Review: Sometimes too much change makes a series go from really great to just great.
Mario Kart Wii's rank compared to its five predecessors might be the only thing in the world that changes position more than your rank against the game's rubber-band AI. At first, you'll find that it falls behind the pack with unnecessary modifications that reward novice players instead of skilled ones. Wider courses, easier drifting abilities and unbalanced weapons trip up this game like that lone banana that you just can't avoid. But then, upon closer inspection, you'll discover it leads the way with new modes and more tracks that'll keep kart racing diehards playing, too. The addition of online gameplay and classic courses are akin to the game using a super mushroom to rebound from last place. With such volatility, it's impossible to properly rank Mario Kart Wii without exploring all of the aspects make it go back and forth from worst to first in the fifteen-year-old franchise.
The So-So: Middle of the Road
License to Steer
Since the Mario Kart series is almost 16, it's learning to drive for real using an actual steering wheel for turning left and right. The packaged Wii Wheel accessory sounds like a cheap gimmick, but feels very natural all the way through the 100cc difficulty. By fitting the Wii remote horizontally in the center and then tilting the plastic wheel out in front of you, you hold it with two hands in a way that'd make Borat remark, ?But then it look like I am holding a gypsy while he eat my khram.? No matter how Borat thinks it makes you look, holding it this way picks up even slight right and left turns, making the entire motion-controlled turning concept suprisingly responsive and almost innovative. ?Almost? because when you reach 150cc, the normal remote and nunchuk combation works better for more accurate analog turning. The Classic and the GameCube controllers also work well, but I found the remote and nunchuk to be very similar to the underrated N64 controller and therefore ideal for racing.
Born to be Wiild
The Wii Wheel is one of two Mario Kart Wii changes that I didn't strictly love or hate. The other is the debut of bikes. Again, it seems like another cheap gimmick that will only take away from the go-karting experience, but Nintendo makes racing on two wheels just as fun as racing on four. While you can't achieve drifting's second-tier Super Mini-Turbo like you can with karts, you can perform exclusive wheelies. These are best saved for straightaways, as turning while perfoming a wheelie is limited. The variety is great, but the go-karts are still king of the road in my opinion.
The Bad: Slipping on a Banana Peel
Wobbly Weapons Balance
Mario Kart Wii contains a number of unbalanced gameplay issues and annoyances that keep it from being the best in the series. Most notably, the weapons are far more powerful than previous games. The rare blue-spiked shell and the clutch kart-shrinking lightning attacks are joined by new devastating items in which last place players can effect some one's imminent first place finish. The POW block causes all of your opponents to spin out while you speed past them unharmed. The Bullet Bill also allows you to speed past your rivals by turning your vehicle into the black bullet character from Super Mario Bros. 3. For a couple of seconds, you fly through the track while knocking people over if they're in the way. Unfortunately, as creative as these new weapons are, those formerly rare instances in which the race can be turned upside down happen every single lap, making it hard to maintain a lead even if you're legitimately a good player. A lot of times, it just comes down to dumb luck.
Hold on to your weapons
Another weapons-related setback that robs Mario Kart Wii of strategy is the fact that it's very difficult to hold onto your items. Every time you bump into a course obstacle or receive a blow from an enemy weapon, you'll drop the item you have on hand. Fallen items like mushrooms and red turtle shells are then strewn on the track and if you run into them, they have rewarding or devastating effects, respectively. Picking up fallen items is a neat addition, but the fact that they fall out of your possession so much takes away from strategically holding on to stars and lightning to use at the most opportune moment. It's just too risky to wait to shrink everyone before they go off a ramp in which they need to be normal size to make it across a large gap. That's what made Wario Stadium so fun on N64. With lightning on hand, even a third or fourth-place player in multiplayer could dominate the leader with fear and cause them to come to a dead stop right before the big jump. Now incidents in which you can strategically use weapons have given way to general chaos.
A dozen makes a wide difference
Having twelve karts or bikes instead of eight only adds to that overall chaos and it comes with another unflattering side effect: more vehicles means wider tracks. No more walled-up Wario Stadiums or fenced-in Moo Moo Farms to keep you on your toes. Imitations like Wario's Gold Mine and Moo Moo Meadows are fun, but they open up the track too much. There's a general lack of enclosed courses, so don't expect as many green shells to be dangerously ricocheting off completely confined tracks or a bunch of bananas and bomb boxes to be nearly impossible avoid without great skill.
The New Drifting
The new drift mechanic also takes less skill thanks to an automatic drifting option. It doesn't have the mini-turbo benefits of manually rounding corners with the B button, so there is at least some reward for skill. However, the option's existence just shows you the direction that Mario Kart Wii has headed.
No FFA Battle
The battle mode, which includes two game types where you're either collecting coins or popping balloons, is a lot of fun and features classic battle arenas that were an unexpected surprise. Another unexpected surprise, and one that isn't as pleasing, is that both game types are limited to Team-based battles. There's no way you can collect coins alone or fight to the very last balloon in a free-for-all battle mode. It's an odd move on Nintendo's part considering the fact that it probably took more work to add team-based gameplay instead of sticking with a FFA mode. Also, the classics, while greatly appreciated, seem to include some of the weaker arenas from past Mario Kart games, especially the Sky Tower. I would've preferred Block Fort instead of this game's remake, Block Plaza. It's a good try, but Block Plaza only contains two stories as opposed to Block Fort's three, and the lowest level of the new arena isn't chaotic enough to earn the name ?Pit of Doom.?
Compared to what we got in SSBB
As much as Mario Kart Wii is worth buying, it finishes a distant and disappointing second to Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Nintendo's superior mascot-filled fighting game released in February. Sure, this sixth Mario Kart incarnation adds motion-controlled steering with the included Wii Wheel, addictive online racing gameplay via WiFi and classic tracks with minor updates. However, it just doesn't go as far as the feature-rich Brawl and, in addition to lacking innovation, the game lacks aspects we've come to expect from previous Mario Karts like two-player Grand Prix. In some ways it's a step forward, and in other ways it's a step backward. That said, Mario Kart Wii is still an entertaining kart racer, but one you should buy after Super Smash Bros. Brawl and one you shouldn't expect too much from, especially if you're a long time karter.
The Good: Super Mushroom to the front
Up, Up, and Online Away
While Mario Kart Wii strips away a lot of the entertaining strategy that we've come to know and love, it adds depth to the series' mode, character and track selections. Being able to bring the race for first place online is something that kart fans have been craving for many (console) generations. You not only race and battle 12 others, but one of them can be a friend sitting right next to you who signs on a guest. The two-player split-screen online capability of this game almost makes up for its lack of multiplayer Grand Prix, a sorely missed mode that could be enjoyed by four people on GameCube.
Tuning into the Mario Kart Channel
Although Nintendo's super secretive online friend code system pales in comparison to Xbox Live's setup, it does have one thing going for it: The Mario Kart Channel. It appears as one of the boxes on your Wii Menu after you install it and from there you can access all sorts of goodies, sometimes without needing to insert the game disc. You can see which of your friends are online playing the game, check your rank in time trials or tournaments, and watch and race other people's time trial ghosts. It's a shame that you can't communicate with these people through a headset. I'd love to know the reaction of a kart racing rival as I race behind in second place and use a super mushroom across a grassy shortcut to steal first place at the last second.
More Rider and Ride Variety
Excluding the fact that I didn't like Baby Mario, Baby Luigi and Baby Peach taking up spots on the expanded Mario Kart Wii roster, the number of characters and their varying stats help bring more depth to the series. In addition to having lightweight, mediumweight and heavyweight characters, their unique looking karts are divided into classes, too. You'll have to choose between different attributes like acceleration, handling and top speed, which make noticeable differences in your race time.
The one new rider that I was did enjoy seeing added to the game was me, as in Mii. Mario Kart Wii allows you to race as any of the Miis stored on your hard drive, and the ones that you don't use to race occasionally appear within the game. Sometimes you'll see yourself or friends pop up as gigantic statues in the distance. Other times Miis will be used as track obstacles, like in Coconuts Mall. It doesn't get any more surreal than running into a car containing my mom's Mii, unless of course Nintendo included a voice over in which she'd be accurately bugging me to slow down, too.
New and Old Courses, both classics
There are a number of great new courses that feel like instant classics as well as old ones brought back as part of the classic cups. By doubling the amount of cups from four to eight, Mario Kart Wii contains a total of 32 racetracks, evenly split between new and old. When it comes to the classics, Nintendo picked out fairly entertaining courses, but there are tracks I was fonder of. Take Koopa Troopa Beach, for example; that track and its hole in the rock shortcut is just begging for a remake. It's a shame more can't be downloaded to the hard drive as future content.
When it comes to the new set, three courses really stand out:
The aforementioned Coconuts Mall is full of inventive design elements like escalators. You'll find escalators on the right and left at certain points, but only one's moving up aiding your speed, while the other's traveling down making your kart go super slow.
Mushroom Gorge has you bouncing off a series of giant toadstools, leapfrogging from one platform to another and hopefully not launching you into the abyss where Lakitu has to save you. Having twelve people do this at once may be the one benefit to having more than eight players involved.
DK Summit shoots you to the top of a snowy mountain via massive cannon and has you travel down a slippery path to the end. The highlight in this race is the half-pipe. The middle is filled with dense snow, so you have to use the half-pipe's sides on the right and then again on the left to avoid being slowed down in the center.
The half-pipe and all of the similarly-colored blue arrow ramps in the game allow you to perform a new trick mechanic by shaking either the wheel or the Wii remote when leaving the ramp. Your character performs a midair trick and, upon landing, gains a short speed boost. With multiple ramps sometimes appearing in a course, this new mechanic can make a real difference alongside drift boosting.