At first, you may be inclined to think that Mario Kart Wii is nothing more than Double Dash with tilt control. I suppose that’s a fair assumption. After all, the game looks remarkably like Double Dash, just with widescreen support and an over saturation of bloom lighting. It’s a little more than that, though. Mario Kart Wii ditches the “two characters to a kart” idea and throws in the option to use motorcycles. Motorcycles don’t differ that much from normal karts, but it’s nice to see some variety. This Wii racer also lets 12 opponents race instead of eight and introduces several new characters (like Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy) and levels.
A wonderful trend in the Mario Kart series now is to include 16 new tracks and 16 retro tracks. The retro tracks are picked from the SNES, N64, GBA, GameCube, and even DS versions of Mario Kart, and it’s incredibly nostalgic to see them come back in slightly updated form. But after playing through all 32 tracks, it’s apparent Mario Kart has come a long way, because the retro races feel rather bland and uninspired compared to the newer stuff. The 16 new levels are very creative and over-the-top and rank as some of the best in the Mario Kart universe. I particularly enjoy a level where you race through a shopping mall, and Mii characters from your system show up in cars that try to get in the way.
On top of this, several new weapons show up in the mix. A few have been lifted from Mario Kart DS, including a bullet bill that rushes you forward several places and a blooper that squirts ink on everyone else’s screen. Unlike the DS, though, there’s no second screen to help you out, so the ink ends up being pretty annoying. There’s another item–a negative item–that creates a storm cloud above your head. If you can’t pass it off to someone else in time, it will eventually strike you and shrink you. It’s a good idea in theory, but there’s seldom anyone around to give it to. All the items from past Mario Karts return, too, and are just as fun to use as they’ve always been. Lightening bolts in particular are back in better form, as you can finally flatten other racers again. Unfortunately, Nintendo has once again left out the option to turn off certain items (like blue shells). You can choose to play with more powerful or more strategic weapons, but you can’t individually select which ones come up.
Another change to the series which may leave many of you angry is power sliding. By default, power sliding is turned off. But even when it’s turned on, power sliding is still automatic. You don’t have any control over when you get the speed boost; you just have to hold the slide until the flames change color on their own. I’m sure this was done to cut down on snaking, a technique that nearly ruined Mario Kart DS, and I can understand that. However, I like being in control, and they could have easily kept manual power sliding in and just made the speed boosts not as helpful (like they were in Double Dash).
The defining thing about Mario Kart Wii, of course, is that it comes packaged with Nintendo’s latest pride and joy, the Wii wheel. Seriously, this peripheral is played up so much, it’s almost like you’re buying the wheel, and it just happens to come with a game. You even get special recognition for using the wheel extensively (a gold icon next to your name when playing online; woohoo!). But truth be told, the wheel is not that great. It’s small and silly to hold, and turning by tilting doesn’t befit Mario Kart as well as it does Excite Truck. Excite Truck reveled in driving recklessly, but Mario Kart requires tighter precision. Like with Super Smash Bros., though, Nintendo had a big enough heart to let you use any control method imaginable: the Wii remote minus the wheel, the remote and nunchuk together, the Classic Controller, or the GameCube controller. Oddly, the best option is not the last one but the remote and nunchuk. It’s quite comfortable and works really well.
One thing that Mario Kart Wii doesn’t do right is the battle mode. While the levels are fun (and include the return of an SNES classic), the competitiveness has been toned down considerably. Matches are now team-based. No more free-for-alls; you have to split up into two teams. You no longer have to worry about getting knocked out of the game early, either. Once all your balloons are popped, you just come right back with new balloons. The idea, then, is to score more points than the other team before time runs out. Yep, battle mode is now a timed affair, and the whole thing sucks, plain and simple.
Battle mode’s only saving grace is that it can be played online, something I wish Mario Kart DS would have done. But if you’re going to go online, why bother with battle mode at all? Racing online is a real treat and is, by far, the best thing about Mario Kart Wii. I don’t know what overcame Nintendo, but they really nailed online play for a change. As you connect to (possibly 11) other players, you can see their Mii characters and what part of the world they are from. Some of these players may already be in a game, though, which means you’ll have to wait until they finish, but at least you can watch their matches in the meantime. When you’re ready to go, everybody votes on what course they want to play, and the game randomly picks from that collection. Mario Kart Wii really trumps the DS’s online mode, here, because there are no restrictions on what levels you can pick. There aren’t any restrictions on how you can use items in-game, either, so you don’t have to switch your strategy when playing online.
I can’t stress enough how smooth the online mode is. Playing against human opponents is infinitely more interesting than cheap CPU characters, and the game holds up just as well. Even on my connection which always chokes and dies when downloading Virtual Console games, I ran into very little lag. And this is playing with two people on the same console! I realize this is nothing new to veteran online gamers, but it’s really sweet to see Nintendo allow you and a friend to go online on the same system.
If you choose to play offline via splitscreen, that’s cool, too. Mario Kart is and has always been a great local multiplayer experience. The downside is that, if you want to play the grand prix to open new courses, karts, and characters, you can only do so by playing alone. Past Mario Karts let two players tackle a grand prix together, but for whatever crazy reason, grand prix is strictly one player now. It’s sad, because Mario Kart is one of those games you want to jump right into and not have to work your butt off to open everything up. It’s like the worst of Smash Bros. coming through to Mario Kart.
Mario Kart Wii is not the best of the Mario Karts. That title goes to Mario Kart DS. So if you already own the handheld version, there’s really no reason to invest another $50 in this franchise. But that’s not to say this one is bad and should be avoided. Mario Kart Wii is still plenty fun. It screws with some fundamentals of the series, like power sliding and battle mode, but it also offers a great selection of courses and karts and one of the best online modes available from Nintendo. If you need a lighthearted console racer to play with friends, locally or online, this is a safe choice.