"There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes." -- Doctor Who
It's a typical evening, not long before bedtime. I'm at my desk trying to get some work done and the whole gang is in the living room giving the new Mario Kart Wii a run.
I manage to block out the sprightly music and stay focused on my malfunctioning stored procedure until my daughter's dulcet tones cut through the music coming through my headphones with an indignant, "You little pink B*TCH!" Princess Peach threw a painfully timed blue shell, and after the inevitable spin out she'd come in fourth. I pop around the corner with an admonishment about the language and she retorts that I should try this for myself.
Next thing I know I'm halfway through the Luigi Cup.
You can't escape the contrast with the other things going on in the gaming world. I don’t know why Nintendo released this game in the shadow of one of gaming’s biggest megillahs this year. Maybe they didn’t think there was much overlap between the two audiences. Going from a world where you are seriously discussing whether or not the 10 Second Rule applies to picking up and eating the hot dog a freshly murdered NPC just bought from a vendor to this cute and sparkly world is jarring at best. But I didn't come here as a refuge; I came here to RACE!
Take a few laps with me.
This franchise has been around a long time. It might seem like there's nothing new they could add. But that's not the case here. Half the tracks are brand new (16 out of the 32 base tracks), and the old standbys have had some remodeling done. The work was necessary to give places to use the new Trick feature. Each new ramp and bump gives you a chance to get a little air and perform a freestyle stunt in your kart or cycle. Successful stunts give you a helpful boost and using them tactically can be a huge advantage. Now you can race with either a motorcycle or a kart at all vehicle classes. The motorcycle has a couple of cool features, like the Wheelie ability, that make it fun to play. And after a while you can unlock the ability to race cycles against karts.
Being able to use a Mii rather than having to stick to the standard Nintendo character lineup is a nice touch, but you must choose wisely or you lose the advantages to be gained from the various weights of the characters. This affects the base stats of the various vehicles. Toad is a light character, so his kart/bike has high acceleration, high off-road, but a low top speed. On the other hand, Wario is a heavy and his vehicles have a high top speed but low everything else. Supposedly there's a weight feature in the Mii generator that can come into play here, but no one in my house has made a fat Mii.
Battle Mode is back, and this time around you can play it against the computer as well as in multi player. You can get out there start and jostling for coins and balloons by yourself against the computer, or against up to 11 of your friends online.
You're up to your eyebrows in options with the controls. The Wii Wheel that comes with the game is a dramatic improvement on the stand-alone one that came out not long after the system launched. But it's double-edged sword. Too much movement side-to-side while you're steering with the wheel messes things up. You need to do a clean twist to keep good control. Once I figured that out I had great luck with it. Just focus on turning it as if it had an imaginary steering column hanging out the back rather than waving the thing around in leaning ovals. Easy for me to say, but it can be hard to remember that when you're scrabbling around Turn 3 while ducking a banana and two of your opponents.
If that seems like too much of a pain, you can also just use the Wiimote itself by holding it sideways. I didn't like it much because it makes dropping an item a little trickier without the easier way to hit the B button. If you plug in a Nunchuk and hold the Wiimote in the traditional position, the item controls and the steering move to it’s buttons and the analog stick. This gives you more freedom for doing tricks with the Wiimote and you're not constrained into the slightly awkward physical position the wheel with no anchor requires. Or you can go back to basics with the classic or Gamecube controllers.
No matter how good you are with your controller-of-choice, it's not just skill that wins the day. The balance on the power-ups is not all it could be. In single-player mode it's not just skill that will win you the race. Even in the first races you start off with an abundance of power-ups and other lineup-altering gewgaws. As you progress through the vehicle classes more and more are added until it just gets ridiculous. New effects like the lightning will stop you dead in your tracks with no hope of avoiding them. The game changes which power ups you get based on your current position in this race and also the overall standings so the guys in the back get more powerful power ups and blockers than the guys in the front. The leaders get nothing but lame-o boxes to work with while the game hands out the heavy gear to the racers in the back.
You don't just lose a place or two when you're hit with these, either. You can go from first place all the way to last in a flash of lightning and a blue shell. A good trick and a flash of red sparks can take you just as far forward. The AI's tendency to use cheap rubber-band racing compounds the problem. If you're in seventh place and the game hands you a hardcore power up and then you get vaulted to the front thanks to a happy side-effect of someone else using one, you have a powerful advantage over a guy who has been a front-runner stuck shedding bananas all over the track for the last lap. This makes for a chaotic race where skill can be less of a factor than luck.
Tactical racing can overcome all of this. You can hang some of the power-ups behind you as a makeshift shield. Combining that with taking full advantage of all the different opportunities to gain boost can make you nearly bullet-proof. But even so, the potential for someone to get lucky doesn't make it a slam dunk. Before you start you might want to make sure everyone’s wearing his or her wrist strap to help you all through those throw-the-controller sorts of moments. The multi player modes don't seem to pull near as much of this nonsense, thank goodness.
The online multi player setup has some improvements on the Super Smash Bros nightmare. You still have to have your special code to enter for this specific game, but the numbers are slightly shorter. After the ease of multi player on other systems, the data entry requirements seem awful steep if you have a lot of friends. And since Nintendo's online solution has no voice chat, it has led people to come up with some interesting work-arounds like forming up and chatting over XboxLive while playing the Wii.
Despite the seeming gulf between them I've found this game has something in common with GTA (aside from the blue shell's ability to inspire you to use intemperate language around your children). It's all about the experiences the players have playing it. It's the high-five with your sister and the little victory dance around the coffee table after cutting off your brother and stealing his win. It's your brother and his best friend working tactically to impose Murphy's Law on you in the cruelest fashion to leave you in last place next time out. It's your grandmother making you eat her dust from 1,500 miles away and calling you on the phone to crow while the game rolls up to her Mii grooving on the victory podium.
And in those terms, this game stands on the top step of the podium.