, yet retain its hardcore appeal to fans across the world. Small quirks like sadistically brutal AI on later difficulty levels and unbalanced weaponry may annoy some, but they’ll hardly keep anyone away for long. Best of all, the whole package is a tremendously positive step in the right direction for both Nintendo and their slacking online ambitions, as its execution in that department is leaps and bounds beyond anything the company has tinkered with before (I’m looking at YOU, Super Smash Bros. Brawl). Its an exciting mash-up of mature and community building content built upon one of the most reliable and universally loved franchises of all time. Mario Kart Wii is an instant purchase, no exceptions.

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About the Author: Herman Exum