Nintendo is the Walt Disney of video game development. By that statement, I don’t mean to echo the tired complaints of “kiddie aesthetics” that too often get lobbed their way. Instead, this is high praise for the big N, which like the House of the Mouse, has perfected the art of finely crafted family entertainment. And like Walt’s kingdom, Nintendo built their empire on the backs of marketable mascots with world-wide appeal, meaning Mario is often called upon to engage in many extracurricular activities – from baseball to soccer to practicing medicine. Of his side projects, none have been more beloved than the Mario Kart series, which makes its debut on the Wii with Mario Kart Wii.
It’s no secret that the original Mario Kart blazed the trails for an entire sub-genre of mascot driven kart racers. Through the years, we’ve seen ‘copy kart’ titles featuring Crash Bandicoot, the Cartoon Network stars and even M&Ms. None have measured up to the Richard Petty of the circuit, the true King of the Kart genre, Mario.
It’s only fitting that this latest title plays like a greatest hits for a series that first hit gamer’s radars way back on the Super Nintendo system. Mario Kart Wii is designed as a refinement and tribute to the games that have come before – featuring updated versions of tracks ripped from some of the seminal titles in the past. In addition to the 16 original tracks on display, the game developers have raided the vaults and dusted off 16 greatest hits from the SNES, GBA, N64, Gamecube and DS iterations of the series – meaning fans will get the chance to become reacquainted with some old favorites.
The big draw to the Wii version of Mario Kart is the introduction of the Wii Wheel, which comes packed in with the game (additional wheels can be bought separately). The Wii Wheel is a plastic shell that contains a hollowed compartment where the player inserts their Remote. This allows the player to control their kart by steering the wheel – with the face buttons and B button controlling the gas and breaks respectively. As they did with Super Smash Brothers Brawl, Nintendo has also opened up the control scheme to accommodate the Remote by itself, with the wheel, with the Nunchuck attachment, the Classic Controller or by using a Gamecube controller.
While the game is arguably developed with multiplayer in mind, there are a robust series of options for single players to enjoy. In the single player campaign, players choose from one of 24 characters (12 of which have to be unlocked) and then select one of three Grand Prix classes. The 50 cc class finds the player racing through all 32 tracks using karts only. The 100 cc introduces motor bikes – with all characters racing on different variations of these two-wheelers. The final class, the 150 cc, combines all vehicles. As you move up through these Grand Prix classes, the speed of the vehicles is increased as well. Players are awarded a trophy (Bronze, Silver or Gold) and a rating based on how they performed. Success in the Grand Prix mode is the key to unlocking several of the new characters and vehicles – including Mii support.
The game play should prove very familiar to series fans. The player is pitted in a 3-lap race within a field of 12 competitors on a variety of twisting, turning tracks. The player must jockey for position with the other racers, picking up offensive and defensive weapons (such as banana peels or turtle shields) and race to the finish. While fending off the competition’s advances and attacks, the player needs to contend with the various environment factors such as leaping lava streams and the lunging Chain Chomps that adorn some tracks.
In addition to the Grand Prix mode, solo gamers can test their skill at the large number of Time Trials available to race. Several of these Time Trials pit the player against a Nintendo staff “ghost” in a race to beat their best time. The remainder of the unlockables can be pursued in this mode. Players can also save their own best times and return to race against their own ghost for an additional challenge.
Despite the unquestionable success of the Nintendo Wii, the company has fielded its share of legitimate questions concerning their presence in the online gaming space. Compared to the robust features and bustling communities offered by competitors Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo’s Internet offerings have proven anemic. Thus, Mario Kart Wii marks a big step forward in the right direction towards providing a competent online gaming experience.
While the game offers local Multiplayer, with the usual assortment of straight up race and battle modes for splitscreen action, the real meat can be found by employing the built in Wi-Fi connection and playing through Nintendo’s free online service. A few games (including Super Smash Brothers Brawl) have embraced online multiplayer, but Mario Kart Wii seems to offer the most complete package to date.
After connecting through Nintendo’s Wi-Fi network, players have the option of selecting either the racing or battle modes and then playing against people from the following three tiers: worldwide, regional or their friends list. Selecting worldwide or regional will place the player in competition with up to 11 other opponents either globally or closer to home. All maps are open to players and before the race boots, the map selection is put to a vote. Players can then stay on and keep racing the same group of people for as long as they want or easily drop out after a race and restart the process to pull in a whole new field of competitors. Each player is given a ranking that starts at 5000 points which will either rise or fall based on your performance. All of this is tracked in the game’s extensive online leaderboards.
As expected, the friend’s option allows you to set-up a race and invite people from your friends list. As with Nintendo’s other Wii offerings, the friends list is driven by those 16-digit friend codes – meaning you will need to share your code with a friend and input their code in your address book before you can invite them in. As voice chat is not supported, Nintendo has set-up a simple text messaging interface that offers players pre-canned comments that they can send to their competition.
As part of their online strategy, Nintendo has also launched a new channel specific to this game. Players who load the Mario Kart Channel to the system’s dashboard can access their friend’s list to see if anyone is playing as well as view the online leaderboards. In addition, saved “ghosts” can be uploaded or downloaded from the channel. Nintendo has also begun offering special global tournaments through the channel, with player’s invited to enter and race against a predetermined challenge to determine who is the greatest racer in the world. Since the game’s April release, Nintendo has promoted a couple tournaments, with the latest released on June 3rd featuring a brand new track based off of Super Mario Galaxy.
So, is Mario Kart Wii worth racing out to get?
Mario Kart Wii boasts a similar visual presentation as its Gamecube predecessor, Mario Kart Double Dash. Aside from some subtle visual tweaks, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two titles. That said, the Mario Kart series is known for its cartoonish aesthetic, with these crazy karts screaming through bright and cheerful environments. While the texture work is fairly simple, the artistic design does a great job of evoking the famous Mario vistas – with the various highways and byways of the Mushroom Kingdom drawn in bold, colorful strokes. While the environments may seem at home on lesser-powered hardware, the karts and their drivers have all seen increases in their rendering, and they look polished and feel appropriately weighty, which is the most important element in a racer. As the track list represents a smorgasbord of past system highlights, it’s fairly easy to discern which tracks were built from the ground up for this release (a rollercoaster ride through a mine cart level is particularly impressive). That said, the tracks ripped from prior games have all had subtle improvements with the SNES and Nintendo 64 courses receiving the most benefit.
Mario Kart is comfort food. It knows what it is and no matter who cooks it, it always comes out satisfying. That said, it doesn’t try to break the mold or mix things up. This version of Mario Kart plays like a greatest hits, a refinement of the gameplay features that have been implemented into the series since its start. Some fans bemoan the fact that the speed-boosting ‘snaking’ technique has been crippled within the game but this is far from a ‘dumbing down’ tactic. If I have one complaint with the gameplay, it’s one that could be lobbed at the entire series. Simply put, the game’s rubber band AI does everything it can to insure that if you are in 1st place by a wide margin, you won’t be for long as every detrimental weapon effect will be tossed your way allowing the competition to play catch up. And if you are in last place, expect to receive all of the coveted items aimed at bringing you back to the forefront. This is a nagging complaint that has been a staple of the series’ single player campaign since its inception and it’s one we just roll with now. The large number of unlockables (12 additional characters including your custom Mii avatar) will keep single players plowing through the various Grand Prix classes and Time Trials for quite awhile. The online Multiplayer just propels this game through the roof with a very robust package, insuring this title will keep Mario Kart fans satisfied for a very long time.
Nintendo continues their solid decision in allowing users to control the game the way that best suits them – with full support provided for the Gamecube controller, the Classic Controller, the Wii Remote, the Remote and Nunchuck combo and of course, the new Wii Wheel which comes packed in with the game. Of these control schemes, I found they all work well, with the Remote/Nunchuck combo proving to be my method of choice. That’s just my personal preference as the game controlled like a dream with the other methods as well. It should be noted that using the Wii Wheel requires a little adjustment as the wheel is very sensitive to turning but after a lap or two, it became second nature. I’ve found that the Wii Wheel seems to be the control of choice for casual gamers, thus keying in on Nintendo’s proven success with winning over new gaming converts by offering up new gameplay experiences. Unnecessary waggle (motion control) is kept to a minimum with it mainly employed to perform the optional trick system that grants your rider a tiny speed boost.
Like the visuals, you know a Nintendo game when you hear one. Mario Kart Wii features a series of tunes spun from the previous games – again, complimenting the Greatest Hits vibe on display. The tracks are all bouncy and upbeat. although they do take the traditional ominous downturn when racing through Bowser’s castle. They’re all light, catchy tracks that serve the mood properly but don’t nestle themselves in your head like the classic arrangements found in Mario’s traditional adventures. Sorry, no ‘Underworld Theme’ here. Also, after Super Mario Galaxy’s amazing orchestral renditions of some traditional Mario favorites, this is too much of a step-back to Midi scoring with the orchestration on display here.
Let’s face it, I’m racing Goombas not Gran Turismo. These cartoon karts sounds exactly as I would expect they would – specifically since they sound like they always have – at least since the N64 iteration. I don’t expect the full-on American Chopper overhaul to these karts and dirt bikes but there must be something that can be done to amplify things. That said, the rest of the sound design is certainly capable. In fact, sound plays such a key role in this game as you will learn to listen for the tell-tale sound cues that lets you know a feared Red Shell (or worse, Blue) is right on your tail. Like a fighter pilot with a bogey inbound, you need to shake that thing the second the klaxons start blaring in this game. You’ll soon fear some of this game’s audio cues as often times, it means the rubber band AI has kicked in and you are about to go from first to worst.
I’m rating this squarely on the single player campaign and simply put, the AI cheats like a bandit. The Mario Kart series has been the poster child for rubber band AI, those tricky routines that allow your competition to snap right back no matter how far away they find themselves. It’s bad enough that these little 50 cc karts suddenly rocket to 150 cc and beyond when the computer decides Yoshi has been trailing behind enough but find yourself with enough of a lead and you can expect to be hammered with Red Shell after Blue Shell after Thundercloud until you’ve dropped back to 12th. And then, the AI will kick in and give you a hand through one of the specialty items that they reserve for the losers – meaning that kick back to last place only lasts as long as it takes for you to find a Bullet Bill that can then be ridden back to the front. That’s just cheap game design that diminishes the emphasis on skill. I understand the urge to keep things close and I know the Mario Kart series has wide family appeal but there has to be better ways to level the playing field than by employing these cheap tactics. Usually it’s not enough to throw the race on you, but when the attacks come late in the 3rd lap, expect to convert the Wii Wheel into a Frisbee.
Mario Kart Wii isn’t an overly difficult game. Most races, I was able to overcome the cheating AI and still finish in the Top 3 (usually in first place). The first two Grand Prix courses are a cakewalk with the only difficulty encountered if you choose a larger character (i.e. Donkey Kong) for racing on a smaller track (Rainbow Road). The 150 cc series ratchets up the challenge nicely and should give solo players a run for their money. For those completionists who like to unlock everything a game offers, the races found in the Time Trials, specifically when facing some of the Expert Staff ghosts, can prove quite challenging. Fortunately, you can learn from watching these staff ghosts and by applying their techniques, you may improve your own.
You’ll play through Single Player to unlock the various characters (at least the Miis) but Multiplayer is where you’ll truly find the heart of this game. Taking a cue from Mario Kart DS, this game takes great advantage of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi service through a compelling package of race and battle modes. The matchmaking is quick and easy, with players able to race against global competitors, people closer to home or their friends. While racing against live competition doesn’t entirely negate the cheap nature of some of the weapon pick-ups (the person in first will always feel the wrath of the Blue shell), it doesn’t sting as much when it has been launched by a live body. While not a knock against the multiplayer options, Nintendo really needs to do something about Voice Chat as these races can prove to be so intense and fun and yet impersonal when you can’t hear the laughter of someone who just rode Bullet Bill to the front of the pack or the frustration of someone who just got served a Blue Shell mere moments from the Finish Line. The simple text messaging function just doesn’t send the same message. The inclusion of the Mario Kart Channel, which offers the ability to check on races, leaderboards and friends while offering up recurring tournament challenges, is a great touch that really shows Nintendo is invested in building a community. And for those without the Internet connection, the game offers up a nice suite of splitscreen multiplayer options, just like the old days.
Mario Kart Wii doesn’t deliver anything new and really comes across like a celebration of this landmark series, with classic courses, musical tracks and audio cues name-checked throughout. That said, it is a refinement of an efficiently built racer that above all is designed for fun. To that end, it delivers. Mario’s rogue gallery of classic cohorts are all here and fans are bound to find a favorite to race with – be it King Boo, Yoshi or their own Mii. While the single player campaign is extensive, the limited challenge does render it a bit repetitive after awhile. Fortunately, the robust multiplayer features make this one title that should keep racing laps in your Wii for a long time coming.