Friday, May 2, 2008

Mario Kart Wii review

I like writing reviews, and I love getting more games to review. But damn, I've done so many reviews lately, I think I'll stick to the opinions and such next week.

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: April 27th, 2008
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
ESRB Notes: Comic Mischief

Mario Kart is a unique sort of franchise. A new installment is released only once for each console, and nobody ever asks for a sequel before the next system comes out. Mario Kart games just have insane staying power, and players will be satisfied with any one release for years on end. I still play Mario Kart DS every now and then. In fact, I don't think it's gone too far from my DS ever since I got it in 2005! With Mario Kart Wii, the game finally makes the jump to Nintendo's revolutionary new console. Do things keep moving well, or has this kart finally run out of gas?

When it comes to gameplay, this kart still rides as if it just rolled off the lot, but a few parts are a little rusty. Mario Kart Wii sports 32 tracks to race on, 16 of which are brand-spanking new. The other 16 are a selection of Mario Kart's excellent history of circuit design, featuring gems such as Bowser's Castle from the Nintendo 64, Yoshi Falls from the Nintendo DS, and Peach Beach from the Gamecube. Players can also select from a massive group of racers, with a grand total of 25 playable characters (Although I question why some racers are present. Baby Peach? Diddy Kong?). To go with that, there's 24 different vehicles to choose from, eight for each weight class. Needless to say, there's a lot of choices in Mario Kart Wii, so there's bound to be the right vehicle and character for everyone.

Speaking of vehicles, Mario Kart Wii adds a new class of machine to it's roads: Motorcycles. Players can make the swap from four wheels to two, adding the ability to do wheelies. While doing a wheelie, players get a slight speed boost, but sacrifice some maneuverability and can lose their balance in a collision. Kart racers cannot do wheelies, but they do enjoy higher acceleration when performing a mini-boost. So really, it all depends on which you like best.

Also new to Mario Kart Wii are a vast assortment of items. There's all the old standbys like Lightning, Koopa Shells and Mushrooms, as well as a few new items such as the Mega Mushroom, POW Block and Lightning Cloud. While most of these items are fair, a few seem a little cheap. The Spiny Shell, for example, always takes out the lead racer, and with 11 people behind you, being in first place can be quite dangerous. This can be really bad if it hits you while jumping over a chasm or right before passing the finish line, letting the guy in second take the gold. However, there is one other item that bugs me even more than the infamous Spiny Shell, and that's the POW Block, one of the newcomers. Not only does this cause every player in front of the user spin-out, it also shakes all their items away, leaving you helpless in the middle of the road. It's such an incredible pain to see that block appear above my head, because then it's only a matter of seconds until I'm spinning out and dropping my precious items. Thankfully, the POW Block cannot reach me in mid-air. But that does little to reduce my hate for this item. It's cheap, unfair, and incredibly frustrating to be on the receiving end of. Oh, and there's no more Boo item. That reeeeeeeally sucks.

I hate you so much, POW Block. So. Very. Much.

So, you may be wondering what the controls for this game are like. Well, Cowboy Jed says "Get behind the wheel!", and he seems like a pretty okay fellow. Really, the controls are just that simple. Wanna turn left? Turn the Wii Wheel left. Acceleration? 2 button. Brake? 1 or B, take your pick. Items? Press up on the D-pad to toss 'em forward, down to drop them behind you, and hold left to equip and drag the item until you're ready to use it. The controls couldn't get much more easy to understand.

As for how accurate the motion sensing is, I think it's pretty great. Turn the wheel a little and Yoshi starts a shallow turn. Turn it a lot and that dinosaur's careening around corners. You can take even the sharpest of turns by drifting into them. Besides allowing players to take sharp turns at high speeds, drifting also brings another benefit: The afore-mentioned mini-turbo. Drift long enough and sparks will fly from your back tires. Stop drifting and your vehicle will get a nice boost. Drift long enough and you'll get an even bigger boost. No need to rock back and forth with the controls to mini-boost like in previous games, just wait for it to happen. In addition to making things a little easier, this gets rid of the pesky snaking problem that plagued Mario Kart DS. So no need to worry about that anymore. If you were a snaker, well, I guess you're out of luck.

When it comes to the Gamecube Controller, Classic Controller and Nunchuk Style control schemes, I really can't say how well they perform. I just haven't had any time to try them out! I usually sit down and play Mario Kart Wii, meaning to try out the other control schemes, but I just get too caught up to think about it. Before I know it, two hours are passed, and I need to go do something. The addictiveness of the game is almost too much to bear! I'm just too used to and comfortable with the Wii Wheel controls. They just really work for me. Plus, I don't want to lose my golden Wii Wheel icon...

To say this game is hectic would be an understatement. You'll often go from first place to twelfth and back to first again. Definitely not for those who are expecting a perfect run every race. Even in first place, you're anything but safe.

Speaking of being in first place, I've heard a lot of people say that it's a very bad idea to be in first place for the entirety of a 150cc race, the highest of the difficulties. They complain about being bombarded with Spiky and Red shells left and right. Strangely, I haven't been beaten around anywhere near as much as these guys, even when playing in the same situation. It seems they're exaggerating to me. Or maybe I'm just incredibly freaking lucky.

As for how the game looks, I'm pretty happy with it. Everything's good and cartoony, with vibrant colours and some decent smoke effects. On paper it's not quite as impressive as Super Mario Galaxy or Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but it's still a pretty damn good looking game. Some of the character models are a little under whelming (I'm looking at you, Donkey Kong), but almost everything else looks great. Even the little shells and bananas you see for less than a split second look pretty great. A good looking game with a few rough bits here and there.

Mario Kart Wii, like every other game in the franchise, carries with it an amazing selection of music. Each track has it's own catchy tune to go with it, from the spaced-out Rainbow Road theme to the dark and fast-paced Bowser's Castle song. The music even adapts to the situation, becoming strained and freaky-sounding when your character's been squished or shrunk. And as always, it plays at double-speed in the final lap, making you just want to go even faster.

Now, the following has been getting on some people's nerves. All the characters are really talkative in this one, from Baby Peach's high-pitched rambling to King Boo's bizarre screeches. It doesn't really get to me that much, but those with a low tolerance to repetitive and random jabbering might want to take caution.

Some sound effects play through both the Wii remote and the TV speakers, which I think is pretty neat. It can also come in handy if you're engaged in local multiplayer, making it more clear just who has a red shell headed for their ass. Every little collision plays through the Wii remote speaker as well, which, when paired with the rumble, adds a good bit of immersion.

One of the most talked-about features of Mario Kart Wii would have to be it's "awesome-yet-at-the-same-time-a-major-let-down" multiplayer, specifically online. When it comes to the awesome part, lag is virtually non-existent, even if your opponent lives on an entirely different continent. Plus, every mode supports up to 12 players at once, making for some insane online gaming.

If you have a pal visiting your house, you can even let him grab a controller and join you online using the same console. It plays just like normal online play, except it's all viewed in split-screen. However, there are a few minor problems. To start, only the first player can select a map to play on, with the second player's choice always mimicking that of the first. Not only is this kind of a rip-off to your pal, but now you pretty much get two votes in this draw, making things kind of unfair for those playing solo.

And what if your pal wants to join in on a race you're already playing? Well, he can't. You have to disconnect from the Wi-Fi Connection, select two-player online, reconnect, reselect your character and vehicle, and wait for the game to find another match for you to join. It's not exactly seamless. And what if the second player has a Mario Kart Wii profile on your Wii? Well, they can't earn any points, even if they choose to play as the Mii assigned to their save file. Kind of a raw deal.

As for where it falls short, every battle mode is now team-based, with no way to opt for free-for-all. This, quite frankly, sucks the big one. I loved going all out against my friends back in the day on the Nintendo 64, and now that's all gone. It seems it was implemented as a way to give casual players more of a fighting chance, as the team with the most points wins, and not the best racer. I'm really not opposed to the concept of team battle mode, but it's a problem when all-out, every-man-for-himself gameplay is sacrificed for it. And they got rid of Block Fort! Come on, man, that was the best battle arena!

Speaking of arena issues, I find that every single map is far too big to be a good battlefield. I often find myself driving around aimlessly for ages waiting to find an opponent, stumbling across nothing but empty space and allies. It makes sense for the map to be so big to account for 12 players, but if those players are divided up into teams of six, the arena just seems too big. I miss the hectic battles from Double Dash and Mario Kart DS...

Another problem with battle mode arises in the Balloon Battles. Each player starts with three balloons, and it's their goal to shoot out the balloons of the opposing team by attacking their karts. It used to be that when you lost all three of your balloons, you had to either watch everyone else play, or you got to roll around as a bomb and attack people. But in Mario Kart Wii, losing your balloons doesn't seem to have any consequence except for the lost points. You just reappear on the map with a fresh set of three balloons, and you set off to play again. Was elimination play too much to ask for?

There's another mode for battles, and that's Coin Runners. Basically, each team competes to collect more coins scattered about the course than their opponents. You can beat the coins out of other players with items, and you can lose them by getting hit or falling out of the stadium. That's really all their is to it, but it's fun.

Every mode of online play is also available in offline multiplayer using one Wii console, and Battle Mode is available in single-player mode, although it's against computer-controlled characters. Still a good way to practice when you don't have any friends with you to play.

Mario Kart Wii does one thing that only one other Wii game so far has done, and that is it brings it's own channel with it! Right on the disc lies the Mario Kart Channel, a portal for online tournaments (Such as globally-ranked time trials), Ghost Races (Compete against the "ghost" of someone else and try to beat their time), and check to see which of your registered friends are online (Yes, it uses Friend Codes. Get used to it, pal). The channel can be installed onto the Wii Menu from the disc, meaning you can access it even when the Mario Kart Wii disc isn't in the Wii. Of course, you'll need to put in the disc if your want to take part in any of the events linked to from the channel.

As for the previously-mentioned tournaments, the currently-running tourney is a time trial on Mario Circuit with one minor change: Chain Chomps run wild on the track, causing destruction everywhere they go. Also, it's not quite a time trial like in the you're used to, as you also have to deal with CPU opponents while pushing for a record. While this is kind of fun, it would be nice if future tournaments did something more than just pit our best time trials against other players. Being able to actually race other players from around the world in a big competition would be wicked. Also, will their be prizes for the winners of these tournaments? A special graphic for their vehicle or something like that would suffice. Just something to show that "Hey, I'm one of the best Kart players in the world!", you know?

Now, it should go without saying that this game is going to last players a long, long time. With so many characters to unlock and uncountable amounts of opponents available online, there's plenty here to keep anyone coming back for more. And it's always fun to try and beat your best time on a certain track. Maybe you'll make it to the top of a tournament! Like all the Mario Karts before it, Mario Kart Wii is going to be a staple in my gaming diet for quite some time.


Gameplay: 9.0/10
As with every installment, Mario Kart Wii delivers great gameplay in bulk. The Wii Wheel controls are great, and the track design is excellent. And with so many characters to choose from, you could go ages before finding the one that's right for you. But the POW Block and lack of Boo item really irk me. And seriously, who invited Diddy Kong?

Graphics: 8.75/10
The environments, items and karts all look great. There's some pretty neat lighting effects, too, making everything look even better. However, the character models are a little lacking. Still, everything has a great cartoony look to it, and it's very nice to look at.

Audio: 9.25/10
I love the music in Mario Kart Wii. It's all so darn catchy and upbeat. The way the music changes when things happens is really great, too. Some of the characters are a little annoying sounding, though, so beware.

Multiplayer: 7.8/10
Mario Kart Wii is still a great multiplayer game like all the other installments, but the battle modes are severely underwhelming. Mandatory team battles are a real pain, and the arenas are way too large for two teams of six. Some of the older stages even seem to be magnified from their original format!

Longevity: 9.25/10
As is the case with every game in the series, Mario Kart Wii is one of those special games that people play throughout a whole generation and never seem to complain about their infrequency. Even after unlocking all the characters and getting gold trophies in all the races, you'll still be coming back for the multiplayer. You'll probably stick to the basic racing, though, and avoid the battles on the most part.

OVERALL: 8.75/10
While Mario Kart Wii isn't perfect, I still see myself playing this one for years on end. Sure, the team-based battles are a little disappointing, but the twelve player races online are insanely fun. And plus, it's just one of those games people seem to come back to over and over. Any Wii owner who likes to race and has a fondness for something a little crazy needs to get Mario Kart Wii.

So then, that's that! See y'all Monday.

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