Mario Kart Wii (Wii) review
"Nintendo should be commended for making genuine improvements to its classic formula, but my resulting goodwill vanished the minute I was reminded that rubber band AI is the devil."
Throughout the years, Mario Kart games have regularly produced an exhilarating blend of hardcore racing action and effortless fun. Whether you're young or old, male or female, a new installment in the popular series has always been cause for celebration. Now Mario Kart Wii has arrived on Nintendo's most accessible system ever, complete with a new control scheme and features that could leave some people wondering if Nintendo has forgotten how to craft a good kart racing experience.
In the past, the chief difference between the various Mario Kart titles was the track selection. Certainly, Mario Kart Wii doesn't skimp on that front. In addition to reworked versions of 16 tracks from previous games that include highlights such as Bowser's Castle from Mario Kart 64 and Peach Gardens from Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the Game Boy Advance, there are 16 all-new courses. One destination finds the racers careening about rickety planks in Wario's Gold Mine as they avoid carts and bottomless pits. Koopa Cape is a watery course with strong currents that propel racers toward electrical barriers as they grapple for position with the 11 other drivers crowding each track. A harrowing journey along Moonview Highway is also especially noteworthy because it's more thrilling than the similar environments that some players will remember from earlier in the series. The designs here generally feature numerous obstacles that make them surprisingly difficult compared to other recent offerings.
Thanks to a new control scheme, even the least imaginative designs feel somewhat frantic. Mario Kart Wii ships with an adaptor (called the Wii Wheel) that snaps in place around your Wii Remote. You hold it in your lap and turn it left or right to turn while pressing the right buttons to accelerate and brake, the d-pad to throw or drop items and the trigger underneath to hop. This is the default way to play. Even if you're used to the traditional style, give the new one a few minutes of practice and you'll likely find that it feels completely natural. Adults new to gaming should get the hang of things almost immediately, and kids will love it because they'll feel more like they're actually driving.
Besides learning to love the new controls, veteran players will need to adapt to the inclusion of bikes. The presence of the leaner, meaner vehicles isn't just a gimmick; they turn more easily than their four-wheeled counterparts and can ride on one wheel for temporary speed boosts, but also are more readily knocked about by the other drivers. It hasn't been this easy to get rammed into a pit since the original Super Mario Kart. Players will have to decide whether they prefer maneuverability or stability. Switching between the two keeps things fresh for quite awhile. Mastering either style takes longer still.
Ironically, returning Mario Kart veterans will probably have as much trouble as anyone else. That's because the exciting new control scheme makes it difficult to zig-zag around corners using turbo boosts. On the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, you could head into a turn pressing the analog stick in one direction, then make a few quick jerks in the opposite direction so that the color of your exhaust changed. Then you could come out of a curve with a nice speed boost. This technique was widely called 'snaking,' and it definitely took some skill. Truly agile players were able to zip all over the place--even along wide, straight stretches--while less clever players growled with frustration and rarely bothered trying. Mario Kart Wii solves this potential balance issue by removing the option to snake unless you choose the manual control scheme. You'll be at a disadvantage if you do since cornering becomes more difficult, but in return you're allowed to snake. It's an interesting trade-off, especially since it'll take practice to master the move even if you were an expert before (but hey, that's what 'Time Trial' mode is for!).
If you aren't proficient when it comes to snaking, you should still be fine. Nintendo has included a new method for boosting that players of all skill levels will love. Now as you launch from a ramp or other obstacle that sends you airborne, you can jerk the Wii Remote up to obtain a small energy reserve (and if you're on a bike, to perform daredevil stunts). Seeing your racer flip his or her body around the handlebars before executing a landing is a hoot. Whether in a car or bike, once you land you'll zip forward as if you just scarfed down a nitrous mushroom. The challenge is to avoid flying clumsily into a wall or pit after boosting at an inopportune moment.
Nintendo should be commended for making genuine improvements to its classic formula, but my resulting goodwill vanished the minute I was reminded that rubber band AI is the devil. Picture yourself driving along one early course, where to cross a large gap you must bounce along the surface of springy mushrooms. Typically, this is easy as pie. However, it quickly becomes an exasperating experience when--as you're halfway across a gap--some other driver uses a lightning bolt, POW block or blue shell to send you hurtling downward. Even when you know that such attacks are coming (thanks to a handy on-screen indicator and alarm chime), there's nothing you can do about them. Then the other drivers pass you as Lakitu fishes you from the darkness and sets you back on the course.
If that were the end of things, it wouldn't be so bad, but Mario Kart Wii treads further down the path of cheapness. When you're struck by any of those attacks, you lose any goodies that you might be hoarding. This renders defensive driving nearly impossible. If you're in the habit of carrying around a banana peel to protect your back bumper from red shells, you'll lose it the minute the first attack strikes. Then--before you have even a ghost of a chance to find more protective loot--you're hit again (and possibly a few more times after that). Losing your first-place position on the final lap to a series of attacks you literally cannot avoid is wrong and it happens more often than you might suppose. It's made even more maddening when you see your rivals throwing around such attacks while the best you're given is the occasional banana peel.
With only a few small modifications, Mario Kart Wii could have been the best in the series. The new control scheme is refreshing, the alterations to downplay snaking are well-executed and the new tracks are some of the finest that the franchise has offered so far. Unfortunately, persistent flaws that have dogged players since Mario Kart 64 return with a vengeance and drag everything down a notch. The experience as a whole provides frantic fun in spite of that, especially when multiple people are going at it locally or online, but Nintendo really needs to get its act together if Mario and crew are ever going to return to the top of the racing heap. Mario Kart Wii is a great effort that proves Nintendo still has the old magic, but it could have and should have been better still.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 15, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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