By Louie July
Here we go: After iterations on SNES, N64, GBA, Gamecube and DS the Mario Kart series is now heading to Nintendo's Wii, including 32 tracks, 25 drivers and – for the first time – bikes.
First of all: Mario Kart Wii isn’t a casual game in the sense that the game is easier to handle than previous versions. It still appeals to all kinds of gamers, from the very beginner to the absolute core gamer – but it also won’t satisfy those who were looking for a realistic driving game. The series was never about physics, though, so Mario Kart fans will certainly get what they want.
When I first laid my hands on Mario Kart: Double Dash!! I was shocked - the controls felt like a big let-down from previous versions. The whole game felt somehow slippery and I missed the precision of the SNES and N64 games. Mario Kart DS, on the other hand, impressed with a vastly improved control scheme, drifting felt great and the overall degree of precision was a big step forward compared to what the Gamecube version had to offer. Mario Kart Wii plays like a mixture of Double Dash and Mario Kart DS.
While the Karts are much easier to control now as compared to the Gamecube version, and look more like the ones found in Mario Kart DS, the track design is quite similar to Double Dash with wider curves and a higher difference of elevation. Though there are some sleepyheads, most of the new tracks impress with a fancy design – you’ll race through gold mines, waterfalls, transparent pipes, glowing volcanoes in the middle of eruption, autumnal woods, a city overflowed with moonlight and what is probably the most imaginative version of the Rainbow Boulevard yet.
Another new addition to the series is the inclusion of half pipes – what seems like an odd addition at first (you actually will lose time while racing up some of them) soon emerges as a great feature: Most half pipes give you access to additional item boxes and provide a small boost to the one who uses them correctly. When you are driving towards a half pipe you have to move the Wii remote up, down or turn it sideways the moment you cross the border to perform a stunt. Correctly done this technique will ensure you to get an item and additionally gain some speed, depending on whether your Kart has a strong turbo boost or not. For most of the new tracks the half pipes are well implemented and some of the later races will feel like an endless chain of boosts – a very welcomed feature considering the game itself doesn’t feel as speedy as Mario Kart DS.
Unfortunately some of the retro tracks have suffered from the transition to the Wii – the speed of the game heavily depends on the number of ramps and half pipes in each track and while some retro courses feature additional possibilities of boosting your Kart, some of the others don’t. The tracks which originally appeared in the DS version especially feel somewhat slower and less exciting now because they got re-made to fit the Wii versions wider course design and are consequently much easier to drive now.
The motorcycles have been well integrated and have both advantages and disadvantages compared to the karts: they really feel like bikes and add quite a lot to gameplay. I didn’t want to use them at first because I thought they were more like a gimmick rather than a true addition but I was surprised how good they felt: While bikes are much lighter and consequently often pushed around by heavier characters, they tend to have an improved drifting function and are able to perform a wheelie when you push the Wii remote upwards (or push up on the D-Pad), which will boost your bike while driving straightforward. On the downside bikes have only one level of turbo boosts, while Karts have two (when controlling a kart you have to drift a certain time to get an even stronger boost). Stunts performed with a bike look quite spectacular, though.
As in most Mario Karts each character has a variety of karts and (this time) bikes to chose from – when you boot the game for the first time there are 12 drivers to choose from, with an additional 13 characters to unlock. Every character has 3 karts and 3 bikes available in the beginning, with one bike and one kart to unlock for each person.
All of the items in previous Mario Karts have returned, with some new additions, namely: the Mega Mushroom which will increase both your speed and size and allow you to “flat” your opponents; the “Pow” block, which results in an earthquake, causing every competitor on the ground to twirl; and the thundercloud which increases your speed but forces you to tackle an enemy to get rid of it – otherwise it will shrink your size with a lightning bolt. Blooper and Bullet Willie from the DS version have also been included, with the former causing quite some trouble this time, as there is no second screen map to look at when it spatters its ink on you.
New items and track designs are not all of the special features the game has to offer, though - the Wii wheel especially is one of the more interesting parts of the game. When you lay your hands on the wheel for the first time you’ll probably drive from one side of the track to the other but certainly not in the direction you want. It really needs some getting-used-to but feels good later on. When my girlfriend used the wheel for the first time, for instance, she told me it didn’t react properly and she wasn’t able to score many points in GP mode. After a while she got better, though, and some hours later she kicked ass. Overall the Wii wheel is a nice addition but core gamers will miss the precision the Gamecube controller offers. It is a way to get non-gamers playing and a nice feature when you play with your friends – nothing more, nothing less.
The other controlling options work the way you would expect them to: The Gamecube controller offers a very precise control scheme; people with big hands may prefer the classic controller. Personally, I liked the Wiimote + Nunchuk combo best because it offers audio feedback in certain situations and isn’t any less accurate than the Gamecube pad. Additionally, doing stunts and wheelies feels much more natural when you perform them with the Wii remote. The option without the Nunchuk doesn’t feel that good on the other hand because you have to push the B-trigger on the backside of the remote to drift, which is somehow convulsive.
But it is the multiplayer that was always the heart of the series, though it is a bit of a mixed bag this time. Versus mode is great and you‘ll soon find yourself in grim competition with whoever is sitting next to you. The framerate drops to 25-30 fps when you play in multiplayer, which is a bit of a let-down but doesn’t worsen the experience at all. When I did the test for this game I sat together with my girlfriend and two of our friends, we bought some six-packs and played for hours straight. This is the kind of game you’ll play for years to come and like always you have a lot of options to choose from: 50, 100 or 150cc, how many races you want to drive, how well the AI will drive and (a first in the series), and which items will occur during races (at least to some extent). Versus mode is really entertaining and you’ll keep playing this mode for quite a lot of time.
Battle mode, however, got some odd changes this time around: You can’t battle for your own anymore, playing in teams is the rule. Additionally you’ll come back after you lost all your balloons. Therefore the battle mode lost quite a bit of its competitive character. At least you still have the possibility to turn battle rounds down to 1 and then look up who scored the most points. The coin collecting mode works the same way – get as many coins as possible, the team collecting the most won.
This is the first Mario Kart on a home console to feature online play and considering this is a Nintendo game the online mode is very well developed: You can play with friends, share ghost data and compete in wi-fi matches where you and a friend play together via online. When you click on “Nintendo WFC” the game will instantly connect you with the World Wide Web and after roughly 30 seconds you’ll be able to compete with gamers all around the world. You can either chose continental, worldwide or friend races. When I first tried the online mode together with a friend, I was pleasantly surprised how smooth it runs and during more than 50 races with people from Europe and Japan we didn’t experience a single lag at all. The battle mode (the one I criticized the most in local multiplayer) works insanely well when you play online – the competitive character is there again, and together with it the pure fun the battle mode always was. Racing works just as well and the ability to share your ghost data with friends is another great addition. The world wide races are truly amazing. Be aware, though: If you choose two player online the frame rate will instantly drop to 30fps while playing. Luckily, this doesn’t affect the gameplay at all. The online mode makes more than up for what the local multiplayer sometimes fails to offer and its hectic nature is so entertaining that we played for more than two hours when we first tried it. One personal complaint, though: Get a true voice chat into your games Nintendo, not this bubble-chat thingy gamers have to get used to in Mario Kart Wii, especially while trying to start some races with friends. Besides that there is no better reason for single player to buy Mario Kart Wii than the online mode. Well done, Nintendo. At least we know you can do it now.
Another opinion about online, from Benga Benga:
The online part of Mario Kart Wii is truly amazing, so much so that it tilts the whole game to a new level.
First thing I tried when going online was a Worldwide VS race. 4 Japanese and 7 fellow-Europeans joined the race. For people that played Mario Kart before it's not hard to imagine the mayhem that breaks loose in a 12 player VS match. Items are everywhere and first place will bring you a lot of trouble, such as the notorious Blue Shells. New items like Bullet Bill and the Pow-block only intensify this. But, luckily, it's not only the items that matter; racing skills are much more important here than in Double Dash. Mario Kart Wii is a lot faster than its Gamecube predecessor and power sliding through the corners and make wheelies (on a motorbike) are important to stay competitive. In the about 200 online matches I've competed in so far I've been disconnected only once.
Nintendo often gets criticized for its Friend codes, but the Friend part is where the online really shines. You get noticed whenever a friend is online so you can join him or her and since the win/lose record versus your friends is saved, it makes those battles much more compelling than against anonymous racers.
Another nice feature is the possibility to see the Time Trial records of your friends. Of course the Worldwide and Continental Top 10 are also available, but for mere mortals these times are a bridge too far. However trying to beat the fastest times of your friends gives an enormous incentive to keep improving your records. If you broke a friend’s record it's possible to send the Ghost of that race to him/her. An easy way to put some salt in the wounds. Connected to the WFC you can also download various Ghosts from the Nintendo staff or, if you think you're up to it, the leader board Top 10.
Now something about the technical side of the game: Granted, official screenshots of the game didn’t look too awesome, but in motion the game looks really great; don’t expect it to rival Super Mario Galaxy or Smash Bros. Brawl, though. Think of the Double Dash engine and add widescreen and 480p support to it. Then imagine some shinier colours and improved texturing, combined with a bunch of bloom lightning, and the result, while not mind-blowing, are vastly improved in-game graphics with a nice, comic-like style. The tracks are also well designed and some of the later courses are visually stunning. The style won’t appeal to some people, though. Altogether the game looks very good and the framerate barely ever drops, even when 12 characters are driving on-screen.
Sound is a different story, though: While some sound effects stand out and some melodies are truly great, the sound and music in the game can’t compete with Mario Kart DS. Looking at the whole picture (or rather listening to all songs), the sound is good and supports the flair of the game, but won’t stick in your head after you played the game.
Altogether Mario Kart Wii is a big improvement over the Gamecube iteration of the series and offers some of the best and most impressive tracks in the history of the series. Mario Kart haters won't necessarily find anything new to draw them in, but for people who like to sit together and play with their friends, there is no better purchase in the fun racer genre to date then Mario Kart Wii. To give you a better impression on how the game appeals to people who don’t play videogames that often I asked my girlfriend to give her opinion, and here is what she thinks of it:
Impressions of my girlfriend who doesn’t play core games very often, but really likes games that are fun in multiplayer and has quite a lot of experience in Mario Kart:
I think the game is very well made and I like that the order in which the AI drivers cross the goal line always changes now in contrast to older games of the series. The characters are well drawn and show much more emotion than in previous games. As a fan of the series (I still own a SNES with Super Mario Kart and played all versions besides the GBA part) I had to get used to the Wii wheel at first but I really liked it after some hours of gameplay. If you own a Wii and like to play multiplayer games go out and buy this game, it’s great!
Questions about articles or Vgchartz? Contact me: Louie.firstname.lastname@example.org