Mario Kart Wii

"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.


Great Article,

It is funny how this game can bring two distinct experiences depending on how you play it. For me I don't care if I get all the unlocks and I will race online with randoms or for fun at parties/with my fiance and have a great time. Meanwhile I have a friend who refuses to do any of those activities until he has done everything single player. He constantly curses the AI and other poor design decisions. I on the other hand am just enjoying the shenanigans that occur after a few beers on Friday night. On that note when he plays with people he has fun.

As with a lot of Nintendo stuff lately it seems as though the game is destined to be completely polarizing to gamers. A well written take, now go knock grandma off that high horse with a blue shell of vengeance.

I can definitely see how this game lends itself to a fantastic family experience, but I personally was underwhelmed. I rented it to give it a shot and played a match with my friend. After the first race was over, the mutual conclusion was that it was essentially Mario Kart 64 with a graphics update and a map pack. We booted up my VC copy of MK64, which pretty much confirmed our feelings.
Now, this isn't to say that this is necessarily a bad thing - if Nintendo can bring in new little gamers to play what is a fundamentally an amazingly fun concept, especially in a same-room multiplayer environment (something that the 360 has regretfully abandoned for the most part), they're still doing gaming and gamers a service, as is clear by your own experience. But as someone who played MK64 extensively and now has a big pile of shame to work through, this version just didn't bring enough new stuff to the table to keep my attention.

One problem I've found is the automatic/manual drifting option. I'd rather use Manual, but Automatic is much faster on a lot of courses so if you want to compete you have to use automatic.

I noticed it when I was doing time-trial competitions with a friend, automatic improved our times by 10-20 seconds on Coconut Mall.

The auto mode is awesome for playing with casual gamers, which is kind of the whole point. Kart will definitely be a stable member of the Wii shelf for a long time to come, along with Boom Blox. Good month for the Wii.

While I messed with the wiimote, and my kids use it, I find I'm much more consistently awesome with the nunchuck.

I agree Rabbit, the Wii has seen much love around the house as of late. I am hoping with games like Boom Blox and No More Heroes we might find that Wii development is turning a corner. I have been loving Lost Winds off the WiiWare and I hear they are already doing a sequel.

Great article Colleen, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

With regard to people complaining about the AI or the rubber banding or the item balance, I always get a chuckle when I hear these complaints.

Mario Kart isn't simply a racing game. It's not just about winning. It's not about perfect execution and control the way a racing simulator is. It's about violently wrenching the smell of victory from your opponent as hilariously as possible. I generally find the people upset about rubber banding, or "luck" are going about playing the game in a way other than what it was meant. They try to drive really fast and "win" from start to finish. Then, when they get blue or red shelled at the last minute the moan about item balance, while the karters who "get" it, hang back early on, we wait to make our move until the inevitable final chaotic moment, then we leap to the fore and "steal" victory. Yes, it's the chaos of Mario Kart that makes it great. For that chaos to exist, it's vital that lots of racers be bunched together. To ensure that, you NEED rubber banding. Without it, the racers would likely stretch out through the course based on immediate racing skill and then you'd never have those wild moments where the entire standing is turned on it's head. The difference is, some people recognize that this chaos is somewhat predictable and there able to capitalized on.
So the next time someone bitches about item balance or rubber banding in Mario or any Kart game, realize that it's not just a design choice but nearly a requirement to ensure the kind of situations that game is famous for.

I see where some people might complain that the game has been dumbed down to appeal to a broader, more casual audience. The same complaint could be leveled against Super Smash Bros, but in order to keep the wide appeal that has sold billions of consoles alive Nintendo really needs to stick to the approach that is working for them.
The inclusion of multiple control schemes is pretty brilliant. If you want the fun, casual, somewhat imprecise handling afforded by the Wiimote motion controls it's there, or if you want the greater precision of the GC controller one can turn to that instead. This also improves upon the old days if Nintendo as it doesn't seem like they are forcing players to buy a certain peripheral in order to play the game. Having a Wiimote with nothing attached at all is a viable option in both Mario Kart and Smash Brothers in a pinch.
I think Nintendo has really hit their stride recently and found a good balance between keeping things simple while still providing some depth. Good for them!

I only use the Wheel. It's the only way to play.

I was excited to find out that NIntendo can modify courses a bit for tournaments. Also racing online ghosts is fun. They send the ghosts at you according to how well you're racing. Also interesting is you can share ghosts and compare tournaments times between friends. And I think online play setup is slick (usual Wii online complaints still apply.)

I don't worry about rubber band AI. It's about making the game more challenging and chaotic. The challenge part doesn't seem like it would be any different than with a more skillful non-rubberband AI. I mean instead of being mad that you lost a race at the last second, you'd be mad about having to restart the race 10 times on the first lap because you fell too far behind. Plus the powerups are about rubberbanding anyway.

I find the game is like Poker where in the long run the skillful win out, but in the short run they can lose to those that get the "lucky hand."

This article is great!

I find that the better players generally place well a majority of the time because they tend to play defensively if they are in front (i.e. slowing down / reversing when seeing blue shells, keeping bananas to fend off red shells, etc). However, the items do have an impact, and they keep the race unpredictable. This keeps the better players from always finishing 1-2-3, because very often that blue shell will cause them to slip lower. I think that 12 players has made the game a bit crazier, but not to the game's deteriment.

You don't just loose a place or two when you're hit with these, either.


Oh and nice article.

What? Where? Thanks for the head's up. I thought I got that one.

Great article. This might be a good game for Wednesday Night Game Nights.

I play with the wheel and use the manual drifting option. I tried the automatic and it didn't help me at all. Overall though, I really enjoy my game and play it significantly more than Brawl as the online there is a nightmare. Online connectivity for Mario Kart works 100% every time. It's really nice.

Mario Kart will always belong in the party game pantheon, as far as I'm concerned. The special touches for the Wii just reinforce that notion.

I have always been a Mario Kart fan and I am enjoying this one as a MP party game. My biggest issue is that you still have to play the SP over and over to unlock new carts and characters. I managed to play through all the circuits on all the 'cc levels' and get gold but I still haven't unlocked everything. I'm now supposed to do time trials to unlock more? f*ck that, I'm not doing it this time around. Why, after I spend $50, can I not just have the whole experience open to me to play the way I want? On top of that frustration you can't transfer profiles either. A friend actually took the time to open up everything but he can't bring his profile over when we play at my house. WTF?!

Even with these complaints and flaws I still do like the game and we have fun with it.

I went to Hollywood Video to rent Boom Blocks. Alas none there. So I rented Mario Kart. I had fond memories of the game back when I last played it on the Nintendo 64. I was sorely disappointed when I played hte Wii version. There is absolutely no luck or ability to get better it primarily has to do with luck depending on what yo uget to hit others with and what you get hit by. Not only that but when you get hit with something significant you can lost 4-5 places. Its ridiculous, and if you are at all competitive frustrating as hell.

Balaamsdonkey wrote:

I went to Hollywood Video to rent Boom Blocks. Alas none there. So I rented Mario Kart. I had fond memories of the game back when I last played it on the Nintendo 64. I was sorely disappointed when I played hte Wii version. There is absolutely no luck or ability to get better it primarily has to do with luck depending on what yo uget to hit others with and what you get hit by. Not only that but when you get hit with something significant you can lost 4-5 places. Its ridiculous, and if you are at all competitive frustrating as hell.

Not really. If you're in the front, you'll get bananas and fake blocks on purpose, while in the back you get a lot of really good strong items that will help you get to the front. It mostly depends on your status in the race. It's actually nice to not have people in the front get stars and mushrooms and blast ahead of everyone else.