April 22, 2008
Gaming Steve Review: Mario Kart Wii
Mario Kart Wii
Out in Europe for a fair few weeks now – and uncharacteristically late reaching US shores – I thought it only fair to spill a few beans on Mario Kart Wii, thus letting our American siblings know just what they're in for regarding the mustached one's latest at the end of the month.
There's both good and bad to report, so buckle in and take note.
First, let's talk single player. 32 courses – 16 of which are new – 25 characters, and a good gazillion vehicles round-off the features list, most of which require unlocking as you progress through its four different classes of increasingly (and surprisingly) punishing difficulty. Sure, the setup's undeniably familiar to vets of the series, but make no mistake, Mario Kart Wii boasts some neat new additions to this now-aging formula well worth bearing in mind.
Bikes would be the biggest of which, and it's all done a bit of a PGR4 in that regard. A little nippier, easier to knock around, and capable of some fab tricks, they're a blast to wield I'm pleased to say, and prove my personal weapon of choice 90% of the time.
Then there's the wheel; the freebie add-on contraption that Nintendo throw into the box as a bonus. While you play with the standard "hands out in front" Wii-mote pose seen in previous racing games on this system, clipping on this optional plastic shell gives it a far more tactile feel, not to mention one immeasurably more fun to boot. It certainly works in that regard, yet I couldn't help but notice that in terms of raw performance, my lap times shrunk the second I ditched the waggle controls entirely and opted for something more traditional.
Gamecube and Classic Controllers are fully supported here you see, as is a "half-way" choice that still involves some minor waggle, yet uses the nun-chuck for steering. While the casual gamer'll enjoy the wheel to no end then, no doubt these additional options will prove more ideal for the hardcore.
I call the formula aging, yet 16 years on there's still something undeniably brilliant about Mario Kart as a concept. Blazing around brightly colored cartoony worlds, blowing away pursuers with green shells while knocking friends to their death in fiery lava pits proves just as much a blast as it did back on the SNES, and will certainly see you smiling through this latest installment's opening hours as those timeless memories come flooding back.
It's a looker too, right up there with Super Mario Galaxy as one of the Wii's finest. New tracks like Mushroom Gorge and Maple Treeway – with their glowy underground caverns and beautiful orange foliage – stand out in particular, as do the pleasing wealth of more sinister Bowser-themed circuits in the latter cups of the game. It'll blaze along at 60fps just fine too, until you start splitting the screen up 3 or 4 ways, while fab lighting and pleasing bloom effects round the game off with a sensual smoothness that hides many of the jaggies. The retro tracks are noticeably worse off compared to the newcomers, that said – lacking their width and gigantic scope in particular – but never the less inspire a nostalgic grin as they always do.
In terms of pure gameplay, I should mention that MK Wii has swung drastically away from simple racing, and somewhat bizarrely off into the realms of performing tricks and boosts this time around. Pulling off any kinda stunt in this game – from drifts, to wheelies, to half-pipe jumps – endows the player with a jolt of speed you see, so races in turn become less about figuring out the perfect racing line and handling corners tightly, and instead about stringing together as rapid a series of boosts as humanly possible. It'll sure take some adjusting to for the long-time fan, but does add a nice new dimension to the proceedings that you'll certainly grow to appreciate. And for those Mario Kart DS fans with worry lines plastered across their faces at the mere mention of all this; "snaking" is all but a thing of a past I'm pleased to say.
Of course, amidst all this chaos are the various power-ups that you love to hate, helping out those lesser skilled, while forever hindering those up front. Additions to the age old favorites vary in quality – from the super cool new Mega Mushroom that doubles your size while you go flattening your way across the course, to the frustrating albatross around your neck that is the Thunder Cloud (which speeds you up temporarily, then annoyingly shrinks you) – and on the whole the sheer power of these items may prove a point of contention for some.
Which in turn leads us onto the fundamental, yet arguably only real flaw with Mario Kart Wii. For some, it's a minor niggle, but for many it'll prove a deal breaker. And that would be the fact that ... due to the sheer brutality of these power-ups, you really don't have much influence over whether you win or lose in this game. It's sad, but boy is it true. Items have such a ridiculous impact on race outcomes, you can easily go from placing first in one, to 12th in the next, based solely on the luck of the draw. And there's literally nothing you can do about it.
On the plus side, I really didn't care much. There are two types of Mario Kart players you see; those who can simply laugh it off and smile their way through such sadistic twists of fate, content in the fact that it's still flat-out fun, regardless of the star-wielding NPC who just clipped 'em off a bend on Rainbow Road while they were patiently minding their own business. But there are also those who'll kick up a tantrum, throw toys outta their pram, and swear at every red shell cast their way. They'll fling that Wii-wheel against the wall quicker than a Frisbee each and every time they hear stupid frakkin' Toad's pathetic yelp of victory as he banana skins them into last place on the home straight yet AGAIN.
Breathe ... slowly....
If you frustrate easily then, hate to lose, and can't stand a huge dollop o' randomness in your games, quite simply, this isn't for you. These are traits that have haunted Mario Kart since the dawn of time in varying amounts, but it's most definitely far more pronounced this time around than ever before. It makes 150cc and Mirror Cup modes a serious pain in particular, and is something you should most definitely know going in.
Regardless of the single player's serious balancing, uh, "issues", online multiplayer alone propels this latest addition up into the realms of must-have status however. Zero lag? A whopping great 12 players? Team games? The ability to race as your Mii!? All present and correct, sir! In fact, the online functionality is so well done here, that it's set a new standard for Wii titles as a whole in my opinion, not to mention shattered Nintendo's spotty track-record in that department almost completely.
That's not to say it's perfect, of course. While you can race strangers at random, full-on Grand Prix cups are limited to private games amidst those on your friend's list, which is a serious downer in particular. The Battle Mode is mildly rubbish too, due to the enforcement of teams and no lone-wolf option. Plus after all this time? We're still stuck with those good old ruddy friend codes as well.
The first time you witness the fabulous lobby system though, that introduces each of your rivals one by one in Mii form – while a spinning globe showcases where they're all from – you'll appreciate the time and sheer love poured into this thing. I almost don't wanna ruin the surprise by detailing its every fantastic feature and nuance, as it's oh so wondrous discovering it all for yourself, but sending ghosts to your friends, comparing times on the truly inspired graphical leader boards, not to mention the ace new dashboard features that MK Wii installs all prove fab, much appreciated upgrades that are about as good as anything seen on fellow console racing games in recent times. Friends lists accessible from the main Wii menu for example!? Holy hell!
Then there are the races themselves. So much fun. So much laughter. You've never flat-out creased up in fact, as much as you will the first time you sucker-punch a buddy on the home straight to secure your first win. For all the randomness of the power-ups, and the teeth-grinding inability to just disable the suckers when playing over the net, the sheer underlying stubbornness of how bloody brilliant this game is with a group of pals renders pretty much all your whinings invisible. So share them annoying friend codes. Type those endless streams of numbers in. 'Cos I'm telling ya; with a jam packed buddy list and a race full o' Miis? Mario Kart Wii reaches just about the pinnacle of online fun. I exaggerate not.
Say what you will about the Wii's software line-up thus far, but Nintendo's first party titles have been just as good as ever, and here's yet another to chuck on that pile. Now how about F-Zero and Starfox sequels to round it off in style?
PLUSES: Hints back to earlier Mario Karts, while adding neat new features like stunts and gesture control to (mostly) fantastic effect. Gorgeous graphics rank up there among the system's finest. Boasts an online mode to die for, that'll keep you coming back for many, many months, and sets a new standard for this system as a whole.
MINUSES: Single player mode proves endlessly frustrating in later levels. Item imbalances make you wish the damn things were stripped out completely. Music is uncharacteristically forgettable. Online Grand Prix cups disappointingly limited to just those on your friends list.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.0 BUY IT!