Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mario Kart Wii Review

The Most Complete Mario Kart Yet?

The Mario Kart series is the penultimate cartoon kart racer available. It's had multiple iterations on multiple consoles starting with the Super Nintendo all the way up to Nintendo's dual-screen runaway success, the DS. In each Mario Kart game there's been a perfect balance regarding the gameplay. Does Mario Kart Wii continue this tradition, or does the game simply spin out?

Mario Kart Wii gives players a ton of options to tinker around with. The Grand Prix has returned with three different kart classes and eight cups with four races each. Sixteen of these are never before seen while the latter half are retro tracks from past Mario Kart titles from the very first game, Super Mario Kart, all the way to the best in the series, Mario Kart DS. The Grand Prix mode will last you a few days, but if you're like me it'll probably last you a week because it feels like a chore. More on that later.

After racing your way against the AI in Grand Prix, you'll probably be ready to put on your racing gloves and step into what most gamers play Mario Kart for: the multiplayer. You can play with up to three other friends via splitscreen, but the action will take place in a lower framerate-- 30 as opposed to the single player 60 FPS. While you can't play the Grand Prix with a buddy like you could in past console iterations, you can play in Vs. mode. This mode gives you option to make your own Grand Prix cups of up to 32 races. You can either select the courses yourself or have the game do it for you. You can also take items off, adjust the CPU's skill level, and set the cc of the entire cup. This probably won't be a better alternative to those who wanted to unlock stuff while playing with a friend, but it's actually quite fun to play and the options available to you are great.

Is this Mario Kart the best of the bunch?

If you're getting your butt handed to you by your friends and/or the AI, maybe you'd rather try your luck and one of the best Time Trials options of any kart racer. This is where players who desire to game with pure skill and have at it. Already in the game are novice ghost times, but beat those and you'll unlock the expert ghosts made by staff of the game. Beat those, and you can truly brag to your friends. And if you're bragging isn't enough, you can send your best ghost times and replays to folks on your friends list, and they, too, can send ghosts to you to race against. You can keep besting one another's times as you race against each other's ghosts. Very cool feature which I've used a lot.

Online play isn't limited to ghost data either. By far the coolest use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, you can race online with up to eleven other racers either from your region or from around the world. You just hop online, get placed into a room, and if the race isn't over yet you watch its conclusion. Once it's over the players remaining vote on the next course which is then chosen randomly by the CPU from the choices of the players. Everyone starts out with 5,000 points. Be in the top half of a race's standings, and you earn points. Be in the bottom or disconnect, and you lose points. There's two different point totals: one for racing and one for the battle mode.

Baby Mario time travels to race against his future self.

Despite being decidedly gimped, the battle mode is still a roaring good time. There's no option for free-for-all like so many Mario Karts before it. Instead, everything is team-based, and losing all your balloons means absolutely nothing. You don't sit out, there's little to no wait time, and then you're back in the action. The team with the most points wins. There's ten battle arenas in all from the Block Fort-wannabe in Block Plaza to the awesome Delfino Pier with rising water flooding the area. Five arenas are new and five are retro from the N64's Skyscraper to Double Dash's Cookie Land.

Mario Kart Wii still uses the most incompetent online friends system imaginable in friend codes, yet it still manages rival and even trump some of the online systems of Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 racing titles. You add a friend via a twelve digit friend code, or if you and a friend have each other's Wii codes, you can add one another automatically to save time and the hassle. You can see who is playing what, join them, and compare your time trial times on a ranking timeline for each of the 32 tracks making this online system one of Nintendo's best.

Donkey Kong leads the pack.

Mario Kart Wii comes packed with twelve characters to start with-- a who's who of the Mushroom Kingdom, but by performing well in Grand Prix, Time Trial, and online you can unlock twelve more racers and even the ability to race as your own Mii. The only thing to worry about when selecting a character is their weight class. A character is either a lightweight, middleweight, or heavyweight, and each class has twelve vehicles (most of which need to be unlocked) to choose from. Each vehicle has its own attributes from max speed to acceleration, and for the first time ever, bikes make their triumphant debut. These babies handle corners much more sharply than karts, and they can even pop a speed-increasing wheelie on straightaways. In fact, if you want to get the top times in Time Trial, you'll want to utilize a bike most of the time.

But what good are the racers and their vehicles without tracks to unleash their need for speed on? Truth be told, Mario Kart Wii features some of the best, most inspired track design to date. As tradition with Mario Kart, the Mushroom Cup features the most newbie friendly courses. That doesn't mean they're boring. Mushroom Gorge has you bouncing from mushroom to mushroom over chasms and Toad's Factory features crushers, treadmills, shifting platforms, and a mud-covered backstretch. The Star Cup itself is full of the most inventive and enjoyable tracks I've ever raced on. And this version's Rainbow Road will put your pride into a grinder if you don't master it. It's quite hard, but it's immensely rewarding once you master it.

DK Summit is full of trick locations and places to shave off your time.

The retro tracks have some highlights, too. There's three Mario Circuits, one from the SNES days, one from the N64, and one from Double Dash. The DS stands proud with the incredible Delfino Square and Peach Gardens, and Bowser's Castle from the N64 returns in newfound glory. These tracks have been remade, so they're not exactly the same. DK Mountain (Double Dash) features ramps as you head down the first part of the mountain after being launched from the barrel rocket. Most of the tracks are much wider to accompany the twelve racers drifting and racing around their many turns. While some favorites such as Wario Stadium, Koopa Troopa Beach, and Toad's Turnpike were left out, it's important to remember that there has to be some great retro tracks for the next iterations of the franchise.

So by now it's clear that Mario Kart Wii is packed with content, but how does it play? The Mario Kart formula has been tweaked many times in the past with each entrant to the series. Mario Kart Wii is no different. Most likely to deal with snakers as well as to make it easier for casual gamers to get the hang of it, the power-sliding mechanic has been altered. Before (from Super Mario Kart to Mario Kart DS), when you'd hit a turn, you'd hold down a shoulder button and wiggle the D-pad or analog stick left and right to build up the power of your resulting mini-turbo to give you a temporary speed boost coming out of a corner or turn. Now you simply hold the power-slide button as you turn. The longer you hold it, the bigger your mini-turbo. Pro tip: Bikes can't mini-turbo as strongly as karts. It still takes skill to hold your line as well as achieve multiple mini-turbos during a long turn, and quite frankly, I prefer this way to the days old.

Bikes are the new vehicles on the block.

What isn't as nifty of a change are the balance of items. In the old days, only the lightning bolt greatly effected everything. Now new items such as the POW block, the Blooper (an MKDS returning item), and the lightning cloud can cause more harm than good. The other new item is the Mega Mushroom which increases the size and speed of a user as they can freely run over other players. Finally, the blue shell returns as every first place driver in the world sheds a tear. It'd be okay if it was slow and attacked other players on its way to first place like the Mario Kart 64 version, but the winged blue shell which swiftly catches up to first place and slams into them is too much. Now factor in all these items plus twelve racers plus an incredibly cheap AI in later difficulties and you have way too many items, way too much randomness, and way too many times you're hit by five items in a row-- even on the 50 cc. Many times I've raced in the 150 cc, and many times I've been on the final stretch of track on the final lap, only to be hit by a blue shell, knocked off the course by a heavy weight, and fallen to 12th place miserably. It boggles the mind on how horrible Nintendo botched the AI. One race you can scrape by and get 1st, and when you try the same race again you get 10th by no fault of your own. It's not fun, it doesn't keep things fresh, it's just unfair. And don't even get me started on trying to get good ranks on cups. It's just not in the cards. Some folks will say that it's always been like this in Mario Kart, and I can happily say that no it has not. Take off your rose-tinted glasses immediately.

What fares better is the inclusion of tricks. By flicking the Wii remote or hitting the d-pad while in mid-air, you can perform a mid-air trick. You can't fail a trick, and when you land you get a boost for your aerial artistry. Some tracks feature half pipes that are great for tricks, but the catch is that they take you off the main racing line. So it's all about playing it smart.

Mario Kart Wii come prepackaged with the Wii Wheel. All it is basically is a shell that you snap your Wii remote into. You can easily just play with the Wii remote on its side, but having something sturdy with better grips is a better alternative. Controlling Mario and his friends with the Wii Wheel is actually and surprisingly fun. There's a sturdy learning curve for those who wish to play like pros, but if you play online enough with it, you'll get a golden wheel icon next to your name. Those more serious about getting phenomenal times and more precise driving will most likely opt to use something with an analog stick. This means using a Wii remote and nunchuk (my preferred method for technical driving and sounds from the speaker) or a Gamecube controller. Both work well, and both are great.

So many racers, so little time.

Mario Kart has never been a series that shows the strengths of the console it is on. Mario Kart Wii does nothing to change this. The character models are almost laughable, the new tracks are the best visually, and the retro tracks look like they were done of the Gamecube but only this time around there's bloom. I was worried about the music when Kenta Nagata didn't sign on to compose. I loved his works on Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash, and I didn't have much faith in the folks who did the DS soundtrack. However, color me impressed. The music is quite good. Those expecting Mario Galaxy caliber stuff should get their heads examined as this music works wonderfully. The voice samples can be grating especially when you're performing tricks one after another.

This version of Mario Kart very much feels as if it's the most complete. That said, it's by no means the best-- though it could have been. I can't help but feel that Nintendo phoned this version in. You can tell by the cheap, poorly-constructed AI and the uninspired (though still strangely pleasant) graphics. Online is an absolute blast, and it offers some of the most fun I've had online. Did I mention you and a guest can play online together? Yeah, that rocks more than 2-player Grand Prix to me. While not one of the best offerings in the Mario Kart series, it surely has the most amount of content, options, vehicles (one of which is a mainstay of another Nintendo property) awesome tracks, and a wide array of characters to choose from. Definitely check this version out, but be warned, if you lack online, bump this score down a point. Yeah, online is that important for the enjoyment of this game.

[SuperPhillip Says]

Graphics: Almost bad, but kinda good.

Gameplay: No matter what control method you use, they all work well. Racing is more random than ever though. The balance of items has finally been broken.

Sound: A happy-go-lucky score colors me surprised. Some voices can get irritating after repeated use.

Replay Value: Online will keep you constantly clamoring for more. The Grand Prix is more a chore than anything, but you have to play it to unlock new goodies.

Overall: 8.5/10 - Great, but the catch-up AI and severe amount of items on the track brings the fun factor down and the frustration level up.

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