IGN Review of Mario Kart Wii
It's been more than 15 years since the dawn of the Mario Kart franchise on Super Nintendo and the series is still going strong. Indeed, since its inception Kart has become a household name, seeing six iterations, over 100 tracks, and spawning millions upon millions of players worldwide. Every version brings something subtly different to the table, and everyone seems to have a favorite amidst a franchise that never quite changes, but never really stays the same from game to game. Ask players which characters they prefer, what levels top the list, and which items need to stay or go, and you'll get as many diverse responses are there are gamer types. And yet, most Nintendo fans will agree that the Kart games are enjoyable single-player experiences and addictive multiplayer ones.
Supposing you're new to the phenomenon -- hey, this is Wii after all; you might come from that coveted "blue ocean" corner -- Mario Kart Wii, like its predecessors, is a pick-up-and-play racer drenched in Mushroom Kingdom characters and overrun with outlandish track designs. You can race against foes or engage them in vehicular battle -- not with guns, mind you, but turtle shells and bananas. This is a Nintendo game, remember. The concept may seem downright childish as you read about it, but the end experience is both charming and fun.
Mario Kart has never really been full-blown "hardcore," and neither has it been wholly "casual," a truth that Nintendo has fully embraced this time around. Mario Kart Wii comes complete with three Grand Prix speed classes – 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc – with the expected unlockables after that. Each character fits distinctly in a race class, has specific light, medium, or heavy cars to choose from based on that class, and there's of course a healthy dose of local multiplayer via classic versus ad battle modes. If you grew up with Kart, you will not find the Wii iteration full of pioneering new play modes, which might prove disappointing for some. At the same time, though, Nintendo's series was founded on a winning formula and we can therefore sympathize with any reluctance to break from it.
Still, there are some welcomed additions. Not only does Kart for Wii ship with a Wii Wheel -- a shell that encapsulates the Wii remote and makes the process of motion-controlled steering more believable -- but now there are bikes, Mii support both on and off the tracks, 32 total stages (half new, half classic), as well as a few new items thrown into the mix. It all feels and looks like Kart, mind you, but the extra bells and whistles are definitely recognizable But you knew that. The real question here is how exactly the game plays, what works and what doesn't, and whether or not you need to start sending hate mail to Nintendo for screwing up your now-teenage baby.
Overall, Mario Kart Wii is extremely rewarding and we take into account the Wii wheel shell (yes, we just complimented a shell…), the inclusion of IR and non-IR supported menus, the seamless integration of console Miis, and never-ending laundry list of WiiConnect24 and Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection features, the continued support of traditional control schemes, the retro levels, and much more. For the thick-minded, Mario Kart Wii offers a seemingly never-ending amount of content. Some of it you'll love and some you won't want to play through a second time.
For the first time ever on a Nintendo console, the online portion trumps the single-player offering, and we'll explain why. Both 50cc and 100cc races are fine in Grand Prix, though the exclusion of the Mario Kart 64-like cooperative two player GP is a serious misstep in our opinion -- you can certainly go in and create your own GP competitions, but they work separately from the normal GP cup progression. Mushroom Cup is a bit boring, Flower Cup starts to mix things up with some decent track design, Star Cup really starts to take off with some superb levels and true innovation, and a Special Cup that rounds things off with one of, if not the, best Rainbow Road tracks in franchise history.
150cc, however, is a whole other story. Mixing the 12-racer formula with some of the most obviously cheesy and downright useless AI rubber band activity we've seen outside Midway's classic arcade titles (NFL Blitz and NBA Jam instantly come to mind), Kart's 150cc experience is most certainly beatable, but it'll take as much luck and needless replay as it will skill, and that's a shame. Mario Kart has always teetered on the line of feeling somewhat orchestrated, as the racers in the lead receive items of little to no value while those in the back get items that will quickly jet them to the front. It adds to the chaotic "any race could be my race" feel, but 150cc is where we draw the line, as the AI is far too brutal, and downright cheap at times.
Everyone knows the nightmare that is the blue shell, but add in four more racers, a new punishing lightning item that frontrunners will get and have auto-use on them (giving you extra speed for a few seconds, but then shrinking you if you can't pass the item by bumping a rival), another new POW block that spins everyone out automatically – and takes away items in the process, depending on what you're packing – and an AI that reacts to not only what position you're in this race, but how many points ahead you are from the pack in the full GP, and you've got the most brutal comeback computer players out there. We've had three blue shells hit us in a row, we've gone from first to last – again, that's 12 spots – with the finish line just a few car lengths away, and we've settled for silver because of a last second auto-boost by a rival. The orange car in R.C. Pro Am has nothing on this vengeful mascot racer. Luckily it's localized mostly to 150cc, with vs. racing being a much more balanced endeavor.
The single player front still has some great content though, and it shouldn't be ignored. Ghost racing is even more part of this Kart than any other out there, now having the system come with "Staff Ghosts" from Nintendo holding high positions on every race. Not only do you get their names, cars, and times, but also their Mii faces, and there's nothing quite like racing Nintendo President Satoru Iwata head to head. Once you beat them you'll not only take the lead on your own console, but also be able to upload your ghosts on the fly to Nintendo's online rankings system, where you can then compare with friends check out other ghosts around the world, race a predetermined "rival ghost" based on a speed slightly higher than whatever current one you have is, and even go to the front of the pack and watch/challenge the best runs in the world for every track. Nintendo loves its ghost races, and so do we. As a quick aside, certain content won't be unlocked until you defeat staff ghosts – and lots of them – so those gunning for 100% completion better bring their A game.
But there's far more to see and do in Kart than race around in the singler-player mode as Nintendo has upped the ante this time around with even more multiplayer and battle options than ever before. Locally you've got versus race and battle mode, and a huge list of options to go with it. We're glad to see that you can take off computer-controlled characters, set up your own GP-like tournaments with as many races as you'd like, tweak how mean or balanced items are, use Miis during multiplayer – in single player you can use only your license Mii, but in multi any console character is up for grabs – and can race on 10 total tracks; five new, and five retro. There are still a few gripes though, including the lack of four-player free-for-all battles (a staple of Kart since N64), a lack of an item editor for removing those nasty blue shells, and a lack of battle maps for smaller groups of racers. Every map out there is set for 12 players, and you're better off filling the space with AI than letting it go to waste most of the time, as the maps are huge. The cars also feel like they're running at the 50cc speed class for online, and it's a bit too slow for our liking. Other than that, it's a fun experience for those looking for some local action outside of Smash.
And then there's online. If your Wii is connected to the Net, Mario Kart is a must-have addition to your library, plain and simple. While split-screen three/four player multiplayer suffers from a drop in fluidity from 60 to 30 frames per second, online blows it out of the water. Connecting is easy and pretty fast overall, and connecting to rooms is seldom an issue even through our annoying firewall here at IGN. Once in games, the framerate never drops below 60 for us, and the mix of ease, speed, and options online makes it hands-down the best Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection game out there. Where Smash Bros. was a huge letdown for many online players, but a must-play locally, Mario Kart Wii's online far surpasses the offline experience, and there's more reasons why then we'd care to list.
But we will. The solid framerate is an obvious first, and it's followed by a quick and charming interface. Once online you can check for friends (small icons will instantly tell you if they're on before even going into the "friends" section), but can also get with 11 other racers in worldwide or regional play almost instantly. When in-game, a wheel icon displays for any racers using Nintendo's shell, but a golden wheel, the first step of Kart obsession, we might add, will show up if you've played the majority of your Wii experience with tilt control. Also in-game are star icons if you've earned higher than an A on every cup at every skill level in single player, with star, double star, and triple star being the possible "bragging rights" options out there. Then there's the point system that works with racing and battling separately, basically acting like a reverse ranking where the goal is to win races and drive up your total score from the starting 5,000 to well beyond 10k, which basically replaces the conventional GP scoring in single player mode, and acts as the system for matchmaking like-leveled players.
It sounds like we're just listing features, but these are all high points to the online experience. Friend codes or no friend codes, Nintendo has taken a huge leap into the world of online with Mario Kart Wii, and has rivaled what Xbox Live does in a few simple ways. Coming late to a game will let you view the racers in progress like a live replay, and the Mario Kart Channel (usable without having the disc in) will let you view online friends, with a click of their Mii sending you on-deck into the match, automatically teaming you with them if there are spots available, and if it's indeed a team-based online match. Snaking is also out of the game, which already makes it a much better interactive world, and Nintendo even boots you from games if you attempt to drive in reverse and screw up other racers. We'll complain about the company's "big brother" attitude with friend codes and the like, but it's sure nice to have a fast, fun online experience without the drama that comes with going live.
There's also a neat level of features used in Mario Kart that don't really need to be there, but are still fun to see in action. You can get regular updates from a Mario Kart-themed newsletter on your console, send commemorative photos of yourself hanging out with the cast whenever you beat a full cc class, and even get messages from "other Nintendo games" that send you characters; Mario Galaxy is one such example.
We mentioned the presentation already, but that goes hand-in-hand with the visual design of Mario Kart Wii. The menus are slick, but very simple, and that speaks volumes on the rest of the game as well. Tracks can be very basic, low poly, and soft, but everything still has a very appealing look to it, and we can see people both loving and hating the direction Nintendo took with the game. Some tracks, such as the new Mario Circuit, look vivid and beautiful, and it's no wonder it's the level used in nearly every Nintendo-made piece of Kart media out there. On the other side, tracks like Grumble Volcano have a very basic look, and are a bit uninspired. The retro designs, however, are pretty well done, with some of the best work coming from the simplicity in designs like Super NES's Mario Circuit 3, shaded with flat colors and displaying a crisp, still-retro feel.
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