There’s an unmistakable adrenaline rush when firing up a new Mario Kart game for the first time, fueled by a nostalgic return to a gaming phenomenon running 15 years strong. There’s also the anticipation of wondrous new features that elevate Mario Kart racing to a new level of addiction. In Mario Kart Wii, the payoff is a game relying heavily on its roots while simultaneously taking the series into uncharted online waters.
Mario Kart’s success has hinged on Nintendo having never meddled with the basic racing recipe that made the original so successful. The same holds true for Mario Kart Wii, which at its core is essentially identical to past versions of the game. Veteran racers will feel right at home on the track, even with the Wii’s Remote/Nunchuk controller configuration or Wii Racing wheel, while newcomer “casual” gamers will be able to experience the racing sensation much the same way a different generation first did 15 years ago.
Adhering to tradition rather than tread new water has passed down the winning elements and flaws from previous versions into Mario Kart Wii. On the positive side, 16 memorable tracks plucked from Mario Kart’s history have been slightly beefed up graphically to join 16 all-new dynamic tracks. As expected, the new tracks are even bigger than their predecessors with moving obstacles and plenty of ways to crash. There’s never confusion as to whether you’re racing a new or old track as Nintendo has included a small console/game title prefacing each old track before a race begins.
Whether competing on an old track or new, the simple “three laps and you’re done” formula keeps the races exciting and fast enough to breeze through a small handful without having to carve out an entire afternoon to do so. Players will need all the restarts they can get where one missed item can be the difference between first and last place. Battle mode and best time mode also returns to infuse additional familiarity.
Unfortunately, the ease of dropping from first to last place in a matter of seconds is nothing new to the Mario Kart franchise. The infuriating practice of leading a race until the final stretch only to have a shell or other weapon take you out shy of the finish line is back stronger than ever. Because there’s no defensive countermeasure for these attacks, CPU drivers can — and will — gang up on you with weapons and slingshot by you to take the lead. The only defense when in the lead is to drop bananas in hopes they’ll hit one before taking you out. Instead of races being decided by who the better driver is, they’re decided by who scores the most deadly items at any given point in the race.
Additional frustration stems from the lack of thought put into what should have been Mario Kart Wii’s greatest single player asset: Grand Prix mode. My first journey into this mode actually sent me backing out thinking I missed the main campaign; if only that were true. Grand Prix is where it’s at, and one/third of it is a complete waste of time.
Each of 8 Grand Prix races are assigned to three different race classes: 50cc karts, 100cc new to Mario Kart bikes, and 150cc karts with bikes. 50cc Karts by themselves are both agonizingly slow and offer zero competition from the CPU racers. Novice players benefiting from the automation of sliding around corners will have little difficulty building up a fairly large lead early on, if they don’t get bored trying to cross the finish line. Jumping to bikes is a notable improvement with the added bonus of being able to pop wheelies, but for more acceptable speeds and worthy adversaries, the only place to go is 150cc.
Ultimate competition awaits players online where no Mario Kart game has gone before. For a first attempt, Nintendo has done a bang up job of ensuring casual and hardcore gamers alike will quickly and easily find a race to suit their needs. If you can remember your friends” codes they’ll likely be the first place to look for a match. Otherwise, ranked matches will pit you against players of similar skill level on either a regional or worldwide stage.
While the lack of voice chat is inexcusable in this day and age of gaming, Nintendo has gone the extra mile to personalize Mario Kart Wii more so than past online games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl. You can select an opponent from a race and not only see their Mii, but also discover their name and where in the world they’re located. It’s a nice touch that adds to what is arguably the smoothest, most robust, and most addictive online experience currently available on Wii.
The Wii’s enormous “casual” gamer base will eat Mario Kart Wii up with its accessible pick-up-and-play controls. Veterans aren’t left out either with online play they’ve been clamoring for well over a decade. Small nagging flaws aside like the use and defense of items and no voice chat, Mario Kart is once again is one of the better titles available on a Nintendo console.
– Dan Bradley