Being a video game hero must not be the best paying job in the world. Look at Mario – undoubtedly the biggest icon in the history of the industry; forced to moonlight in countless side jobs when not doing his best to keep the mushroom kingdom and his beloved Peach safe. America’s favorite plumber has done everything from being a doctor (which in itself is scary – who goes from plumber to doctor?) to music composer and even professional multi-sport athlete.
Undoubtedly, the most successful of Mario’s side jobs is that of professional go-kart racer. Debuting on The Super Nintendo in 1992, the Mario Kart series has always been a guaranteed moneymaker for Nintendo. Built on a steady structure of deceivingly simple yet incredibly strategic and fun gameplay, the series is still thought of by many as one of the company’s premier franchises. Will the aptly named Mario Kart Wii, the first for Nintendo’s motion sensing sensation be able to continue the tradition set forth by its predecessors?
The answer is an emphatic yes. While it still does suffer from some of the problems of the older games, Mario Kart Wii takes the simple and accessible formula set forth by it’s predecessors and tweaks it enough to make it feel fresh and fun, creating one of the most entertaining and rewarding gaming experiences in quite some time.
By far the biggest addition Mario Kart Wii brings to the franchise is in the introduction of the Wii-Wheel. There was understandable doubt leading up to the game’s release regarding the wheel as last year “Monster 4×4″ came packed with a similar wheel and controlled horribly. Rest easy eager gamers – those fears have no foundation. Controlling with The Wii-wheel is incredibly comfortable and feels so natural. In a change from past Mario Kart games, the “go-button” has been mapped to the 2 button on the Wii-mote which will throw veterans of the series off, but in reality this new system makes more sense when taking the Wii’s face button layout into account.
At the heart of Mario Kart is the Grand Prix mode. Sticking true to formula, Grand Prix its racers against 11 AI opponents in one of three (more are unlockable) race circuits. A total of 32 new old and tracks are available, and most are quite fun, a lot of the returning tracks feel quite tame in comparison to the brand new ones. It’s not much, but it can make going through these courses feel like more of a chore than the enjoyment they were meant to be.
What does make these tracks -and all of them for that matter — more entertaining? For the first time since the series’ inception – players are not limited to racing karts. That’s right – Mario is bringing a brand new toy with him – a motorcycle. Each racer has multiple bikes and go-karts to choose from – each with different pros and cons – adding to the game’s less-than-obvious yet deep strategic aspect.
The addition of bikes leads to one of the most useless, yet fun additions to this generation of Mario Kart — the midair stunt system. By flicking the Wii-mote in any direction as you leave the ground jumping off any of the game’s makeshift ramps (pipes, barrels) and obstacles, your character will perform an X-games style trick. It’s really a nice aesthetic touch, but it really clashes with the basic gameplay of Mario Kart. Some of these tricks keep you in the air for quite some time, and move you far from your starting point. Isn’t the goal to keep going towards the finish – not move slowly in all directions?
Of course, it just wouldn’t be Mario Kart without the trademark question mark box items. For those not in the know, boxes marked with a question mark are littered throughout each course. Running into these boxes gives the player a random item that they can use to help them get ahead in the race. All of the fan favorites from the past are back, including the shells, mushrooms and banana peels, along with a few new additions including a mega-mushroom that makes you super size ala New Super Mario Bros and Brawl.
While the item/weapon combat is an institution in the Mario Kart universe, its part of what could be the game’s biggest flaw. Take a spin around the course – go through say, six of the item blocks. Odds are most of the items you get will be of the less powerful variety like the aforementioned mushrooms, banana peels or green shells. Sure, you’ll get some of the bigger, more powerful items but not nearly as much as it seems the computer controlled racers get. Far too often when in first place and especially toward the end of races, you’ll find yourself getting hit by multiple red shells or be hit at just the right second that you can’t recover in time to get back into the top spot. Sadly, cheap gameplay like this will cause you to enjoy the game less at certain times, then again – any veteran Mario Kart player should be well accustomed to this by now.
Aside from the single player aspect, Kart has a very robust multiplayer suite. Returning of course are the time tested multiplayer race and battle mode – but this year, the race finally goes online. While the Wii’s Wifi support has been lacking since the system’s launch – the quality of the online support in Mario Kart almost makes up for it. Sure, there’s the expected online match-ups and leader boards, but it’s the extra features that really make Mario Kart online so special. Someone completely smoke you online? Download their ghost to see exactly how they did it. Besides a few small setbacks and connection dips, actual online races were amazingly well done with little to no lag.
Last month, Nintendo released the amazing Super Smash Brothers Brawl — an amazingly deep game aimed to rope in the hardcore gamers that felt ignored by the company’s new system. Now, with Mario Kart Wii – the big N releases another Triple-A title, this one that not only caters to a wider range of gamers – but creates the most solid, accessible and fun experience console gaming has seen in some time.