Nintendo’s Wii has quickly become one of the biggest selling consoles of all time, with some still having problems getting hold of one, so heavy is demand.
Why then, is the platform so barren when it comes to decent games? Not being one for cooking simulators or motion controlled horse riding, or the endless stream of cookie cutter party games, I find myself a little dismayed at the lack of usual grade A titles I know Nintendo can produce. Yes, we’ve had the excellent Zelda: Twilight Princess, the superb Metroid Prime: Corruption and, more recently, the flawless Super Mario Galaxy to name a few of the major releases. But for every one good game, there seems to be 30 terrible ones, and only a handful great titles isn’t exactly good going for a console that’s now almost a year and a half old. So, the arrival of one of Nintendo’s most critically acclaimed series – Mario Kart, is, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, a very good thing indeed.
Unless you’ve been living in the dark, under a rock, at the bottom of the sea, on an as yet to be discovered planet, you’ll have heard of Mario Kart. First arriving on the SNES in 1992, this deceptively simple racer became an instant hit and not only spawned several sequels, but also an army of would be contenders. The mix of simple, but challenging, courses, funky power-ups and the usual Nintendo charm was straddled by a control and gameplay system that was nigh on perfect, and a multiplayer mode that was universally recognised as one of the best ever devised.
Leap forward several years, and numerous sequels, and we land on the Wii, and the inevitable Wii-centric changes. But, far from moving Mario Kart further away from its core design, as some of the previous games have arguably done, Mario Kart Wii actually returns to some old form, and feels much more like the original title than the likes of Double Dash.
Ditching the two characters on a kart and going back to basics, Mario Kart Wii retains the essential drifting, power-up-throwing action of the previous games, but adds the twist of motion control, either via the Wiimote and packaged Wii Wheel, or Wiimote on its own. With either setup in hand, you control your chosen character and vehicle as you’d expect, by turning the controller left and right, with the 2 button on the Wiimote used for Accelerate, 1 for brake/reverse, A to look behind, B for jump/drift and the d-pad for powerups.
Whilst I was more than a little sceptical about this at first, I was relieved to find the motion controls work perfectly, and you really do feel in complete control at all times, so much so that you even forget you’re using a motion controller, so natural is the system.
The button controls are laid out well, and pulling off drifts and firing power-ups is easy while driving, maybe even moreso than standard controls. Although, it should be noted that you can also use normal analogue stick controls with either the nunchuck, Wii Classic Controller or a Gamecube controller, and we suspect many diehard Kart fans will do just that, eschewing the new motion controls in favour of the more traditional option.
There are more new additions to the game than the basic motion controls too. For example, when jumping off a ramp, a quick flick of the controller makes your character perform a random trick, SSX-style, which grants a boost in speed. And, by slipstreaming behind another racer, you can build up a quick boost. There’s also drift boosting, which has two levels of boost depending how long you drift, and this Wii incarnation also introduces, for the first time in the series, motorbikes.
As with the karts, bikes come in three varieties – light, medium and heavy, with light being easiest to handle but also the slowest, heavy being the fastest but more difficult to handle and medium being, well… medium, and a mix of the two. Bikes can’t drift boost as much as the karts (only one level of boost is available), but by flicking the controller upwards, you can pull off a wheelie, which grants a speed boost, but leaves you more prone to attack.
The courses in the game are, as usual, excellent, and are made up of brand new Wii tracks, and a collection of retro inclusions farmed from previous games, from Super Mario Kart on the SNES to Double Dash on the GCN, even including offerings from the GBA and DS. The new Wii courses are great, and although they feel very, very similar to Double Dash’s roster, are all fun.
The game starts with 16 tracks in total (eight new and eight retro) split into four cups (four tracks each). As you win cups you’ll unlock further cups and more tracks (a total of 32, half new and half retro). There are many more characters to unlock as well.
Game modes include the ever-present single player Grand Prix, a race against AI opponents in a mini-league, Time Attack, where you need to beat your best times (which take the form of a ‘ghost’ you have to race), VS, which is a custom race, and Battle. This last mode has two game types, including the staple Mario Kart balloon battle, where you pop other racer’s balloons while guarding your own, and Coin Runner, in which you need to pick up coins, and retain them so you’re the one with the most coins (taking damage from other competitors causes you to drop coins, and vice versa). There’s also the team race option, where two teams race each other, with the team scoring the most points taking the victory dance.
The game mechanics are what’s important though, and luckily, this Wii version has it where it counts. The controls are great, and do the job perfectly, and the racing to be had mirrors previous versions, even the SNES classic, very well. Mastering the drift and boost will make you into an nigh-on unbeatable racer, but the power-ups are balanced enough that they can even the playing field a little, so newcomers aren’t totally helpless (although expert Kart fans will always have the upper hand).
The game can be challenging, but never overly frustrating (even when the AI or your friends bombard you relentlessly with attack after attack). And, when you add both local and online multiplayer to the mix, this is about as good as it gets on the Wii at the moment.
I’m certain that many purists will no doubt stick with their favourite classic version, and won’t entirely take to the Wii offering, but for the majority, this is all good stuff.
Nintendo hasn’t done a totally perfect job though, and some design changes will surely cause some to complain. For example, the battle modes are now solely team based, with no option for free-for-all battles, and the balloon mode no longer eliminates racers when all balloons are popped, but instead respawns them with three more. To win, it’s the team with the most points at the end of the game’s time limit. This does work, and is enjoyable, but the last man standing approach was far more entertaining, especially when battling your mates.
I would have also liked a little more reason to choose particular characters. While each does seem to behave slightly differently (mostly due to the type and weight of vehicle), more individual skills and/or abilities may have added even more variety to the mix, other than looking at the back of a different character’s head. This was featured in Double Dash, but has been omitted here.
The minor negatives are mere blips on an otherwise spotless bundle though, and the unique racing action provided by fusing Mario Kart with the Wii’s motion controller should entertain all but the most Nintendo-hating gamer, or those that are too far up their ‘hardcore’ gamer backsides, unable to admit a game like Mario Kart has what it takes to compete. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn good game all the same.