Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2535

Mario Kart Wii

by Laura Wilson on May 30, 2008 11:00 AM EST


Intro

Lovers of red shells, gather 'round. Masters of the mushroom, take your places. Drunken partygoers looking for something more exciting than yet another Friday night of cow tipping, put down your car keys and pick up a controller. It's go time.

Mario Kart Wii has finally arrived. And for those of us whose sole purpose in shelling out a large sum of money to purchase Nintendo's latest console was in anticipation of this game, it has been a long wait, (though, to be fair, Mario Galaxy helped the time pass). But does it measure up? Was it worth the longsuffering? That's what we're here to find out.

The commercials have talked a good talk. If we are to believe the hype, no self-respecting gamer should be without this title. But for the record, referring to "Mario Kart Wii" as "Mario Kart 'wee!'" is an insult to my intelligence, and it's about as clever as spelling everything Kart related with a K.

Karts

Most Karters are familiar with the basic setup of this racing game, but for those less versed the major elements are vehicles, controls, drivers, and tracks, all with the fun element of item use. Let's begin with the karts.


At first glance, the cars are similar in this installment to its predecessors. There are several different styles and looks, and there are qualities displayed to the left to give the player an idea of how the kart will maneuver on a course. It's a helpful way to personalize your driving experience. However, we've already arrived at our first major Mario Kart alteration: you can now choose from motorcycles, too. But don't get too thrilled, bikes aren't allowed on the lowest level of Grand Prix racing (50cc) until you commit to some unlocking. And then, once you've trained with and gotten used to a certain kart for the easy races, you'll be forced to ditch it for two wheels in the next level of difficulty (100cc), since only motorcycles are initially allowed in those races. Yay! Being punished for building skills and getting used to the game is fun.


Automatic Driving (No Flame or Mini-Turbo)

An immediately noticeable change in this episode of Mario Kart is the player's option to choose manual or automatic driving. The terms "manual" and "automatic" are seriously misleading here, as they have nothing to do with the transmission or shifting gears. Rather this is a setting pertaining to drifting. Drifting was first provided to Karters in Mario Kart 64, but mastering it required some practice. When going around turns, holding the jump button while turning in and out would trigger different colored smoke to pour from the tires and give a burst of speed when the jump button was released. Drift racing has become more and more popular and is basically the practice of making the back end of the vehicle slide around a turn. With the unveiling of the GameCube version, it seemed the programmers wanted to make drifting more accessible to every player, as it was significantly more intuitive in its physics.


Manual Driving (Awesome Blue Flame)

As for the current game, drifting has taken a new application. There is little control in pushing the drift; it seems to respond to the amount of turning the player has done. In earlier manifestations one could rock the analog stick back and forth to bring up the level of boost. This is not possible in Mario Kart Wii, causing a bit of change in driving technique for those who have already established theirs on any or all of the five to seven former Kart titles. However, should anyone desire to not bother with the issue of drift at all, he or she can simply choose "automatic" in the setup stage. Those players will miss out on the slight boost drifting gives to those willing to adapt to its quirkiness. We should also note that on a motorcycle the drift only goes to one level and results in a smaller speed boost than the two levels of what the game calls "mini-turbo" reserved for the karts.

The types of choices a player has in choosing a kart or bike determines the style of the driving. Categories are Speed, Weight, Acceleration, Handling, Drift, Off-Road, and Mini-Turbo. Most of these are self-explanatory. Handling and Drift will determine with how much ease (or how sharply) the kart or bike turns, Drift indicates how hard the car slides while drifting, Off-Road shows how well it will perform outside of the track, and Mini-Turbo details how substantial the speed boost from manual drifting will be. The driver's size also has some impact on the experience, as heavier characters and their large karts have lower accelerations and higher top speeds than the small ones.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no high accelerating, high-speed, excellent off-road, high-mini-turbo and low drift (my personal preference) karts or bikes, so adjusting to the driving experience can take a considerable amount of time. Also, some of the fun of the motorcycles and karts will require patience, as unlocking them all might take a little time. Hey, if it were easy, what fun would it be?



Kontrols

The driving experience in Mario Kart Wii is similar to predecessors, except for the new expectation of tilting, jiggling or thrusting the Wii-mote around during gameplay. There are several different methods of control for the game, so let's go through a nice rundown:


The Wii Wheel

Wii-wheel: The game comes with a free Wii wheel, which would otherwise have set the buyer back ~$15. The Wii-mote fits conveniently into it, and a loose, clunky rectangle on the back lines up with the B-button to make everything accessible. Using this lightweight, white plastic torus, (I'm sure you'll be able to personalize it very soon with skins, images, perfumes or whatever Nintendo dreams up for a little more cash), the experience feels a little like driving in a tiny, invisible automobile on a frictionless road located no specific distance below you. Tilt it right and the kart turns right; left and it turns left. But if that's not enough fun for you, there's more! When using a motorcycle, tilt the wheel up to pop a wheelie (this gives you a small boost in speed, but makes you susceptible to being stunned by opponent collisions and you have less turning capability while suspended on one tire). If you're driving off a jump, give the controls a quick shake and the character does a trick in the air, followed by a speed boost upon landing. Different shakes result in different tricks, it seems, but so far I can't figure out how to get any dirty gestures out of anybody. (I mean, wouldn't you want to "express yourself" at someone as you leap past them after they pegged you with a red shell while driving down I-40?).

A seasoned veteran of Mario Kart will probably get frustrated with the wheel, and might even toss it altogether after trying the other setups. The main problems are that it's difficult to drive in a straight line (it slows you down especially while wheelie-ing) and timing on drifting is tricky -- you can easily accidentally start drifting the wrong way if you're too fast for the controller. Shaking the controller (to recover from spills, do tricks over jumps and pop wheelies) can make it hard to maintain a direction as well. The bottom line is that no matter how fun it might be to play around with for a little while, the Wii Wheel raises the degree of difficulty to master the game to an incredibly high and frustrating level to the point of not being worth it. (Note: removing the Wii-mote from the Wii-wheel gives the same basic control system; I guess it's just not as Wii-cool.)


The Nunchuk

Nun-chucks: Not included with the Kart game (but available for purchase at your local gaming supply store) is the nunchuck option, which utilizes a second hand controller that attaches to the Wii-mote via a plug-in cord. In this layout, the player doesn't physically turn right or left, but rather uses the analog stick to direct the vehicle. The Wii-mote side still controls wheelies and jump tricks by quick upward tilting of the front end or giving it a little shake. Using items might require some dexterity of the fingers, but of all the choices this is probably the most ergonomic method of control.


The Classic Controller

Classic or GameCube Controller: For those that really can't handle change, be (somewhat) reassured. You can still do sufficiently well using the old models. However, when using this set up, shaking the controller like a monkey on acid will secure nothing but the ridicule of anyone watching you. Gameplay won't be affected by your physical outbursts (which might be good news for control throwers… you know who you are). There is one major drawback for those looking for a GameCube like experience: Mario Kart Wii changes the fundamental control of the GC controller by changing the button layout… and it is impossible to adjust which buttons do what in Mario Kart Wii. If it were one problem or the other it could go without mentioning, but the combination makes using the GC controller less satisfying for fans of the Mario Kart Double Dash.


The GameCube Controller

The inability to adjust the controls continues to be a serious oversight in the Mario Kart series. There are small tweaks that would go a long way for all control schemes, and it doesn't make sense anymore not to allow the gamer to tweak the controls if he or she wishes. We can build it better. We have the technology.



Karacters

As far as Mario and his friends go, players will see many familiar faces in the driver's seats of Mario Kart Wii. Unlike the GameCube version, there can only be one character per kart or bike, so assistance with item use is not available.


Previously, a Grand Prix consisted of only eight drivers. For the Wii version, this number has been increased, so now a solid twelve can kick each other around during the race or battle. Online play can get pretty complex with this volume of participants, but for the local party houses only four people can play per Wii console (and there are even limitations beyond that, but we'll discuss these later).


My Cheerleader Mii in a car on the Coconut Mall course.

The lineup has changed a bit, though most of the unexpected characters have to be unlocked. Apparently, this game marks the first appearance of Baby Daisy, and previous Mario Kart titles haven't provided Baby Peach, Rosalina (from the recent Mario Galaxy), Funky Kong, or Dry Bowser. Some avid Kart fans will be sad to see an absence of some past favorites like Double Dash's Petey Piranha or R.O.B. from the D.S. version, but one of the somewhat fun changes to the character lineup is the option to drive as your personal Mii. Be warned, however, that the voices for some of the Miis are cheesy and distracting. Outfit options can also be unlocked for the Mii character, allowing further personalization.

The size of the driver impacts the selection of karts and bikes available. Smaller characters like Toad, Baby Mario, and a short-statured Mii choose from the lighter, more compact vehicles. The Medium range cars are designated to the likes of Mario, Peach, and Luigi, and Bowser, Donkey Kong, and King Boo drive the large ones. It might take some time and perseverance to find the right character/kart combination, but when you land on the right one it's like magic.



Kourses

Though the game begins with four different cups of tracks to choose from, a lot of fancy driving lies between the player and the entire selection of courses. The makers of Mario Kart Wii have put together 16 new courses, all of which have elements of originality plus the "same-old same-old." The first course of the first cup is, as expected, a basic circle/figure-eight style track with few or no surprise elements, and the last course of the final cup is, once again as expected, Rainbow Road (and it's kind of a doozy). In between are some truly memorable tracks that take the player on adventures through treetops, into pipes, and down a ski slope, as well as the somewhat forgettable daisy circuit, the typical desert stage, and the obnoxious volcano course.


Ahh, my old nemesis, we meet again. Perhaps this time I will figure out some way to get to your island to defeat you once and for all! (N64 Sherbet Land)

A not-so-new but still welcome change to the Mario Kart set up is the offering of 16 retro tracks (reconfigured to work with the current standards). While this is a nice bone thrown to the serious Kart fans, I can't help but wonder how hard it might have been for the makers to provide more. Some old ones translate really well, such as DK Mountain from the GameCube version, but this opens the door of comparison and makes it more noticeable that the graphics from the last title to this one haven't really changed.


Not SSX

A new feature is the half-pipe style jumps added here and there to new and old courses. The driver can head up the side of a wall, take a quick jump, collect an item box and/or do a trick and be catapulted back into gameplay with little lost time. Some parts of some courses require the use of these jumps for fluid driving, but other ones are completely avoidable. While this element seems new and exciting at first, I've found myself avoiding them more and more as I get used to the courses. Sometimes even a fraction of a second counts.


Lovely foliage (Maple Treeway)

As players take to the tracks, they can see some of their personalized Mii characters watching the races. In the mall course, some Miis are even in posters on the walls. Attention to detail isn't at its peak in Mario Kart Wii, though. In the mirror cup, it seems the programmers simply flipped the vertical axis, leaving writing on walls backwards and everything else noticeably reflected. It seems like a lazy move, but perhaps I long too much for the past courses that had karts driving backwards through a course that seemed more creative.


It's like DK Mountain in the Winter (DK Summit)

Players familiar with past course glitches like the wall jump in Mario Kart 64's Wario Stadium might be able to find one or two in this one as well. Some patience and item manipulation may be required, but keep your eyes open and you might be rewarded.



(K)items and (K)multiplayer

Some people determine the caliber of a Mario Kart title by how seamless the item use is. With Mario Kart Wii, one can expect more of the same in regards to weapons of racing, with a few exceptions. Red, green, and blue shells have the same function, but when you get a three pack, they can circle around the base of the kart (a nice return to the older Kart design; the Double Dash triple shell tossing was an annoying aberration) and even be thrown backwards. I found it disheartening that the massive banana peel and Bowser shell from the GameCube Kart have been removed, but I'm also still reeling from the loss of Super Mario Kart's feather. Some seemingly new items are actually carried over from certain older episodes, such as the squid ink from Mario Kart DS (this squirts black goop that blocks the view of all players in front of you temporarily -- not so difficult for humans but a real interference for computer AI for some reason). The Pow-Block is quite possibly the most infuriating new item, it's tricky to find the timing to wave the remote like a madman and avoid getting wiped out. Why couldn't they leave that out and favor the ghost instead?


Stupid squid ink

The battle mode of Mario Kart Wii comes up a bit short compared to predecessors. There are two options, balloon battle and coin collecting, but that's where the choices end. If you want to play battle mode with only two people, too bad. Want to play with four? Too bad! Your only option is to be on one of two teams and play with twelve players; other spots are filled with computer or online competitors. Also, the coin-collection battle is one of the more laborious elements of the game. The outcome is almost entirely random and based only on how good the computer AI on your team happens to decide to be for any given match.

Along the same lines, if for some reason you wanted to sign up for a whole Grand Prix cup with another in-house player, you'll have to pull out an old manifestation because this one doesn't offer such antics. Instead, you have to pick each course from whichever cup one at a time until four races are finished, then the total tells you who the winner is… including computer players rounding things off to a crowded twelve.


Wiping out with the pow block

Likely the most anticipated element of the new Kart is the online play. The ability to race friends and strangers around the world is a continuation of the Mario Kart DS concept, but it's a little cleaner now. Logging on and getting into a match only takes a few minutes (most of the time) and gives you a window into the rest of the world's racing abilities and how they stack up against yours. You can even enjoy battle mode, though I use the word "enjoy" facetiously. Perhaps I simply haven't been on the right mind-altering substance for that setting to be enjoyable thus far. Online tournaments have already started, humbling me with my apparently pathetic skills. I'm not sure what winners receive, but the bragging rights could be epic.

There is some flexibility for online play to allow for play with only two (or any number) of players when playing in rooms, but this means for those who really want one on one racing you need two Wii systems and two televisions. Gamers can join their friends who are already playing in normal online matches either worldwide or in their region. The pitfall here is that you can't tell if your friends are online while you are playing -- in fact you can't know if they've joined you unless you pay attention to the names of the racers every round.

Additionally, communicating is incredibly clunky and not intuitive when trying to play with friends. There are a couple dozen pages of prewritten messages (you can't type your own messages as we must think of the children), and it was only by accident that we discovered that you need to click on your friend's Miis in order to actually do something like race.

Supposedly when playing online Nintendo will match people up based on skill level, but we see a huge spread of points in races leading to some frustrating results. We often end up in races with many players who have half the points we do. Winning easily garners us single digit points per race while slipping up or getting hammered with items and losing will set us back hundreds.


I like that the banana peel can be held behind the player again as insurance against red shells. However, the claw grip required to do this is sometimes uncomfortable.

The last complaint is a large one - race type and course selection is unnecessarily and ridiculously limited for no reason. In online matches we can select random courses but not in local multiplayer races. In online matches we cannot actually select the race type (engine type 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, or mirrored races). As if this weren't bad enough, the game doesn't just remove the option but changes type randomly with no way for the gamer to choose.

While we see a trend of Nintendo making sacrifices that favor the casual gamer over the traditional long time gamer, some of these issues make the game less fun for everyone. It can be difficult for some new gamers who want to play online to race with 150cc karts or in mirrored races. I know at a minimum I'd love to see the ability to exclude mirrored courses as some beginners may really dislike randomly ending up playing different types of races.



Kriticisms

There are, in fact, so many little things that could have been done better that we felt it necessary to make a list. Had Nintendo taken the minimal time and energy to do just a couple things differently and better, Mario Kart Wii would have appealed to many more people than it currently does. We have touched on some of these issues throughout the article, but we felt it necessary to really collect all the problems in one place to demonstrate just how much of an issue this is.

In versus matches, we are unable to choose kart class or mirrored courses. In addition, this is assigned randomly per match online. When my friends and I play kart, we prefer to always play 150cc races rather than a combination of 100cc, 150cc, and mirrored races. For those who are inclined, there is no way to play 50cc races with more than one player, and being forced to play mirrored races can be frustrating for some while enjoyable for others.

While it is possible to suggest a random course online, when playing a local versus match it is not possible to choose a random course. Local versus matches also always fill in computer AI to make up 12 drivers (in previous games players could choose to race only each other). Also, the game tracks sets of four races and declares a winner after each set of four, which can be annoying for people who just want to play. Finally, it is not possible to play a real Grand Prix with more than one player (meaning everything must be unlocked via single player mode).

Only two people can play online on one console, and the score is only tracked for the first player. The other guest player does not get scored, and if the guest beats the first player the online versus score can go down because of it. Players are supposed to be matched up via this score, but this seems not to work very well as we often end up in races with 11 people with half our score so that we get plus 5 or 10 points a race but loose 200 or 300 if we don't win. If you're playing to increase score, the guest essentially must play as a side kick rather than another competitor. Scoring using a combination of the guest and player one positions would encourage more "real" racing online.

Characters affect how karts perform, but the effects are not documented or even mentioned anywhere. There is a lack of control as to how quickly a mini-turbo can happen, which removes some of the skill in getting mini-turbos from drifting in older kart games. The interface is clunky, ugly, and is not easy to use and navigate (especially when trying to communicate and play with friends in rooms online), and the rain cloud is just a stupidly horrible item.

Battles can only be played with two teams of six, and playing one on one fairly is not possible as the outcome of two player battles is completely dependent on computer AI players. There could easily have been more courses, as there are 32 tracks on the DS version as well. (Additional older courses would have been very welcome.)

The quality of the item you get or the duration of the effect of an item depends on your position in the race when you hit a question block or are affected by an item. This tends to keep racers squished together as much as possible by helping drivers in the back more than those in front or hurting drivers more when they are close to the front. This compresses the field quite a bit, and there is little reward for gaining skill beyond a certain point.

The Wii Wheel is novel and can be fun to play with but very hard and frustrating to truly master. Those who want to use a GameCube controller will find the button layout changed, and it is not possible to change what buttons do in the game. This wouldn't be as bad if the button layout had improved, but it is functionally harder to use than on the GC kart.

Yes, some of the items apply more to long time fans of the series than those new to Mario Kart, but even if new karters don't complain, they could be getting a better experience if these issues were addressed. Mario Kart Wii seems to be a dumbed-down version of the game, but in the process Nintendo did some really stupid things that take away from the potential of this game to appeal to long time gamers in addition to grandma and grandpa. Sacrifices on this level do not have to be made, as everyone could have been satisfied with just a little more effort and polish.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader wchall01 for pointing out an error in our article. In the upper right corner of the screen when choosing solo or team play under 2, 3 or 4 player it is possible to change the “rules” setting to only 50cc, 100cc, 150cc or mirror. If a player wants to change the difficulty of CPU players or disable them altogether, there is an option for it. Course selection can be set to choose, random, or in order (though we’d still like to see random as an option when choose is enabled). The number of races in a match can be set as well, so the four-race limitation goes away (but it can’t be set to unlimited).

While it is great to have these options offline (making the local experience much more flexible and improved), the lack of these options online is still very frustrating. Beyond this, the fact that we did not find this menu while reviewing the game speaks very strongly in support of our assessment of just how poor the user interface is and how little attention was paid to ergonomics.

Many apologies for the error and any confusion it caused.

 



Konclusion

I actually wasn't sure I could write this review without using the phrase "cluster f***," but with much care I worked through it. The same old routine of being slapped around by the computer is in full force here, and with the added players it's more trouble staying ahead of the fray than ever before. This is likely to make things more fun for new comers, but there's little reward for small advancements in skill.

While the Wii wheel is cute and might be fun for players new to Mario Kart Wii to try out, it wound up being more effectively implemented as a toy for my 18-month-old daughter, and even she has tired of it after realizing it wouldn't make a proper substitute for a hat. Its major failing is in the fact that it is incredibly difficult to master and is quirky compared to using another control scheme. I'm not sure the creators are good with subtlety, and I'm an avid critic of the "let's do it because we can" attitude of most Nintendo Wii games. The fact that an accelerometer and an infrared camera have been built into the console's controller doesn't mean these elements should be exhausted with every new game. The wheel pushes this line.


Not pretty

The interface design is pretty bland, too. I know I'm a girl, but this isn't related to the cliché preferences of the different sexes; it's basic aesthetics and ergonomics. There used to be a little more finesse in the title and option screens, and when a race finished there was an interesting detail or two about how many places you moved with a nice soundtrack or effect here and there. Once upon a time, there was even a speedometer to show how fast you were hitting the tracks. No more. This is a dry game. The frills are completely gone.

Also… the credits suck. There. It has been said. And they are four minutes long, people. Use the plus button to get rid of them (we suffered through too many before we figured that one out, but be warned you can't do it the first time through).

The great frustration in regards to Mario Kart Wii is how much better it could have been with so little extra effort. It's clear the money was spent making it online-compatible; little else is truly new. And even that element was pulled more or less straight from the DS version. Surely the makers intended this game to be a sequel to Mario Kart DS, and not so much a continuation of all things special and dear about the Mario Kart series. The racing itself is fun, but it can be frustrating (if not downright depressing) to play and see how much better the game could have been. Mario Kart lovers, beware. It isn't better than the last one.

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