Yup, it's Mario Kart again.
Well, it’s been about seventeen minutes since Mario’s last spin off adventure, so it looks like it’s about that time again…. Oh wait! This is a Mario spin-off that people genuinely care about! Honestly, I don’t know why Nintendo doesn’t think about creating some new franchises instead of whoring out good old Mario around 20 times a year; however Mario kart has always been something a bit more special. What’s even more special is that we Europeans get this one before our American cousins, hence the reason I’m writing this review before it’s even released for you yanks – haha! (Then again, I shouldn’t talk that much, since the far more interesting brawl hasn’t even got a solid release date yet. I think Ninty hates us for some reason). This latest rendition of the series is bundled with one of those plastic wii-wheel things, which in reality is just an empty shell to slot the remote into, but hey, freebies are freebies. While the game hasn’t really evolved all that much since the last iteration, it’s still certainly worth having a talk about it.
For those of you who aren’t well initiated with the series (or clearly haven’t played an Nintendo console for the last 4 generations), I’ll give a brief overview. Mario and company will find themselves racing around locales from the series, such as Bowser’s castle and the mushroom kingdom, picking up some boosts and funky power ups along the way. ‘Kart has always been a pretty forgiving and spontaneous game, as it rewards players in the last place with better items, and handicaps those in the lead, meaning unlike some racing games, you’ll never be in front for very long. Along with the basic controls and crazy courses, it’s this sort of thing that has always made the Mario Kart games a favourite for multiplayer experiences. Though you won’t find any real depth or series skill to the game, despite the amount of competitions you’ll often see, it’s always been easily accessible and fun to play for new players… And with this one, you get a plastic wheel!
As far as the core gameplay goes, things haven’t changed much since the last entry on the GameCube, other than the addition of bikes and the fabled plastic wheel. Both of these additions have a mild stench of gimmick about them, as the bikes don’t play all that differently from the karts, other than they’re slightly slower but offer a tricks system to get some boosts. The wheel will probably go down pretty well with the casual players, but it doesn’t offer the same level of responsiveness that you’d expect from a traditional controller, which means it likely won’t be long till you’re reaching for that analogue stick, whether it be the classic, GC controller or just the nunchuck. It’s nice of Nintendo to include a bonus controller like that, but like the zapper, it just seems to undermine the whole point of the remote itself – If the wii remote is the all-purpose controller that can be ‘anything’, why am I buying little bits of plastic to slot it into? Besides, when you’re playing in a ranked online environment (Yes, online matches are ranked), you need every advantage you can get – and the wheel isn’t one of them.
Alright enough wheel hate, let’s talk a little about the racing. It doesn’t take many risks for a Mario kart game; you’ll find the standard fare of crazy tracks, crazy characters and crazy weapons. The game features 16 all-new tracks, and the same amount of retro ones. A good thing worth noting about this entry into the series is that the new tracks are probably the best to have featured in a Mario Kart game to date, with plenty of things going on, risky shortcuts and fun extras. The healthy amount of them also means that you aren’t going to get bored anytime soon. They really are a lot of fun, though they do seem to cast a bit of a shadow over the older tracks, which don’t seem nearly as exciting. The way the karts handle makes them very accessible, because you’ll only have to use three buttons – gas, drift and item, and there’s even an option to set the drifting to automatic, at a slight speed penalty. This is a game that most newbies won’t have much problem jumping into.
There aren’t many graphical differences between this and the last version on the GameCube either. It’s by no means a bad looking game, it’s just the game isn’t going to wow you graphically, relying more on those zany track layouts and tricks. Still, this only holds true for the newer tracks, and the ‘classic’ ones seem sort of bland. The fact that these older tracks are made faithfully, hence featuring a whole ton of right angles, doesn’t help to make this much of a graphical showcase either. Now I’m not slamming the game for not looking awesome, I know the Wii’s hardware limits, but games like Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3 have already shown us that the console is capable of more than polished GameCube visuals. Considering this is the same developer we’re talking about here, it’s a shame they didn’t put a little bit more effort into making it look prettier.
Where Mario Kart wii really shines is in its multiplayer. While you’ll still be getting the four player split-screen that we all know and love, there’s also free online play for up to 12 players online, kind of like what we saw in the DS iteration, however here it’s much easier to get a game, and play with your friends. Nintendo has actually really gone a long way with the online component in the game, as you’ll be given friends lists, random matches, rankings, competitions and ghost data uploads. Besides, this is how it’s meant to be played; it’s far more fun taking someone out and provoking a hilarious reaction than just playing against AI. It’s nothing that we haven’t already seen done on the Wii’s competitor consoles; however the fact that it’s totally functional and includes all these features makes it something special for the system. This is probably the first wii game to really nail the idea of what an online experience is meant to be… This in some ways is kind of worrying (that it took so long), but as long as future games use this as a template, I think we should be alright.
Like in pretty much every other ‘Kart game, you’ll get the usual three game difficulties, the usual time trial, battle (which for some reason you can only play in teams now) and of course grand prix modes. Most of the items are the same, aside from a couple of new additions to the old lot, so everything is played pretty safe. The drifting has actually been changed in order to stop the hardcore ‘snakers’ (Apologies for my poor Mario kart terminologies) from abusing the old drifting system. Indeed, a lot of the game is made particularly easy for everyone, which brings us to one of the major flaws.
While Nintendo has obviously gone to great lengths to ensure that everyone has a good chance of winning no matter what their skill level is, it’s created some major balance issues, especially in the multiplayer. Some of the most powerful weapons are completely unblockable, and will particularly penalise the player who is in the lead. Items like the blue shell and the POW block appear far more often than they should, and the player in the last position will be receiving incredibly powerful pickups that give the player in 1st position a severe handicap. Since the distance between first and last is never usually too great, a well timed overpowered item can easily allow the last placed player to snatch a rather dubious win, which will often seem pretty unfair. Understandably, some people are going to think that I’m missing the point, and that Mario Kart is supposed to be random and unpredictable. This is fair enough, but when the game can handicaps the best players, and can randomly snatch away a victory through luck, it seems a bit strange they would opt to use a permanent player ranking system.
For better or worse, Mario kart Wii is more of the same that you’ve come to expect from the last few instalments of the spin-off series. If you dig the ‘kart games, you’re going to love this one. If you’ve never really been into it, then you probably won’t change your mind for this game either, but there’s no denying that Mario kart Wii has the best online experience that the system currently has to offer. That alone makes it worth playing.
The good: Online play is fun and addictive, good amount of fun levels, gameplay is accessible for gamers new and old, it’s totally Mario kart
The bad: Single player is a bit thin, some of the powerups don’t seem balanced, occasional lag in online multiplayer, the wheel is dissapointingMario Kart Wii gets 4/5