It's the one game your mother let you play when you were young because any violence was limited to a well-placed banana peel or red shell. Sexuality was Princess Toadstool swathed head-to-toe in pink fabric and a tiara. Swearing? Undoubtedly, it was only heard from your older brother after you beat him on Rainbow Road for the tenth time in a row.
With such a clean-cut record, it's no surprise that the Mario Kart legacy had resulted in at least one title on every Nintendo console since the original SNES, as well as two different arcade editions in sixteen years of success. Thankfully, it seems like the Mario Kart track has no finish line in sight.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation, however, that I popped Mario Kart Wii into my system. Would the steering wheel/Wii-mote combination ruin the experience, the thrill of the race? Would it be able to top the Double Dash or DS editions? Would it even be comparable?
I needn't have worried.
Each track is better, brighter and more true to the original Mario Kart line of thinking. Each character is more…character-y, as wholesome as apple pie. There are more of them, as well as old favourites. The karts and the new addition of motorbikes are cute and kitschy and very Marioesque. This game is tight. Like, waterproof tight.
Nintendo has certainly upped the ante this time, using the Wii's versatility as a console to draw new and old players back to the track with the added attraction of the Wiimote steering shell. Players can now choose between the steering wheel, the Wiimote/nunchuck combination, the classic controller or the GameCube controller, allowing for any level of gamer to feel comfortable at the helm.
Though my personal favourite will always be the GameCube controller, I was intrigued by the steering shell. It's a really neat concept and I'm all for neat concepts, so I wanted to give it a fair shot. Really, I did. But I really look like an idiot when I'm using it. Nobody looks intelligent holding a white plastic steering wheel in midair while cursing at the screen. I just felt dumb.
However, I have to give the developers props for this one. The invention of this wheel adds yet another Wii accessory to the already over-abundant list of "required" Wii stuff that is generally useless and currently cluttering my living room space. Never mind that these products don't really add anything to the game, cost a small fortune and are really just a giant supplemental cash cow for Nintendo.
Fine, fine, I'll admit it, the wheel is fun. The wheel is cute. The wheel is funny when you're in a room full of friends, so you can grab the wheel of the person beside you and steer them off course. I get it. People like the wheel.
The problem is that the wheel isn't as accurate as any of the controllers, and to a lesser extent, the Wii-mote/nunchuck combo. You don't get that definite edge over your opponents, that extra dexterity when it comes to navigating the crazed corners of Rainbow Road in a 150cc race. As well, the much-touted stunt boosts created by waggling the wheel/Wii-mote when taking off a jump can make for tricky landings and difficult steering, and it just isn't worth it a majority of the time.
Controls aside, it's the tracks that make or break every new edition of Mario Kart and this one is no different. The sixteen new tracks are inspired, ranging from simple and beautifully rendered (Moo Moo Meadows, Luigi and Mario circuits, respectively) to jaw-droppingly complex and a example of creativity (Maple Treeway, Koopa Cape, Mushroom Gorge). The sixteen retro tracks have been re-mastered in exquisite 3D, while never loosing that old school look we cherish in a Mario Kart title. Oh, and Rainbow Road? This version is the best ever, hands down.
What else is new? How about three new weapons?
There's a funky little mushroom that'll turn your cute little Toad into a shitake of epic proportions.
Feeling gloomy? Now there's a weapon that'll show the world. It's the Mario Kart version of hot potato, with a cute little rain cloud boosting you to first place. The downside is that once the lighting stops, you get shrunk down and spun out. You can avoid that and pass on the gloom by bumping into your opponents.
Last but not least, my personal favourite: the POW block. A virtually unbeatable relic from the Mario days of yore, the POW block with spin out each of your enemies at once, unless they're in midair at the time (hey, you can't win them all).
Of course, these new weapons and four additional players mean that when it comes to game time, there's not much game time happening at all. I've been in first place and been hit with two blue shells, inked AND shrunk, before being POW-blocked into a lava field. Sure, the extra players and weapons are nice, but once you hit 150cc, it's more like battle mode with a finish line.
When it comes to character selection, I won't spoil you with the guest list. But all the old standbys are there, with some surprising new additions as unlockable bonuses. As well, there are still three weight classes (small, medium, heavy), with different cars and motorbikes for each class.
Speaking of motorbikes, another great move by Nintendo was the inclusion of motorbikes in this latest edition. Not only are they cool, but they allow you to execute an extra speed boost by simply tilting the Wiimote upwards or pressing upwards on the D pad with the GameCube controller. At the expense of some manuverability, you can perform a wheelie and dash past your opponents to victory. I discovered this little gem by accident, and was incredibly pleased to discover that Nintendo had thought that far ahead.
It's that kind of thinking that makes this game so superior in almost every way, except in offline battle mode. I still cannot understand how Nintendo could master this concept in their first title and fall flat when it comes to re-delivering on every subsequent edition of the series. Now, instead of cleverly designed areas that would accent a player's natural talent, we are left with giant arenas that confuse instead of excite. In both Coin Runners and Balloon Battle, players are forced to join teams to better utilize the full twelve member cast of characters and fill the monstrosities that they call arenas. To add insult to injury, you can even come back to life once all your balloons are popped, making you wonder why they added them in the first place. The battle mode is a catastrophic flop.
Since I began writing my review for this title, I've heard a lot of talk about the amazing online setup that Nintendo created for Mario Kart. Granted, I'm not big on online playing in general, so I don't quite see what all the fuss is about. Agreed, the menus are easy to use and allow for non-IR controllers (like the rest of the game). Yes, the connection times are great and the matches virtually lag-free. I understand that the points system is cool, and that being able to create a room for just you and your friends is neat. In fact, I think that Nintendo is taking great leaps in developing online gaming into the epic behemoth that it could very well be. I'm just not a fan, personally. I prefer to be able to beat my enemies in person, so I may ridicule them. It's a nice touch though.
Graphically speaking, Mario Kart is Mario Kart. The graphics are colourful, sharp and generally run smooth, just the same as the series always has. The audio is exactly what you can expect from a Mario Kart game; you get character noises when you pass someone, or are bumped, and the adorable-yet-ever-so-slightly-annoying background music has morphed into elevator music in fast forward.
In the end, I'd have to give Nintendo a big pat on the back for this one. They contended with a multitude of controller issues (too many of them and what to do with them all), got a firm grasp on online play, and even managed to make this edition of Mario Kart a game I'm proud to have on my shelf, which is more than I can say about that little plastic wheel.