Review: Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo Wii)
by Mark B. on May 1, 2008

Mario Kart Wii
Genre: Kart Racing
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 04/27/08


Mario Kart is a very interesting franchise, not for its gameplay mechanics, concept, or design elements, but because it has a reputation as being one of the most belligerently antagonistic game series’ ever conceived, and yet each iteration is almost always insanely entertaining and enjoyable. If you’ve somehow never played a Mario Kart game ever, this image should help you to understand the experience:

(The above is property of xkcd. Warning: may contain profanity… and jokes about math.)

That is, in a nutshell, a fairly accurate representation of what the “Mario Kart” experience amounts to: love it or hate it, the longer you spend playing the game, the more you will feel like Mr. Parker in a Christmas Story. There will be anger and frustration and yelling and accusations of all sorts laid at the feet of the computerized opposition, sworn promises to never play the game ever again… and then, the very next day, you will be back in front of the TV, controller in hand, dodging your way down Rainbow Road.

There is, literally, no other experience quite like it.

Mario Kart Wii continues the grand tradition of racing down the track, dodging shells and banana peels the whole way, but incorporates several interesting changes that actually balance out the experience significantly. Now, there’s no story of any significance to the experience (everyone decided to get together and drive around in circles), but there are a metric ton of gameplay modes that more than make up for that. If you’re looking to play solo, you can jump into various Grand Prix tournaments, run through time trials, play in battle mode, or go through single races by your lonesome, or you can grab some friends and play split-screen with up to four players in either races (solo or on teams) or in battle mode. You can also jump online (with one or two local players, which is an awesome addition) and play with friends or other random players in various races and such. There’s a ton of stuff to do by yourself or with friends, and you’ll have a lot of different and enjoyable game modes to tear through; if nothing else, MKW will always have a place in your Wii for parties and random play, which is always worth having around.

Visually, MKW looks like a cleaned-up Mario Kart Double-Dash; the game environments are bright, lively and impressive, and the characters all look top notch. MKW is easily one of the best-looking games on the Wii, and it maintains a smooth clean frame rate throughout to boot, even with four players jamming at once. The split-screen modes tend to make things a little harder to see, of course, but that’s a staple of that sort of play and it doesn’t make then any less enjoyable. The game music is, as expected, standard high-quality Mario fare, with the various tracks fitting the themes of the courses exceptionally (the tracks in Mario-themed courses are upbeat and bouncy, the tracks in the Bowser courses are menacing and foreboding, etc). There’s a decent amount of voices in the game, and of course, they’re all generally hilarious and awesome (Waluigi is the sorest loser ever and that’s just fantastic), and as expected, the sound effects are top-notch and absolutely perfect for the sort of silly racing game MKW is (so, you know, you’ve got tires squealing around turns matching up with bombs exploding). In short: Mario Kart Wii looks and sounds very, very good.

And thankfully, it’s as fun to play as ever. If you’ve ever played a racing game MKW is simple enough to grasp: accelerator, brake, turning, they’re all here, though how they’re implemented depends on your control scheme. When you start the game you’re given four control options: Wii-Mote in the Racing Wheel that’s included in the box with the game, Wii-Mote and Nunchuck, Wii-Mote and Classic Controller, and for those that still own one or four, the plain old Gamecube controller. Generally speaking, each has its own strengths and drawbacks, but unlike with Super Smash Brothers Brawl, all four of the control schemes work exceptionally well and are simple to learn and adjust to. Now, in fairness, each also has its own strengths and drawbacks and works best in different situations, depending on what sort of a player you happen to be, but the beautiful thing is that they’re all highly useful and functional, so whatever option works best for you isn’t inherently better or worse than any other option; in other words, you need not feel as though you need to learn a certain control style to “be the best”; the controls work well enough and the game is simple enough to learn that you can do well however you like.

Of course, Mario Kart has never been about just racing around the track; it’s also about completely ruining everyone else’s day with powerups of all sorts, and MKW also fully retains that tradition, with new and old powerups guaranteed to bring a frown to your opponent’s face. Your standard powerups belong to one (or more) of three categories: things that benefit you (turbo mushrooms to boost speed, Bullet Bill that allows you to rocket ahead when you’re lagging behind, Invincibility Stars that make you faster… and allow you to smack around anyone you bump into), things that mess up individual players (the green, red and blue shells, each of different levels of effect, IE green shells bounce around aimlessly, red shells home in on the next opponent ahead of or behind you, and the dreaded blue shells aim at whoever is in first place), and things that hurt large groups of players, or in some cases, ruin EVERYONE’S day (POW blocks that cause everyone to skid out and drop their items, Blooper the Squid blinds everyone and makes driving… difficult, Lightning Bolts that cause everyone else to skid out, shrink, drive slower, AND drop their items). Half of the fun of Mario Kart is driving well, to be certain, but the other part is nailing someone in the back end with a shell just before the end and stealing First Place at the absolute last second… I mean, sure, sportsmanship is great and all, but schadenfreude is hilarious too. In any case, it’s generally pleasing to note that all of the various power-ups are back in full force, and just as belligerent as ever, though it’s also worth noting that the TRULY nasty power-ups are often reserved for those who are bringing up the rear; thus, even if you started off badly, you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a simple judiciously applied day-ruining powerup. This is, in large part, why Mario Kart is so enjoyable; even though you can go, literally, from first to last place in a split second, that you can do the same to others makes the experience very fulfilling all in all.

Of course, even beyond the racing and the power-ups, there’s more to MKW than simply driving in a circle blowing everyone up. Although a good many people (myself included) were hoping to see the mechanics in Double Dash (the Gamecube Mario Kart) return for MKW, largely because having a wingman (or woman as the case merits) to help out during races was actually pretty fun, MKW essentially plays by standard Mario Kart rules, with a few new twists attached. The first, as you may have seen, is the addition of motorcycles as usable vehicles. The differences between cycles and karts are generally noticeable, but not detrimental; karts are heavier and are capable of drifting through turns, while motorcycles are lighter and, while incapable of drifting, can pop wheelies (which increases speed while decreasing handling). Both types of vehicles are fun to use, though, so it’s often not a big deal what you choose. Also, speaking of drifting, it too makes a return in MKW, though in a different fashion from before; normally, drifting was a simple matter of making a hard turn, which in turn threw up sparks, thus promoting “snaking” through straightaways, getting boosts of speed through each hard turn. This time, however, drift boosts are more dependant on how long you spend in a turn; the longer you spend making that hard turn, the better a boost you receive, which makes snaking less useful than before. Oh, and you can’t drift boost using an automatic transmission, so if you’re a fan of boosting, manual is the only way to get it. The second major change comes in the form of performing aerial tricks as you launch off of ramps (think Sonic Riders) via some sort of controller motion; if done properly, your character does a silly little Dave Mirra-esque trick, then gets a turbo boost upon landing. This can also be done off the side of half-pipes, which have conveniently been placed throughout the various tracks, thus giving you additional chances to turbo boost during the race. In both respects these are fairly easy to do and fairly helpful, while not being game-breakers.

Aside from racing, there are also two separate Battle Modes to play around with, in Balloon Battle (pop opposing players’ balloons with powerups) and Coin Runners (collect coins and steal coins from opponents). These are team-based affairs that play partially like kart racing, in that you’re driving around the tracks, but place more of an emphasis on beating the heck out of your opposition than crossing a finish line or anything. They’re generally not as amusing as racing the tracks as game modes go, but as a fun diversion for friends, they’re fantastic and amusing to play all in all.

For those who have never played a Mario Kart game before, or just want to get used to the differences in the Wii version (or a new control scheme), you can jump right into the various Race cups in single player, which are helpfully divided into 50, 100 and 150cc classes; aside from changing the speed at which the races take place, this also indicates the general difficulty of the races, with 50cc being good for beginners and 150cc being good for practicing throwing your controller into orbit. You can also race the various time trials and download ghost trials to see how other people make their times in races, if such a thing amuses you, and if you’re looking to unlock stuff, you’ll have a blast here; aside from the various multiplayer tracks you can unlock, there are also a ton of karts, bikes and characters to unlock in all sorts of different ways. Of course, eventually you’ll feel the need to race a friend, and it is here where MKW shines. Races can be customized from top to bottom with all sorts of options, including CPU difficulty, race speeds, vehicle usage, whether the CPU even participates at all, and item frequency (whether powerful items pop up more or less frequently), among other things, and you’re afforded the option to race on teams or every person for themselves on whatever tracks you’d like for as many races as you think should make up a circuit (up to thirty-two or so). Four-player split-screen is an absolute blast, but on the off chance your friends aren’t local, no worries: Mario Kart also comes equipped with online play that lets you challenge practically anyone in the world. When you jump online you’re offered the option to play against friends (assuming you have their MKW codes) or strangers based on region or around the world in races or battles, with your online ranking dictating your skill (so as to match you up with players around your level). Should you jump into a session in progress you can watch the other players who are presently racing while you wait, and when races start you can vote on what course to race through (or simply choose a random course if you don’t care) before you get down to business. Jumping in and out is generally a snap, and there doesn’t seem to be any significant lag issues at all while playing online. Oh, and best of all, YOU CAN PLAY ONLINE WITH TWO PLAYERS ON THE SAME CONSOLE, which is one of the greatest things ever. On the downside, there’s no real way to communicate with other players by all indications, but in this case, um, I’m going to have to say that’s [i]probably[/i] a good thing (see above).

You can also goof around with the Mario Kart Channel if such a thing interests you; essentially, it allows you to compare times with friends, download the aforementioned time trial ghosts, and watch replays and such. The true novelty of this is that you can actually install this channel onto your Wii, which means you can do all of the above WITHOUT having to boot MKW up, which is pretty neat, though whether or not you’re going to want to watch such things will depend on you; regardless, it’s an awesome option that I’m surprised I haven’t seen more frequently.

So, yes, Mario Kart Wii is a very good game. But so was Mario Kart Double Dash, which was substantially more innovative, and so was Mario Kart DS, which also had its own little novel quirks. Motorbikes and online play are neat, and aerial tricks are cute and useful, but MKW doesn’t really do anything so significantly special that the previous two Mario Kart titles didn’t do to make it a big winner. One could argue that, much like so many other Nintendo titles, we see Mario Kart on every system, but recycling other stale products doesn’t excuse this one. It’s still really, REALLY fun, but so are the other Mario Kart titles, and motion-sensitive controls, motorbikes and tricks aside, this is virtually identical to every other Mario Kart title, ever.

It also bears noting that, while MKW is really a title that can be played by just about anyone, it’s not really as friendly a title as something like SSBB, largely because, as noted, you will spend a decent amount of time watching yourself go from first to last place in SECONDS because of a powerup or fifteen. Indeed, thanks to the aerial tricks (and the significant amount of air one ends up spending their time catching) one may find themselves taking a wide-spread powerup in mid-air, thus knocking them down a pit on top of everything else, more often than they’d like. The newer, Wii-specific tracks tend to feature all sorts of crazy jumps which, when combined with the frequency of powerups that affect everyone else, can spell many cases of plunging into a lava trap or off Rainbow Road or what have you because, literally, the game stopped you in mid-air. On the older tracks this is less of a problem, obviously, but those courses tend to be less exciting, so it’s something of a toss-up; if you want to play around with courses designed to take advantage of the new designs, well, sometimes you’re gonna have to take a header into the lava pit. It happens.

This is not, by any means, to say that Mario Kart Wii is bad; it certainly isn’t bad so much as it’s more of the same. If you love Mario Kart, Mario Kart Wii has more to love; with a ton of courses, a ton of unlockables, all sorts of multiplayer modes and online play to boot, it’s an awesome Mario Kart experience. But if you’re content with your copy of Double Dash, MKW doesn’t do enough to make it a brand new experience, and while some of the design changes are decidedly for the better, others might be a little harder to accept after a few races. Overall, though, Mario Kart Wii is a fantastic racing experience that’s generally fun, exciting, and chock full of pitched turtle shell battles up and down the various colorful tracks. Whether you’re looking to race alone, race your friends, or race total strangers, Mario Kart Wii delivers an enjoyable racing experience, even if it does so while wedging the occasional blue shell up your tailpipe.

The Scores:
Game Modes: CLASSIC
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC

Final Score: GREAT.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Mario Kart Wii delivers a Mario Kart racing experience that’s an absolute blast to play, alone, with friends, or online. The controls are tight and easy to learn, the experience is laugh-out-loud entertaining, and there’s a whole lot of depth in the game. It’s not a lot different from the Mario Kart mold (though there’s something to be said for not fixing what isn’t broken), and some of the changes can potentially make the game harder to play than it would’ve otherwise been, but in the end those are small complaints; on the whole, Mario Kart Wii is a great racing experience for diehard fans and newcomers alike that’s simple to play and enjoy.



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