Mario Kart Wii
Mario and Zelda I can understand, but the hype that surrounds Mario Kart astounds me. I only experienced brief encounters with the original and N64 versions at birthday parties, because I followed the cool gang and bought a Mega Drive, followed by a Dreamcast and PlayStation. Whilst friends were drifting through Bowser’s Castle, I was hacking it around Laguna Seca in a second hand Primera with a turbo charger gaffa taped to the bonnet, courtesy of Gran Turismo. My first proper ownership of a Mario Kart title would be Double Dash, which more than fulfilled at parties but to me seemed criminally short in single player. How could people like something this shallow?
I had reservations about how Mario Kart would work on the Wii. Nintendo still seems to want an online service to be run like Soviet Russia where interaction is at an absolute minimum – do your work and then get the hell out of their sight. The Wii remote would surely be tested seeing as the premise of the Nintendo Wii is to point and click – how much can you achieve with a racer based on these controls? The fact that Mario Kart Wii comes pre-boxed with a Wii Wheel (a Wiil, if you’re into those sort of puns) is also a turn off, especially since I had to wait a year to get my hands on the console, navigating through the traps set by retailers in trying to bundle heaps of cheap and tacky plastic gadgetry with any game worth its salt.
Thankfully, it’s within the first few races of Mario Kart Wii that the inclusion of the Wii Wheel seems like a bargain. The merest tilt to either side and your chosen character leans ever so slightly into the bend, and sharp jerks has them spinning the wheel to turn quicker. The response between yourself and the character on screen brings with it a sense of connection, like the first time you pick up a Wii remote and watch as the character in Wii Sports raises and lowers the golf club at the exact same speed as you. From feeling like a right nonce with your plastic steering wheel, give it a few minutes and you’ll soon be on the edge of the seat driving your imaginary go-kart. To girlfriends, you’re slowly going insane. In your mind, that bloody toad is going to cop this banana when you catch him at the next bend.
Whoring out the franchiseNintendo are regulary criticised for beating Mario’s supposed dead and bloody corpse; but did you know that, as of this year, there have been:
17 Need for Speed titles since 1995
7 Twisted Metal titles since 1995
11 Ridge Racer titles since 1995
5 Gran Turismo titles since 1997
4 Midnight Club titles since 2000
4 Project Gotham Racing titles since 2001
7 Burnout titles since 2001
6 Mario Kart console titles since 1992
Now stick that in your pipe and smoke it!There’s plenty of old and new courses on offer, with the spruced up Double Dash tracks benefitting enormously from the Wii Wheel controls. Too many times I felt like the courses had too many sharp bends, but these are easily navigated with some flicks of the Wheel. Snaking, the driving technique that was condemned in Mario Kart‘s DS outing, has been eradicated, with hopping making way to a trick system. There’s plenty of small jumps to be found on courses, whether from cunningly placed ramps or scenery, going over which gives you some air. Flicking the Wheel in any direction performs a trick move, such as the car spinning round 360 degrees or the driver jumping up and out of the vehicle whilst holding onto the steering wheel, thus “Superman-ing”. It’s pure eye candy at first glance, but upon landing you get a small turbo boost, which makes all the difference. You can’t help but get the feeling, however, that things have been dumbed down for the introduction of the Wheel. Sure, it’s a great feeling to speed through a chicane with some furious wrenching of your newest and fondest peripheral, but there’s that nagging urge to wonder how much tighter the game could have been with analogue as the pre-determined control method.
The courses have been designed beautifully with the lushness that you’d come to expect from Nintendo, each with tricky sequences of corners but also with plenty of straights and dips and dives in order to keep the race fast and frantic. Track side and head-on obstacles are present as ever, with some smaller creatures simply waddling across whilst others, like huge cows and caterpillars can instantly change the order of a race. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed three grown adults collectively gasp “watch out for the cows!” as you all screech to an unsuccessful halt trying to avoid a collision. Luckily, routes are often incredibly wide to avoid such obstacles. So wide, in fact, that you won’t be able to see the width of the surface on your screen. While twelve shell-totting rampant gamers jostling for position online fills the space nicely, single and multiplayer games littered with AI racers just aren’t as intense and tight as you’d like, and instead, dare I say it, finishing positions in Mario Kart Wii become almost more important than the track camaraderie akin to Wacky Races.
You’ll be too busy trying to drive with one hand on the wheel to notice but, after some hours ploughed into unlocking new carts, bikes and tournaments, it begins to dawn that maybe the computer characters are all out to get you collectively. As Edge’s feather ruffling review mentioned, “there’s no lonelier place in a videogame than first place in Mario Kart“, and in single player it really is true. There seems to be some sort of reward in the form of blue shells for hanging back in 12th position, as you’ll no doubt discover when racing off into the horizon on your own that you’re being hit by the bloody things time after time after time. As someone that isn’t a programmer I’m devoid of a solution to stopping people roaring off into the distance to never be seen again, but launching shell after shell repeatedly until you’re either caught up or the controller has gone through the wall is a bit, well, far fetched. Given this, however, there’s rarely a feeling of unequal treatment when you’re in the midst of the pack, praying that the box you’ve just collected contains three homing shells. I just feel that maybe other avenues could have been explored to keep all 12 racers in close contention without the risk of making the number one spot the loneliest on earth.
Through either intrigue or frustration, you’ll eventually stumble into the second loneliest place in videogames – Nintendo’s online portal. Whilst it’s great to finally see this seemingly cautious company embrace popular culture, like your grandad becoming the new owner of a mobile phone, there’s no helping the fact that this could be so much better if it was…Xbox Live. The wait to get matched up with 11 other players, each represented by their Mii, then the loading screen to which you’ll pick a track (or bum out by picking “random”), then another loading screen whilst the course is loaded, could be spent chit chattering away to fellow racers, friends or the white trash teenagers that insist in playing their favourite “phat beets” down the microphone for everyone to hear. But no, just deadly silence, sitting, waiting, as tumbleweed after tumbleweed rolls past, waiting for SOMETHING to happen. And then you’re racing, and it’s fast, it’s frantic and my God why didn’t they have WiFi in the Gamecube and N64. And then it’s over, and back to the cycle of loading screens and waiting in silence.
The beef about Nintendo’s online policy aside, karting with others around the world is an incredible feeling. Those wide tracks I mentioned earlier are suddenly filled with karts, each on their own wacky racing line, firing off shells, bananas and those annoying squids that fill the screen with ink. Mario Kart was always about being with friends, going to eachothers houses and spending afternoons and evenings, hell, weekends, clattering around with the same old karts. Bringing online play to Mario Kart was like bringing 3D to Mario 64 – it needed to be done, and even though I had my eyes glued to Shenmue at the time, I still sat up and took note.
For all the great things that online brings, the local multiplayer just isn’t as great as it could have been. For those with friends that own Wiis, no problem, just see them online, but I have yet to meet another Wii owner. I stand in games shops next to the Wii rack for hours at a time, just waiting, hoping, for a Wii owner to emerge from the wildnerness with his or her friend code to hand. I have no Wii-owning friends, therefore the only time me, mates and beer can indulge in Mario Kart is at my house. Coin running and balloon battles return and are an absolute blast, with purpose built battle mode levels leading to carnage on every corner, but multiplayer races take place on the same courses used in the single and online game. The problem with this setup is that playing with the AI soon becomes a team game – us against them, as the problems of favourable whipping boy pickups rear their ugly heads again. Leaving the AI behind results in being raped by a barrage of blue shells. Turning off computer racers leaves just four karts on the huge, wide tracks, and suddenly Mario Kart local multiplayer just became the third most loneliest place in videogames. Hold me.
The inclusion of bikes has me baffled. I didn’t like the bikes in Project Gotham 4 because it felt they were there not because they needed to be, but because they could be, and it feels the same way in Mario Kart Wii, that something visually new had to be done to differentiate between this and the rest of the series. In gameplay terms they’re just another kart option, usually trading stability for a boost in speed and acceleration, but I feel the same about bikes in a karting game the same I did when prompted to drive a car in Tony Hawk’s Underground – it’s a bloody skateboarding game. I’ve always wondered why Mario Kart games never had an upgrade system, tarting up your karts by unlocking pieces as you go. A mushroom upgrade, for example, could boost speed at the loss of strength whereas heavier Wario chassis let you throw your weight around a little bit despite not being the fastest out of the blocks. Just a thought.
Enough moaning, because despite these problems Mario Kart Wii is still a very welcome title to the Wii and indeed this current generation of games. The Wii Wheel shakes off early misconceptions and shows that it is indeed a worthy piece of kit that adds to the experience tremendously, the courses have been designed with the Wheel in mind so the action remains thick and fast, and you have a nice sparkly online mode to indulge in. I just feel that it’s an opportunity spared, that for local multiplayer perhaps courses with narrower routes could have been choked up to keep the nostalgia flowing. Nintendo’s draconian online service isn’t a reason to dislike Mario Kart Wii in the same way that it’s wrong to dislike a really beautiful woman because her husband is a complete tosser. It’s a shame that the title has been pushed in this direction without thought for those who maybe can’t access it, nor wish to. Gamers with VGA cables will be delighted to hear that Mario Kart Wii is 60Hz compatible, so the blurry textures and haze effect that you’ll see through a scart connection get ironed out and the game on a whole looks very sharp and vibrant, much like Super Mario Galaxy.
As a Wii owner, we’ve got the definitive racing game on the console. For everyone else, it’s another excuse to get drunk with your mates, which is no bad thing.