Some games are very, very serious indeed. There’s plenty to be said for true-to-life physics, painstaking motion capture, and AI so frighteningly realistic it’s hard not to believe that the game’s developers haven’t been going around stealing peoples’ souls and storing them on little silver discs, but deep down, we’re all glad that for every Tiger Woods there’s an Everybody’s Golf, for every Final Fantasy there’s a Kingdom Hearts, and for every Gran Turismo, there’s a Mario Kart.
From the moment you pop the disc in and the Wii menu triumphantly yelps ‘Mario Kart Wii!’ at you like an excited puppy that’s desperate to be played with, you know this is going to be fun, but the scale of the fun on offer here is truly something else. As anybody who has ever played any prior incarnation of Mario Kart will tell you, all the game modes are great, but multiplayer rules all, and with this in mind, I made certain that when I got my hands on a pre-release copy there was a second Wii wheel on hand. There’s something pure and joyous about a group of grown adults jumping up and down in excitement swinging white plastic steering wheels around, but this control method is not (as I originally feared) just an exercise in Wii user-friendly-ness (read: silly-ness). It is surprisingly responsive and to me the tilt control feels to have a far greater degree of hands-on input than a d-pad or analog stick ever could. Sure, there have been some embarrassing moments where I’ve forgotten myself and veered violently left into a gaping chasm while reaching up with one hand to itch my nose, metres from the finish line, throwing away a hard-fought first place, but that all adds to the overall fun of the experience.
The Wii wheel is not the only control method on offer here, though, and Nintendo have catered for all tastes most admirably. The Wii remote slots into the fascia of the wheel with the buttons facing towards the player and the trigger behind, and this control can be easily mimicked without the wheel, although feels a little less natural. In addition to this, you can play with nunchuk and remote together, the ‘classic’ controller, and the old faithful Gamecube controller. All the control methods work well and have their pros and cons, and ultimately it will come down to your own personal preference which you choose. I don’t doubt that the most serious players and ultimately those who win most races and post the best times will be those who use the more ‘traditional’ analog stick control methods as there is less margin for error (you won’t come a cropper of nose itching or pint quaffing) but if you ask me they need to lighten up a bit.
Following on from the idea of a control method for all seasons, Nintendo seem to have fairly broadly spread that ‘throw everything we have at it’ approach throughout the game, and while more doesn’t always mean best, it certainly does here. You start the game with 12 characters to select from, and in traditional Mario Kart style, these are grouped into lightweights (the likes of Toad and Baby Mario), middleweights (Yoshi and Peach fall into this category) and the heavyweights (DK, Bowser et al) and as always, your choice of character impacts on the way you play the game due to the difference in statistics and styles. The lightweights have good acceleration and handling, but can be easily shoved aside, the heavyweights are slow to hit top speed and harder to handle, but violence comes easily to them, and the middleweights are at various points in between. Nothing new there, then, but add in a choice of vehicles and things really start to get interesting.
Nintendo have added bikes. Yes, Mario Kart is no longer a four-wheel only affair. It is a little strange to get your head around at first, and you don’t slip into the saddle of the bike quite as comfortably as you do behind the wheel of the old reliable karts, but it adds another new dimension to the game and once again, the experience is richer for it. This is not simply dropping a different set of polygons over the top of the existing models, either, there is a learning curve involved in getting to grips with the bikes. The game is structured into different ‘cc’ classes of race that loosely denote difficulty, but this also dictates which vehicles you’ll be taking control of. 50cc races are kart only, 100cc are bike only, and 150cc is a big jumbled mess of the two. They handle differently, they are twitchier over jumps (but fly a lot further), you can wheelie them for a speed boost by flicking your wheel upwards (but can’t actually corner properly until you nod the front wheel back down again) and while it takes some getting used to, the variety offered is always a bonus.
This choice in vehicles within the categories isn’t purely cosmetic either, as is often the case with serious racing games. Because of the cartoon nature of the game, the stat increases and decreases of the various vehicles are quite exaggerated – admittedly it seems a little strange to watch Baby Peach in a push-chair go flying past Wario in a hot rod, but there is method to this madness. You can team a more lightweight, better accelerating vehicle with a heavyweight character, for example, to compensate for the innate abilities of the driver and find some middle ground in between middleweight and heavyweight. Or alternatively, you could go in the opposite direction and turn your already beefy sort into a veritable tank. This variety and scope certainly adds a feeling of customisation and tailoring your racer to your own style, and while most players will settle on their favourite combinations after a few trial runs, the experimentation is enjoyable and you’ll always find yourself testing out that new character you unlocked or trying the modified kart you just won to see if it improves your racing by a fraction of a second a lap.
So you’ve chosen your racer, you’ve chosen your vehicle – what happens next, when the lights change? Absolute chaos! For all the changes and additions made (throughout the years, not just in this game) one thing in Mario Kart has remained fairly constant – the gameplay. This game is just as fast, just as silly, and absolutely every bit as brutally violent (in a Wile E. Coyote kind of way) as any Mario Kart that has preceded it. You can be the most skilful, talented driver in the world, but if the tide of power-ups turns against you, you’re toast. That’s not to say that more talented drivers won’t win more races, but the little boxes of cartoon malevolence are a great equalizer, and in truest Mario Kart tradition, if you’re losing, you get the best gear. If you’re in the top two or three places, prepare for an endless (and mostly useless) supply of banana skins or fake power-ups, but be lingering towards the back of the field as the final lap starts and find yourself in possession of a veritable smorgasbord of mischief makers – lightning bolts that shrink every other racer, power stars that speed you up and make you invincible, bullet bills that transform you into, well, a bullet bill that shoots round the course at great speed knocking over anything in its path, and the ultimate in weaponry – the blue spiky leader missile shell, that locks on to whoever is leading the race and cannot be stopped or avoided until it smashes into them, exploding on impact and taking out anyone in the blast radius to boot. This power-up weighting system has always been one of Mario Kart’s great strengths and is a definite boon to the multiplayer game, but I wonder if perhaps it’s turned up a little too high in 100/150cc races, as I once counted four leader missiles in the final lap of the final race to stop me achieving first place.
There are some new power-ups in the arsenal here too, and the mega mushroom (taken from the New Super Mario Bros on DS) is a particular favourite, growing your racer to gigantic proportions and flattening anything in your path, although the new thundercloud is a bit of a poisoned chalice – it follows the person who collects it above their head, and if you can shift it to another racer by colliding with them then they get zapped and shrunk down, but hold on to it too long and you get the blast instead.
With twelve racers in the field at once and hundreds of power-ups flying around you’d expect that the game might suffer a little slow-down during periods of high stress, but there’s not a bit of it in evidence here. The graphics are bright, colourful, and above all, very fast and slick at all times. All the characters are modelled superbly, and as well as looking generally fantastic, they have a great range of movement during a race. Gone are the days of characters sitting static in the driving seat – they’ll look over their shoulder as someone overtakes, or throw a fist into the air as a celebration when they take out an opponent – this isn’t a big thing, but it’s the little touches that make a game truly great.
As well as your racer giving you an indication of what is going on around them, the Wii remote’s speaker is very cleverly used as an early warning system for incoming weapons of mass hilarity. You get an audible tone through that increases in frequency and volume as the weapon approaches (think when the two submarines are heading straight for each other in The Hunt for the Red October) and removes any kind of confusion as to who is about to get nailed in multiplayer. The sound switches cleverly between TV and remote speakers all the time and you rarely even notice it happening, but that is one of the drawbacks of playing with the Gamecube controller and you’ll soon miss the local sounds when they’re gone. The music and atmospheric sounds are also top notch, and in a game where the bar has been set so high, they do not disappoint, in spite of not showing off quite so much as the graphics or game play.
The courses are also pretty spectacular to look at and very intricately designed. There are 16 brand new tracks available here, and 16 re-workings of retro classics, taken in roughly equal measure from the SNES, GBA, N64, Gamecube and DS versions of the game (8 new tracks and 8 classics are available from the start, with the rest being unlockable). For me I was overjoyed with the inclusion of the retro courses, and while a few of the SNES and GBA courses feel a little flat (they were designed before Mario Kart went full 3D) they have all been brought up to spec visually and none are an obvious let-down. The new courses are vibrant, living affairs, with shifting floors, moving obstacles, and all manner of strange activity going on around you to add extra insanity to what is already akin to Wacky Races after too much caffeine. It does sometimes seem like the most bizarre of Mario-inspired hallucinogenic trips, with stadia full of a combination of Mario-world denizens such as Shy Guys and Koopa Troopas, mixed in with the denizens of your Mii parade, but the fact that things are alive rather than static is a nice touch.
Nintendo have also resurrected the SNES powerslide along with a handful of the courses – gone is the shaky, snaky, somewhat flaky drift system that was introduced in Mario Kart 64, and back is the old hop into the air to get your kart sliding laterally around the bends. I personally prefer this method of control, I find that it gives you more freedom to concentrate on the line you’re taking, and stops you having to shift the steering from side to side in order to maintain the slide and get the speed boost at the end. Like real life oversteer cornering, it becomes more of a question of nerve, how long you can hold the slide for, and you are rewarded with a bigger boost accordingly. You can turn off the manual drift cornering in favour of an automatic system that barrels you into the corners sideways depending on how severely you turn, but you do lose out on the speed boost. They can also be picked up by flying through the air, however, so all is not lost on the automatic setting. If you flick the wheel as you fly over a jump and get the timing just right your racer performs a little stunt in mid-air, and you get a boost similar to coming off a big powerslide. Again, it’s a small difference, but feels fairer than removing speed boosts completely for those who don’t want to drift manually, and on more than one occasion the jump boost has proved the difference between victory and defeat.
There will be many victories and many defeats, and Mario Kart will keep you amused for a very, very long time. As well as the standard Grand Prix, where you compete in a four-race cup (this is where the secrets and additions to the game are unlocked) there are some game-modes as old as the series itself – time trial, VS and battle mode have all made their way onto this version. VS is made more interesting with a team mode, where the winners and losers are decided by which group of racers tallies the highest points overall, and battle mode is all the more welcome for bringing back some of the old-school arenas, as well as having a different mode of play where the aim is to have more coins collected as the final buzzer goes, rather than to have scored more hits on your opponents. Multiplayer can be played by up to four on one machine, or in a big messy melee over the Nintendo WFC, and while the online games are fun and the Mario Kart channel is great for keeping track of friends, top scores etc, nothing beats gathering around one console for some turbo-charged violent mayhem. In fact the only criticism I can make of the entire game is that the Grand Prix mode is not available outside of one player. This makes it impossible to unlock any secrets of the game while playing in two, three or four player mode, and while this isn’t too big a problem in itself, it is a shame when you’ll always find yourself wanting to play in multiplayer over solo given the option (and I personally struggle to find times when I’m the only person wanting to play in order to unlock new tracks and characters – “What’s that, you’re putting Mario Kart on? Pass me a controller then!” being a phrase you’ll hear for the rest of your waking days).
Mario Kart Wii has more variety, more to do, and ultimately more to keep you coming back than any Mario Kart before it (and as a hardcore advocate of the SNES original, I never thought I would find myself saying that) but more than that, it is a flagship title for the Nintendo Wii, and is not only the most important title that will be released on the format this year, it will stand the test of time as one of the best games the Wii has to offer. No matter what may happen with console technology and games of the future, get a copy of Mario Kart Wii and hang on to it (and your Wii) for dear life. Do not trade them in for love nor money. In fifteen years time, people will be trawling second-hand game shops looking for Wiis and copies of Mario Kart in the same way they do for the SNES version today, and there can be no greater indication of brilliance than that.