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The brothers Mario clash on the racetrack. As their karts grind together, the combined mach speed threatens to tear the lip warmers from their very faces. The scene seethes with venom - never has Nintendo dredged up such ferocious rivalry. As an opening FMV? It’s a killer. As an indicator of the day at the races to follow? They’re being a little liberal with the truth.
Entering our first race - Luigi’s Circuit in Mario’s 50cc banger - the ‘stache-flapping wonderment of the intro is dispelled instantly. It’s a dull loop - roughly shaped like Patrick Stewart’s head - far too wide; a sea of tarmac that denies you anything close to a satisfying racing line. It makes the bloated tracks of Double Dash look super-skinny. It’s hardly the best opener.
Then you hit the accelerator aaaand… not a lot happens. Yes, the 50cc Grand Prix has never been the speediest of events, but this feels wind-up car slow. A piddling trickle of movement, it’s particularly jarring if you’ve recently played Mario Kart DS. Why the wimpy pace? It’s likely due to the wheel peripheral - speed and new controls are going to take the precious ‘expanded audience’ time to grasp.
While it’s hard to write passionately about a plastic wheel, the control it offers, although alien at first, is soon warmed to. Smooth to the touch, it’s certainly a nicer ‘thing’ than the sandpaper-rough Ubisoft wheel. Also, with its special IR sensor porthole, you don’t have to remove the remote to navigate menus - the first shell to let you do so. But as a tool for Mario Kart it has its flaws. The remote sits too high in the wheel, adding a weird weight to the floaty steering. Shaking for a trick is easy, but the light flicks of a shell-less remote are swifter, and the only right way to do a bike wheelie. It’s not long before you’re translating the minimal analogue tweaks that got you through Mario Karts of yore to the wheel, though seasoned Kart-heads will probably stick with the tried-and-tested analogue stick, especially for the bikes.
Basics first. Analogue stick steering? Fine. It sits somewhere between Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash - there’s none of the sluggishness of Dash’s fattened karts, but it’s got more grip and presence than 64’s pseudo-3D floaty-mobiles. And drifting? Really solid. Instigated by performing a hop, a drift boost is no longer gained by steering in and out of the slide, but is now dictated by the length of the slide. Drift for long enough and the blue sparks turn to blue flames, before flaring a bright, super-boost-coloured red.
Boosting is a case of less is more. Despite being easier to pull off than the old waggling technique - you literally just hold down the hop button and steer into the bend - the boost is harder to trick and manipulate. Is this the end of snaking? We certainly hope so. Sure, you can hop and force a drift along a straight, but the game doesn’t like giving you boost power unless you’re on a corner. It may be technical witchcraft, but we won’t send it to the ducking stool.
Having to hold the drift for as long as possible actually makes for a riskier game. Do you try to drift through multiple bends in one maneuver for a mega boost, or chop it into more manageable pieces? It also calls for reevaluation of the retro tracks included here, as strategic slides question your tried and tested racing lines, and best times once thought unbeatable are soundly trounced.
Not only are you attempting to cultivate a zen-like appreciation of corners, but you have a stunt boost to chase, too. Whether launching off a ramp or passing a minor bump in the road, a quick remote shake activates a trick and rewards you with a turbo upon landing. There’s no way to mess it up and no tricksy angled landings a la Excite Truck. It’s as pure and obvious as Mario Kart has ever been.
Not all courses offer ripe openings for both abilities. Bumpless tarmac tracks focus more on smooth drifts, while others are so bump-fat - racing over the knotted roots of Maple Treeway, for example - that you rarely touch the ground, let alone drift. Trick spots are even sparser in the four retro cups - it’s quite obvious where ramps have been shoehorned in. The inconsistency isn’t game-ruining, but it’ll surely help some tracks find stardom quicker than others.
Then there are bikes. Four wheels good, two wheels bad? When we hopped on Peach’s scooter for the first time we thought Nintendo had seriously messed up. Steering a bike with the wheel was horribly unnatural, the rotation motion completely at odds with the handlebar twist you’d expect from a bike. Squeeze the waggle stick out of the shell and the problem is solved.
Bikes differ in two key areas. For one, they’re equipped with a wheelie capability that offers a slight hike in speed at the expense of steering stability. Flick the remote up and the front wheel lifts up; flick the remote back again and the wheel lowers as full control returns. It’s a tad mechanical - a wheelie will naturally last around five seconds - but the extra speed boost it affords is a genuinely sneaky treat, especially when applied to overtake on the final stretch.
So the two vehicles are unbalanced, then? Nintendo would say no. To compensate for their crafty one-wheel antics, the bikes’ drifting capacity is curbed at blue flames. No matter how long you powerslide a bike for, you ain’t going to milk a speedy red flame from its engine. Is it enough? Maybe not. The difference in speed between a blue flame and red flame boost isn’t really great enough to warrant labeling the kart’s extra drift reward as compensation.
The same old difficulty-balancing tricks rear their ugly heads: heavy characters magically upping their acceleration to apply some final lap pressure and a constant flow of blue shells for Mr. Rubbish in 12th position. That’s a constant flow of blue shells subsequently spammed by the still moronic AI.
An extra four karts - Mario Kart traditionally uses eight - ramp up the chaos within the lower ranks, but the ease with which you can glide away means you’ll only ever spy the congestion on the map. And an extra four karts means an extra four loads of items chucked about - so thanks, Nintendo, for a remote speaker alarm and onscreen warning for approaching items. Seeing exactly where an item is traveling improves avoidance odds, though DS fans will miss the comprehensive map the bottom screen offered.
But hold on a minute. If the extra four karts don’t add anything to the Grand Prix, why include them? It’s not like Nintendo to crowbar in excessive features for the hell of it - they’re the master game pruners. Keep that in mind as we enter the final lap of our Mario Kart Wii review. In racing terms, this is where you pull your finest tricks out of the bag to get ahead, but likewise, this is where slip-ups are most painfully felt.
The trick we’re referring to? Online play. As an online Wii experience it shames its rivals. Smash Bros. may offer a cavalcade of online modes, but it’s crudely handled. Press a button and you play Smash Bros. online. Caveman basic. Mario Kart is a crafted online experience designed to develop a community. From the immensely slick and welcoming lobby system to the special Mario Kart Channel installed on the Wii menu, everything about it drips thoughtfulness. It’s the first online Wii title where you feel like you’re developing a competitive online profile and not just accessing a rubbish database that only records how many games you’ve won (ahem, Mario Strikers Charged and Pokémon Battle Revolution).
Chasing best times has always been the lifeblood of Mario Kart, and through the downloadable ghost runs of the Mario Kart Channel it’s taken to a global level of competition. Challenge your friends to beat your racing ghost or download the number one ghost time in the world and see how you measure up against them. No longer will results have to be filtered through monthly magazine pages to find out whether ‘I’m the best’. This is an instant, ever-evolving online contest. And online, 12-kart races finally make sense. Humiliating 11 AI karts is nothing like racing 11 human minds. The spirited chaos of the lower ranks that you’re denied by the ease of single-player? Not an issue here. Not to mention the 12-player takes on other modes. Balloon Battle is now a team effort - four gangs of three working to burst as many as possible. The Grand Prix can be raced as a team, you and friends clubbing together to ensure you all place higher than rival members.
Mad. Ridiculous. But all in the spirit of fun. It’s Nintendo all right. Only it isn’t. Because the Nintendo we know and love would never sacrifice one portion of a game for another. Nintendo trim and tweak to perfection. Not so here. The pressure to deliver an online experience has led to Nintendo overlooking the local multiplayer mode - the one that carried Mario Kart for all these years. Four-player Balloon Battle? It stinks. Designed for 12 players, the remaining eight teammates are AI drivers - completely undermining the skill-based play the mode has always rewarded. Same goes for Coin Grabbing, a new battle mode that needs little explanation.
Split-screen racing? Fine, but it struggles visually - never dropping frames, but noticeably chugging compared to solo karting. We’d ask why Nintendo didn’t simply give us the option to turn off AI karts, but all the modes, maps and tracks have been so tailored to that magical number 12 that the game wouldn’t play properly.
No matter how rich the Wi-Fi mode is, to strengthen it at the cost of one of Nintendo gaming’s most beloved pastimes - good ol’ four-player Mario Kart - is downright wrong. Maybe in time we’ll warm to it, but we’ve played enough Kart, from SNES to GC, to know when something has been messed with. It’s not enough to deny the game the accolades it deserves for formula tweaks and for finally kicking off Wi-Fi Wii as it should be done, but Nintendo rarely disappoint like this. For all their moves that have baffled long-term fans - namely the casual gaming shift - this is their first decision we’re truly uneasy with. What a shame it should arrive in an otherwise delightful package.
Apr 28, 2008