The latest incarnation of the Mario Kart franchise is an easy game to love and an easy game to hate, often in the same session. For every successful innovation, there seems to have been either something lost or something broken in the process. The net result is a paradoxical much-purchase AAA title that is far from ideal, especially for long-time fans of the franchise.
Let’s start with the outright positives. Motion-based control via the included Wii Wheel takes some getting used to, but is easy and intuitive enough to learn if you stick with it; fortunately, the game also supports GCN Pad, Classic Controller, and Remote/Nunchuck control options if you’d rather stick with what you know. Speaking of what you know, Mario Kart Wii (MKW) features 16 classic tracks picked from throughout the franchise in addition to 16 all-new tracks; the new tracks are all awesome and the older ones are just as solid as they always were… although they do seem a bit flat by comparison (especially the SNES and GBA tracks). The other major innovation to MKW is the option to race on motorcycles in addition to the usual karts; at first, the 50cc engine class is restricted to only karts and the 100cc only bikes, but 150cc allows both to share the road. MKW also introduces speed-boosting stunts that you perform with a flick of the Wheel/Remote/Control Stick any time you gain significant air off the game’s many ramps, bumps, or other conveniently/cunningly-placed opportunities (including a few tweaks to some of the classic tracks); bikes can also gain a quick boost on straightaways by executing wheelies, but can only achieve one stage of drift slide mini-turbo to compensate.
On the subject of mini-turbos, a major change made to the series’s trademark mechanic (ever since the N64 days) begins the discussion of MKW‘s mixed blessings. In MKW, you don’t manually charge up your turbos by turning in and out of a slide; instead, the charge builds up over time as you hold the slide, up to two stages on a kart. This change was mostly made to reduce (if not eliminate) the controversial advanced “snaking” technique that made online play on Mario Kart DS unfun for more casual players. Unfortunately, it also took some measure of skill out of the actual gameplay, which can be frustrating at the more difficult settings. Further making the upper difficulties a tedious chore is the addition of four extra karts to the Grand Prix mode. While twelve total racers might seem like a plus, in reality it just means that there are four more players’ worth of game-swinging items ready to be launched up your tailpipe; these items include all of the mainstays of the franchise plus a few devastating new ones like POW Blocks and and Mega Mushroom. The change in mini-turbos and the additional racers — and their lead-punishing items — combine to make 150cc Grand Prix competition a swingy, luck-based competition rather than one that rewards any kind of real skill. Fortunately, the 50cc and 100cc classes don’t seem to be as affected by this.
Bizarrely, Grand Prix mode wasn’t the only one affected by the change to a twelve-racer system. The classic Battle Mode has been twisted beyond recognition, with two teams of six going at it rather than just you and up to three buddies… with a time limit. The end result is a chaotic mess, with up to eight AI-controlled bots getting in the way, coming out of nowhere, and generally taking up space, whether you go with the traditional Balloon Battle or Coin Runners mode. Versus races can also feature AI bots, in either solo or team play, but at least there you have the option of disabling them as well as setting how many races you will use for your competition. This is fortunate, as unlike previous editions, Versus races are also the only way you can participate in anything resembling a two-player Grand Prix. Regardless of the chosen mode, MKW is still a blast to play with some friends over, although the loss of the ability to pull back the camera (last seen on Mario Kart 64, I believe) makes four-way split screen play somewhat inconvenient. Fortunately, it is no longer the only option for console-based multiplayer Karting.
The ultimate rationale behind this twelve-racer system is MKW‘s exceptional online play, which allows you to race against up to eleven human opponents, both with and without Nintendo’s ubiquitous Friend Codes. Online play is seamless and, in my experience, pretty much lag-free. I’ve raced with the full allotment of twelve participants, found myself in a one-on-one encounter, and run everything in between as players (and up to one “guest” per console) dropped in and out of competition between each race. Online Battle modes are also possible, and there is a limited sort of Tournament feature wherein Nintendo will send out challenges via WFC that you can take on at your leisure and upload your best time. You can also brush up your skills by downloading top-ranked ghost runs for your Time Trial practices, which includes ghosts from Nintendo staffers as well, or even submit your own ghosts for bragging rights and/or challenges of your own. Even better, if you have 70ish blocks free on your system memory, you can install a Mario Kart Channel that can monitor your MKW friends and challenges without needing the MKW disc to be in the system. If only they had thought of that option for Super Smash Bros. Brawl…
In the end, and despite its lingering troubles, Mario Kart Wii continues with the franchise’s history of solid titles. The franchise that created the mascot-based racer pretty much perfected it on its first try, with each new iteration trying something different, whether it be three dimensions and analog control, tandem racing, or motion-controlled online play. While MKW is perhaps the most potentially-frustrating edition thus far, that doesn’t make it any less of an amazing experience.