Review: Mario Kart Wii takes the race online

mkwii-babymario.jpgMore than two decades of verification have solidified it as truth, but given the absurd quality of recent software, it seems worth reiteration; the best titles on Nintendo’s console have been first-party Nintendo games.

Whether pushing innovation with Wii Sports and Wii Fit or polishing the established with Twilight Princess, Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the Kyoto-based gaming juggernaut has shown an unflinching, relentless attention to detail on its own Wii titles.

Given Nintendo’s impressive Wii track record and the post-DS resurrection of interest in the franchise, the recently released Mario Kart Wii has been one of the most hotly anticipated Wii titles of the year. 2005’s Mario Kart DS reestablished Nintendo’s long-running racer as one of gaming’s premier franchises, so lofty expectations seem a natural application for any new Mario Kart title. Fans will be pleased to know Nintendo has, in most respects, gone above-and-beyond their ivory-coated suppositions for Mario Kart Wii.

But players should be forewarned; Mario Kart Wii often frustrates and disappoints almost as wholeheartedly as it thrills. Veteran kart aficionados, in particular, may be dispirited by Nintendo’s insistence on rewarding the tenderfoots and punishing the skilled.

mkwii-screen1.jpgLittle has changed in regard to the core Mario Kart experience for the move to Wii. Sixteen years and five exorbitantly high-selling sequels have passed since the release of the Super NES original, allowing Nintendo to fine-tune the established Mario Kart formula to near-perfection. Players select a driver from a list of beloved Mario characters and hop behind the wheels of outrageously designed go-kart racers. As the checkered flag drops, a frantic race through wacky Nintendo environments ensues, and players have three laps to establish and maintain a lead, meanwhile assaulting other drivers with everything from banana peels to Koopa shells and dodging a bombardment of incoming attacks.

The premise oozes nutty, unmistakably “Nintendo” absurdity. Mario Kart can initially seem a strange, incompatible fighter/racer hybrid in concept, but it has always focused on an unrivaled marriage between wild ideas and superior gameplay. While some things have changed over time, Mario Kart’s reputation as a multiplayer extravaganza of the highest order has not. But behind the veil of cartoon lunacy and first-place happenstance, sophisticated and technique-driven racing mechanics have always operated as the driving force — no pun intended — behind any good Mario Kart experience.

Such is not entirely the case with Mario Kart Wii, but we’ll get into that later.

Nintendo has clearly taken a “more is better” approach to its flagship racer, as Mario Kart Wii is certainly the biggest Mario Kart game to date. The game’s massiveness is most apparent in its course selection; Mario Kart Wii offers 32 courses spanning eight different Grand Prix cups, more than in any console-based Mario Kart before. The Grand Prix template is similar to Mario Kart DS; 16 of the courses are new, while 16 are beautiful remakes of courses from past Mario Kart games. While the renovated retro courses are a treat to revisit, the highlights of Mario Kart Wii are the new tracks.

As with Mario Kart games prior, most of the tracks in the easier cups boast a simple design. Mario Kart Wii’s Mushroom Cup courses maintain this credo, sacrificing complexity for simple elegance and charm. Things pick up a bit with the Flower Cup; Mario Circuit is one of the prettiest, most vibrantly colorful courses in the game, while Coconut Mall and Wario’s Gold Mine are destined to become Mario Kart classics. Yet while the Star Cup continues to ramp the racing intensity, none of its tracks are especially memorable, save for some exhilarating twists-and-turns in Koopa Cape and the unexpected, gorgeous Maple Treeway.

mkwii-screen2.jpgBut the Special Cup absolutely steals the show. Not only does it entirely justify the game’s purchase from a single-player perspective, but it is also one of the finest Grand Prix cups in the franchise’s storied history. The twisting Dry Dry Ruins is one of the most enjoyable desert-themed Mario Kart courses ever, while Moonview Highway builds upon the great ideas from past roadway tracks and provides the most frantic traffic-dodging course in the history of the series. But the final two courses really push the envelope; Bowser’s Castle and Rainbow Road are a devastating back-to-back combo of gorgeous visuals, beautiful effects and insane track design, easily the best of each of their respective recurring Mario Kart courses.

This “grand finale” is somewhat bittersweet, though; just as Mario Kart Wii gains some serious steam in terms of inventive track design, it runs out of new courses to offer.

While the tracks themselves are perhaps the most important aspect of any Mario Kart experience, control is perhaps even more critical to any Wii experience. For Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo has released another gimmicky peripheral for the Wii remote; a hollow plastic “Wii Wheel” in which the Wii remote is placed. The game controls similar to Nintendo’s Wii launch racer Excitetruck, asking players to steer their carts by tilting the Wii remote, done with the Wii Wheel by simply mimicking real-life steering. Items are deployed by pressing the B button, accessible on the back of the Wii Wheel.

mkwii-wheel.jpgLike most gamers, I chuckled at Nintendo’s announcement of the Wii Wheel. With the gimmicky, gameplay-hindering Wii Zapper still fresh in the collective gaming consciousness, most expected the Wii Wheel to result in a similar $20 pocket-robbing travesty. But surprisingly, the Wii Wheel actually adds far more to the Mario Kart experience than it detracts.

Make no mistake, experienced players will likely try the Wii Wheel, scoff at its gimmicky implementation and, as quickly as a 150cc Mushroom Cup run, switch back to the GameCube controller; as is the case with Brawl, it is still the most precise control option. But casual gamers and those less focused on record-breaking lap times will love the Wii Wheel, and justifiably so. Something about holding it just feels more natural than tilting a horizontal remote; it adds not only a degree of precision, but also genuine fun to the already-hysterical Mario Kart Wii. It is a far better control method than most expected not only for Mario Kart, but any similarly-controlled Wii racer. With its release, the Wii Wheel has also made some older Wii games much more intuitive and fun, as well as a lot easier to control.

Excitetruck, I’m looking at you.

In keeping with the recent trend of including a few thousand control options in Wii games, Mario Kart Wii can also be played with the Wii remote and nunchuk combination and the Classic Controller, as well. No matter how players prefer to handle their kart, Mario Kart Wii makes appropriate accommodation.

But while I’ve dealt it mostly praise thus far, there are some serious criticisms to levy against Mario Kart Wii, specifically in terms of its vicious, inequitable “rubberbanding” habit.

mkwii-blueshell.jpgSome fans have been calling for an item editor in Mario Kart for years, and in light of the ruthless Wii iteration, the need for such an option has never been more apparent. While there has always been an aspect of uncertainty to climbing ahead of the pack in a Mario Kart race, doing so in Mario Kart Wii’s 150cc Grand Prix almost guarantees you a few dozen consecutive shells to the head. While, at the very least, all items can be turned off in the single and multiplayer versus mode, no such option is available for Grand Prix racing, when rubberbanding is at its villainous worst.

There is certainly something to be said for keeping things competitive. But when doing so comes at the cost of punishing experienced players and rendering them helpless, it becomes a serious flaw. In Mario Kart Wii, a player can literally hug each corner, hit each speed boost, nail every shortcut and run a flawless race, yet finish in last place thanks to an endless barrage of shells and lightning bolts. Some have justly pointed out that Mario Kart Wii’s increased number of racing participants — 12 per race, four more than usual — and the addition of more all-racer-affecting items, such as the POW Block, result in a simple conclusion: with more drivers and more items, players can only expect to be clobbered more often. But these additions and my widespread criticism are not mutually exclusive. While racer and item additions are certainly part of the issue, the problem is further intensified by some of the cheapest rubberbanding AI in the history of the series.

Keeping things close is one thing. Sacrificing skill for sheer luck is another. Nintendo found the balance in past Mario Kart games, but has unfortunately tipped the scales on Wii.

Speaking of unfortunate occurrences, while Mario Kart Wii boasts several different single and multiplayer racing modes, the local offline multiplayer is tragically watered down. Gamers playing at home with friends can expect to get down with a split-screen versus mode that takes a noticeable drop to 30 frames per second and a gimped battle mode restricting players to team-play only. Inexplicably, the local multiplayer Grand Prix has also been completely removed. At least for me, gathering around a pizza and some Mario Kart with friends in the living room has always been an inevitable appeal of the series, so it is pretty wretched to see local multiplayer become so feature-stripped.

On the other hand, Mario Kart Wii marks Nintendo’s first real attempt at respectable online gaming. With meager local multiplayer and an often frustrating single-player 150cc Grand Prix, Mario Kart Wii is the first Nintendo game to crown its online mode as its deepest and most compelling feature. Tournaments, worldwide and regional races and battles, downloadable and uploadable ghosts, seamless friend invitations and a whole damn Mario Kart Channel on the Wii menu for tracking friends and stats are just the beginning. Players who struggled with lag in Brawl, writing down friend codes for Battalion Wars II and bare-bones options for all of the above will be thrilled to jump into Mario Kart Wii’s online component.

Nintendo’s online modes have always been forgivable because they are free. But Mario Kart Wii is spectacular online, free or paid.

mkwii-rosalina.jpgOn another positive note, in addition to the inclusions of more cups and courses, Nintendo has added several new characters to the Mario Kart roster for Wii. There are 24 characters, four more than in GameCube’s Double Dash, as well as the option to race as your Mii. Some of the new additions are surprising (Princess Rosalina), some are a bit puzzling (Funky Kong) and some are awesome (Dry Bowser), but each is a welcome addition to a robust roster.

Visually, Mario Kart Wii is the stereotypical “mixed bag.” The game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second during single-player modes and online, a real accomplishment given the chaos of Mario Kart. The models are well done, and there are very pleasing effects sprinkled throughout the experience, including some nice particle effects as raceways wind through caves and volcanic hotbeds. Despite the simplicity of the graphics, most courses are explosively colorful and very appealing. The game is actually gorgeous when all these things come together; Rainbow Road, for example, is an absolute visual stunner. But otherwise, the landscapes are sometimes painfully dull and low-poly, literally comparable to GameCube’s Double Dash.

This has been a long review, but for good reason. Mario Kart has been one of Nintendo’s most prominent and beloved franchises for 16 years, and the Wii iteration marks some interesting changes for the franchise. While much remains the same, Nintendo has made some nice additions to the formula, but also unnecessarily pulled some features away. Because it can be infinitely entertaining, absolutely hysterical, rage-inducing, frustrating and spectacular all within the same hour, there is clearly a lot to say about Mario Kart Wii.

For its sensational track design, surprisingly fun motion controls and baffling deletions, Mario Kart Wii gets three stars out of four.

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20 Responses to Review: Mario Kart Wii takes the race online

  1. kgb says:

    Great article, had some time with the game yesterday. Gotta say, I hate being able to race well and getting screwed at the end…does this mean everyone is going to try to hang back until the last few turns. Still an awesome game none the less. Now, gotta unlock all that extra content…yumm!

  2. Reynard says:

    Can someone explain to me what form of ‘rubberbanding AI’ does this game have? Because having just beaten the mirror courses I fail to see it, do you mean how you get hit with items and get overtaken? If so, I actually found this happened less than in previous mario karts. I’ve also been hit with few blue shells compared to the blue-shell-fest in MKDS.

    To me rubberbanding is what need for speed does, with drivers going faster as a cheap catch-up if they’re at the back of the pack.. this game does not do that. Mario Kart 64 however was horrible for this form of rubberbanding AI.

  3. paq says:

    “Items are deployed by pressing the B button, accessible on the back of the Wii Wheel.”

    Items are controlled with the D-pad, the B button only works when using automatic as “drift mode”.

  4. Eric H. says:

    You can use the Wii Wheel for Excitetruck? I thought it controlled with the face of the wiimote pointed towards the ceiling, unlike the Wii Wheel orientation?

    I don’t actually know – I don’t own the game (though I do want it).

  5. HunterGrant says:

    For local multiplayer set the items to strategic and the blue shells are a thing of the past it essentially fixed our session last night

  6. Reynard says:

    Eric H: The tilt works on the axis of both of those grip methods, MKWii does the same, a friends son who was used to the game Cars was playing it and was holding it like you would for excitetruck and it was working fine.

  7. Eric H. says:

    Reynard: Cool, thanks.

  8. peshue says:

    I’m not certain about excitetruck, I haven’t played it for awhile. But I know for sure MK is meant to be played with the buttons facing you, otherwise you sacrifice some sensitivity.

  9. -_Q says:

    Okay, who smells a new Funky Kong single player adventure?!?

    It would be like Screaming Monkeys + Starfox + Duke Nukem…

    🙁

    Why are all the good games never made…

  10. samfish says:

    Mario Kart Wii just feels so rushed, I think. I don’t know how to put my finger on it. It’s just sort of…there. I agree with the Kotaku review which said it feels sterile and clinical. It’s missing the charm of past Mario Karts . It feels more like a botoxed woman in heavy make up, rather than the cute and sexy girl next door, I guess you could say…except in this case the botoxed woman isn’t very attractive to begin with, really.

    I think they rushed it out in an effort to try and blunt GTA4, personally. Given all the missing staple features and the general lack of polish, there’s absolutely no reason this game shouldn’t have come out in November instead.

  11. reefinyateef says:

    Great review, though I’m not sure why you think Mario Kart Wii suffers from more item usage than the others. Ever since the blue shell was brought into the game, being in first is sometimes a bad idea. It seems as if you are tying your point to the increased player count, but I haven’t noticed a huge difference.

  12. used cisco says:

    Good game, but I still prefer Double Dash. There I said it! 🙂

    But yeah, you could use the Wheel on Excite Truck but you would sacrifice a lot of control as that game is designed to have the REVmote buttons pointing to the ceiling rather than pointing at your chest like in MK.

    I love the online in this game and the way they do friend codes takes away the pain in the ass-ness of them. Nice job Nintendo, for listening to the fans. All games should use the machine code in this way from now on.

  13. garyaga says:

    i like the game the only thing that bothers me is some of the music

  14. Run line 10 says:

    This version is pretty impressive and if you know what your doing you can avoid most attacks. I mean we’ve been doing this since the SNES version and I actually like the ruthlessness of this one! Seriously the tracks are lost of fun to play and clearly the most of them are set up solely for battle. There is a lot to learn in this one but hey I’m not telling any more secrets! MK has alway been this way… Seriously this game will seperate the pros from the joy riders you’ll see. If this is what we can expect from MK f zero is going to be crazy!

  15. NinKenDO says:

    I just picked it up last night and barely got to scratch the surface, but I also did get that “rushed” feeling to it. Not that I like delays at all, but it feels like this one could have used a few more months in the oven to give it that extra shine and charm we all expect. Don’t get me wrong, because the game is extremely fun and has a whole lot to like about it, it just has a few rough edges that keep it from being instant classic perfection. I appreciate the number of tracks, characters, Mii support, and improved online experience, but I can’t help but wonder what it could have been with a more customizable grand prix (options to choose which items or sets of items are available), tweaked AI to make it a little more “fair”, and most of all what I’ve dreamed about for years, a map editor for the battle mode. If I could design my own battle arenas, even with a simplified editor a la SSBB, and trade and play them online with friends, the game would rise to an ultimate status in my book… and then… of course… voice chat would be nice too *sigh*

  16. Muggins says:

    A slight correction – you can do a grand prix on a local multiplayer match. Simply change the settings (little blue button in the top corner when you select battle or vs) to 32 races and to select tracks in order.

    Now just select the first track in the mushroom cup and the rest will follow. 🙂

  17. Derek says:

    A post-review update, of sorts, for those interested.

    I played the game constantly prior to review; I explored each mode, inside and out, all day. And I thought..perhaps my misfortunes with the 150cc mode were just a stroke of bad luck, so I kept my criticisms fairly tame in the review. But having spent more even time with Mario Kart Wii, my criticisms have only grown stronger. All I can say to those who haven’t noticed the increased, almost insurmountable frequency of item attacks is, respectfully, “are you serious?!”

    Perhaps my Mario Kart Wii disc is flawed. But the 150cc mode is almost unplayable. At the very least, it isn’t even fun, something Mario Kart should ALWAYS be. Because in this mode, Mario Kart isn’t even remotely a racing game anymore; in fact, it isn’t even Mario Kart as I’ve come to love it over the years. It’s more like Smash Bros. with go-karts. The average time between lightning blasts/shell attacks/POW Blocks throughout my 150cc races has literally been a matter of seconds. Forget boosting, tricks and any driving strategy you may have…after a few dozen consecutive item attacks and a quick fall back to 12th place, all the strategies in the book almost don’t even matter anymore.

    Maybe it’s just me. But when I am in first place almost the entire race, but receive a blue shell within sight of the finish line, get passed by the second place racer and, while building my speed again, get literally knocked off the course by speeding passers-by (which is FAR more prevalent in this version than any other), lightning bolted and slammed with more shells…personally, I consider that an example of completely broken gameplay. I lead the entire race, until the CPU decides…”meh, time to slam Derek back to 11th place.”

    This happens constantly. And it has nothing to do with skill; there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. You are at the mercy of the most ruthless, cheap rubberbanding AI I have ever seen in a Mario Kart game.

    Perhaps Nintendo forgot, but this is a racing game, above all else. Granted, it’s also Mario Kart and the items are part of the experience…but so is the racing. There should be a balance. The frequency of incoming item attacks in 150cc, the only acceptable speed at which to play the game, is so high, so frustrating, so unfair that I almost regret giving this game 3 stars. It almost deserves only 2. The online stuff is amazing, sure…but when it comes at the cost of a crippled local multiplayer and the most frustrating, cheap single-player mode in the history of the series…it’s almost not worth it.

    Almost. End rant. 🙂

  18. DocOcotorok says:

    @ Derek,

    I can’t say I’ve had the same experience, except in the final cup of 150cc retro tracks. And I’m by no means a MK master. Are you using the Wii Wheel exclusively? I found even the 100 cc class nearly unplayable with that, but when I finally swallowed my pride and pulled out the mote/chuck, I cleared most of the cups without sweat. Sure, you get some cheap shots, but “unplayable”?

    Still, my beef with the game is that it should have had its tracks and difficulty curve desiged for the Wii Wheel alone. I don’t like giving up the Wheel in order to clear cups.

  19. Chris says:

    I’ve never really liked the fact that the laps were so few. I’ve noticed some issues in this version and I think Derek sums it up. It seems that there are more blue shells, lighting bolts, and the new POW than I remember in past versions.

    It also seems that perfection is required in order to even stay in the top 5 in some of these races. If you get knocked off the track in the middle of a race it will be difficult to get back to 1st position. 3 laps means that the person in first has a better chance remaining in first then someone that is in the back. The only way to lose that position is getting knocked off or with a blue shell.

    I will have to say that I do enjoy the online part. The ability to race ghosts has been enjoyable for me.

    What does it take to be a winner? It takes LOSERS!

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