Fifteen years ago, my much younger and much less cynical self sat down at my SNES to enjoy the glory of the original Mario Kart. I spent hours poring over the game, taking the gold in every cup over every engine class, and only taking a break to beat my best friend to death with red shells in the multiplayer mode. A few years down the road, I attacked the N64 version of the franchise with nearly the same fervor, once again progressing through all the cups and then starting all over again with the mirror mode. Once more, I was hooked.
A funny thing happened between then and now: I've come to realize that no matter what platform it's on, every Mario Kart game is basically identical to every other one. The series tried branching out in Double Dash with two-character, change-on-the-fly racing and racer-specific power-ups, but the camps were sharply divided on whether or not it worked, leading just as many people to hate the changes as there were to love them. And so, Nintendo decided to retreat back into its realm of comfort with the enjoyable, yet underwhelming, Mario Kart Wii.
The biggest new addition to the series is the introduction of the packed-in Wii Wheel, a plastic shell designed to house your Wiimote and create a more immersive experience. A lot of negativity has been aimed at the wheel pre-launch, but it turns out to be a surprisingly suitable and fun way to play the game. While it may take a couple of races to figure out the sensitivity and layout, once you get the hang of it, you may just find yourself enjoying it. Just don't tell the purists, who bristle at the very thought of this infernal contraption.
For those averse to change or folks who just can't seem to get the hang of it, the game does support classic analog stick controls, going so far as to let you use the GameCube controller if you're so stuck in the old school you're still waiting to get your leisure suit back from the cleaners. All of the control modes are perfectly responsive, so it's really just a matter of figuring out what's right for you.
So aside from the wheel, what else is new? Regrettably, not a whole lot. Apart from motorcycles and courses, things are pretty much the same way as you left them the last time you fired up a Mario Kart game. The motorcycles are only mildly interesting, as they do little more than offer a slightly faster vehicle with an additional method of boosting. It would have been nice if the bikes handled and accelerated in a manner completely different from the karts, but really, it just feels like they chopped a kart in half and stuck a seat on it. There are also 16 "new" courses, but very few of them are actually original. Most are simple retreads of series favorites, like "raceway named after a Mario brother," "off-road dirt course with dangerous falls," and of course, yet another Bowser's Castle. Even though this game features what is likely the most dangerous and challenging Rainbow Road course yet, it's still just another Rainbow Road course.
In addition to the new tracks, the game also features 16 classic tracks culled from the various Mario Kart titles through the years. While every game from every platform is included (there are even a few DS and GBA courses), the process for choosing them seems rather scattershot. Personally, I could do with less nostalgia and more new content; let me download the retro tracks later if I really want them, but I'd rather see the new stuff in the $50 packaged product.
If there's one change that works universally well, it's the much-needed inclusion of online multiplayer. Finally, you can challenge racers from around the world in either versus or battle modes. The game's point and matchmaking systems ensure that you are constantly paired with drivers around your same skill level, and at least now you know that the blue shell that knocked you from first to sixth at the finish line came from a person — a person with a soul who will eventually go to hell for doing such things, rather than the heartless AI.
That's one thing about the series that hasn't changed and ultimately makes the title go from fun to frustrating, the cheap-as-it-gets AI that will shell and "lightning" you to tears. In an effort to keep races "competitive," Mario Kart has always given the player in the lead useless items (green shells and banana peels), while granting those in the back of the pack lightning bolts and homing blue shells. This iteration also introduces the POW block, which will cause you to spin out and drop any items you may have been carrying in the process. If you somehow manage to procure a red shell while in first place, rest assured that before you get a chance to use it, you'll likely get hit with a POW and leave it laying out on the track.
The current state of combat caused me to gnash my teeth a bit more than before because it seems like with every new game, the opportunity to actually win becomes less and less about skill and more about luck. I recall one race in which on the final lap I was hit by a red shell, a blue shell, a lightning bolt, and a POW block, all one after another, dropping me from first to last with less than a quarter of a lap to go. Of course I finished 12th, got zero points, and dropped out of medal contention. If I hadn't had the Wii Wheel tethered to my wrist, the whole thing would have gone right out the window, with the game disc and possibly the Wii itself not far behind. The unpredictable "anybody can win at any time" vibe that permeates the game is nothing short of infuriating and something that I pray in vain to be rectified with every new Mario Kart that comes out. This game goes completely in the opposite direction, causing nearly all 100cc and 150cc races (and even some 50cc ones as well) to turn into a lottery on wheels, thus rendering skill moot and throwing the whole thing into chaos.
The graphics and sound don't take much of a leap forward from the GameCube edition, and the annoying warning noise coming through the Wiimote every time an opponent launches an item at you is enough to make you wince. The one upside of the barely touched presentation is that it keeps things running smoothly both online and off, with no hint of lag to be found. However, those hoping for a great graphical or musical leap will be sorely disappointed, as there's nothing here that couldn't have been done on the last generation.
At its core, Mario Kart Wii is a simple, accessible title that lends itself to fun-filled evenings with friends on the couch or online games with racers halfway around the world. Sadly, the unfair single-player mode and lack of any real innovation means that playing alone is little more than an exercise in frustration. Just like Super Smash Bros: Brawl, this is a must-own for party gamers, but just about everyone else should give it a try before buying.
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