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Mario Kart Wii Review

By Matt Cabral, 5/5/2008

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Fifteen years since it first crossed the finish line, Nintendo’s addictive, arcadey kart-racing series is still the one to beat. Without straying far from its reliable formula, the beloved franchise hits the Wii with an all-new entry that should appeal to veteran Karters and newcomers alike. The expected modes, tracks, robust character selection and crazy power-ups are back, and complemented by the best Wii internet-based multiplayer experience to date. In fact, you’ll likely forego the off-line solo offerings after a few days in favor of the wildly fun online modes.

The first thing you’ll notice about Mario’s latest trip to the kart track is the inclusion of the Wii Wheel. This steering wheel-like peripheral houses the Wii-mote—not unlike the pack-in peripheral of Wii launch title GT Pro Series—and aims to add a tangible layer of immersion to the driving experience. Mario Kart diehards will likely scoff at this “gimmick” and stick with one of the other control options—as with Brawl, classic controller, GameCube gamepad and nunchuck and Wii-mote options are available. However, those willing to swallow a little pride (and forget the still-needing-to-prove-itself Wii Blaster) will discover this simple control scheme actually enhances the kart-fueled fun. It’s totally responsive, simple to use, and it may even trick you into making “vroom, vroom” sounds with your mouth. Holding out your arms in a mock-driving position will tire them faster than a Wii Sports tennis tourney, but even resting your arms on your legs, while steering the fake wheel, works remarkably well.

Regardless of control preferences, Mario Kart’s many options, modes and playful presentation should stretch a grin across the face of even the most jaded gamer. The Grand Prix mode is the star of the solo options, pitting you against 11 AI-controlled opponents as you race through the ranks in 50cc, 100cc and 150cc challenges, unlocking new tracks, characters and vehicles along the way. Tracks—all popping to life with the series' trademark candy-colored visuals—include new takes on old classics as well as many brand new ones; Wario’s Gold Mine (a roller coaster-like thrill ride), a volcano-populated course, and a slippery snow-covered track deliver the thrills, but the rehashed oldies are starting to feel just a bit stale. With online gaming now a staple, it would’ve been cool if Nintendo offered these old faves as free downloads.

All tracks—new and old—have been outfitted with tons of ramps, half-pipes and moguls to accommodate Mario Kart Wii’s added air-catching focus. These high-flying opportunities are not only a blast to nail, but they’ll give you a nice speed boost upon landing. Other additions include a few new power-ups to join the already crowd-pleasing arsenal of banana peels, mushrooms and turtle shells; the coolest is the kart-shrinking lightning cloud that hovers over head, but can be passed to an opponent by banging into them. A super POW block stuns all opponents and forces them to drop their own power-ups, and a mega mushroom (similar to the item that turned Mario into a Godzilla-like screen-filling threat inNew Super Mario Bros.) briefly increases your size, allowing you to steam-roll passed competitors. Our only gripe with these new items, as well as the old standbys, is that more than ever it seems they can unfairly undermine your success on the track; fun often turns to frustration in zero to sixty, as you’re continually subjected to the business end of competitors’ seemingly endless supply of these power-ups. It’s often difficult to hold a steady front-runner spot in the 150cc cup thanks to the infamous blue shell of death, among other first-place-sabotaging items. This has always been an issue in the series, but this time out—maybe to help even the playing field for Wii’s enormous casual fanbase—power-ups occasionally seem over-powered.

Aside from Grand Prix, offline racers can enjoy some mini-game-styled fare in balloon-popping and coin-collecting challenges, as well as time-beating solo runs. But all this is just a primer to the kart-racing fun to be had online, as most of your time will be spent on Nintendo’s Wi-Fi channel, where addictive online modes abound. You’ll still have to fiddle with Nintendo’s stubborn friend-code system if you want to play with your buddies, but it’s a small price to pay in light of the awesome multiplayer experience; and, it’s actually easier—and just as much fun—to connect with 11 around-the-globe competitors. Whether playing with friends or strangers, multiple modes, the ability to put your Mii behind the wheel, and a lag-free experience guarantee a good time. Plus, persistent scoring—that adjusts according to your performance—ensures you’ll be matched with like-skilled players. There’s also a great bragging-right-focused feature that allows you to download (and upload your own) ghost player to see how other high-ranking challengers achieved their best times and, if you got the kart-controlling skills, eventually beat them. Want a real challenge? Download Nintendo staff ghost riders—you know you’re good when you can top the times of the games’ creators.

All the off- and online antics are complemented by the series’ Mushroom Kingdom-inspired graphics—looking slightly better than they did on the GameCube’s Double Dash—that now sport the 480p widescreen treatment. And, in typical Nintendo fashion, the character selection is through the roof; many of your favorite and maybe not so favorite ones (sorry baby Peach) are accounted for. Although, despite the star-studded roster, Mario Kart does feel a bit B-listy after the fan-pleasing inclusions in Brawl—couldn’t Solid Snake have signed a two-game deal?

Despite some minor flaws, Nintendo’s latest take on their classic kart racing series is definitely worth checking out. It sticks pretty close to their tried-and-true formula, adding some new touches—motorcycles have also been injected into the frenzied fun—while dropping others (we miss the two-character-kart mayhem from Double Dash), but in the end, it delivers quite a ride. If you’re a longtime fan or recent Wii adopter, this one’s a must-buy, especially for its endlessly entertaining online modes. Oh, and don’t be such a stubborn purist—give the Wii Wheel a fair spin.

Overall: 85%



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