Mario Kart WiiIf the miracle of science one day makes time travel possible, the first thing scientists should do is find out the exact amount of times people have sworn throughout history and then calculate what percentage of these obscenities were aimed at Mario Kart. I'd honestly be surprised by anything less than 50%, because for every stubbed toe or finger-jammed-in-door experience, there are at least ten Blue Shells hurtling ominously towards whatever players had the balls to try and come first. Such is the nature of Mario Kart, a series that promotes itself as family friendly but is really just a home wrecker in disguise.
For those of you as new to gaming as the Playstation 3 is to being a worthwhile purchase, then let me give you a quick run down of what Mario Kart is all about:
It's Mario, in a kart. Moving on.
This series has been so successful because it is the epitome of the "pick-up and play" mentality. Doing marginally well requires little more than holding accelerate while pushing the control stick left and right depending on circumstance. Surprisingly, it's for this very reason that Mario Kart is so good; While games that are shallower than a spoon generally aren't fun after the first half-hour, Mario Kart turns it into an engaging experience that will keep you (and preferably three friends) entertained for many a sleepless night to come.
That said, playing Mario Kart: Wii (MKWii from hereout) is like eating a five-star meal directly out of someone else's stomach: While you know you're getting a quality feed, you can't shake the feeling that it has already been digested for you. Mario Kart's ability to get simpler with every new installment is really quite baffling given that the series wasn't all that complicated to begin with, and the trend reaches dangerous levels in this game in spite of (and partly because of) new additions and tweaks to the mechanics.
For the purposes of this review I'm going to assume that everyone reading intends to control the game via the Wii Wheel (don't ever refer to it as "the Wiil", as that makes you eligible for castration), as I'm of the opinion that if you're playing this game with the Gamecube controller you're wholeheartedly missing the point and should probably go back and play Double Dash!! or DS where you'll feel more at home. The Wheel actually works remarkably well even though it isn't attached to any sort of base, something I certainly wasn't expecting when I first tried it out. You don't lose any functionality by using the Wheel instead of a "real" controller, it feels perfectly natural and, quite frankly, is a hell of a lot more fun.
The only two major additions to this game since the last outing on the DS are Bikes and Tricks. Tricks are a stupid idea in theory but actually work well in practice, helping to speed up the pace of the game which never really reaches breakneck speeds even in the fastest mode. Bikes are a little less wholesome: The added ability to do wheelies while riding is nullified in a tight race, as being nudged by anything stronger than a gentle breeze knocks you off balance and slows you down, while the slightly tweaked handling when compared to karts isn't noticeable enough to really make a difference. It feels like they needed to force something new into the game somewhere and decided giving the characters a brand new but completely arbitrary class of vehicle was the right way to go about it. As you can probably tell, I don't consider re-skinning karts to have two wheels instead of four adding "variety" at all.
MKWii is by far the most luck-based game in the series, forgoing the somewhat tactical racing mechanics of the previous games in favor of simpler control and higher reliance on items to get you over the line. Unfortunately this can lead to you merely watching the game rather than playing it, a criticism usually only levelled at games that opt for cinematic set-pieces rather than actual gameplay (I'm looking at you, every 3D Sonic game). MKWii manages it in a way I've never seen before: While you've got full control of your character at all times, where you end up coming in the race generally depends on elements that are completely out of your hands. A fifteen second lead can be turned into a five-second loss by an undodgeable Blue Shell, while a perfectly executed jump can see you falling into a chasm as someone activates their Lightning.
Even worse, good players are punished for being good and bad players are rewarded for being bad in the most warped item distribution method I've seen in any game, ever. If you're coming first, you're only going to get banana peels and green shells, items that don't really do you a lot of good offensively. In contrast, if you're coming last you may as well stop paying attention because the items you get are totally capable of winning the race without any input from you. Blue Shells are the exception to this rule; They hold no direct benefit for anyone far enough behind to actually get them, but are the gaming equivalent of a cockslap across the face of the player coming first. The way items are handled is a really poor mechanic overall, once again proving how hell-bent Nintendo is on making my grandmother feel like a videogaming champion.
While I've been harping on about the game's flaws for a while now, don't let my self-depreciating fear of committing to a meaningful relationship with any game fool you into thinking MKWii hasn't got the goods. While certain aspects are about as enjoyable as shaving your eyebrows with a hedge trimmer, when the game does something right it tends to do it really, really well. The online mode is probably the best example there is of how the game takes a crack at something and ends up doing it better than anything else on the system. While Friend Codes are once again used despite the tortured screams of Nintendo fans everywhere, MKWii provides a helpful tool that allows you to send invites to anyone on your Friend list and will then swap codes for each of you automatically. Participating in online races (whether with friends or with random people from around the world) is such a streamlined experience that it makes Brawl's online mode look about as sophisticated as a Slowpoke. Matches play out with no noticeable lag, and it isn't uncommon to find 11 other racers the moment you begin to look. There are no extra problems in the online mode that aren't apparent in the rest of the game, so if you can overlook these faults elsewhere then they shouldn't bother you here.
Even though almost everything that required practice has been more or less removed, the innocent charm of the game and the sheer fun of it all pushes that issue into the background. It's been such a long time since Super Mario Kart debuted for the SNES, but the formula that worked then still works today. The tracks (of which there are a large variety, both new and old) are colorful and interesting, the items are genuinely fun to use and drifting around the inside of a sharp turn is as satisfying as ever. The game is such a joy to play that most of the criticisms I've made so far are only apparent in retrospect, popping their heads up occasionally during gameplay but remaining mostly hidden until you really start to think about it. That isn't to say these flaws don't detract from the game - because they do - but they also don't get in the way of it being really fun to play.
It's hard to rate Mario Kart: Wii, because while it sometimes sets itself the goal of pissing me off as much as possible, other times it's taking me out to see Iron Man and paying for all the snacks. There's no doubt this game is among the Wii's best multiplayer titles, but I definitely get the feeling that if the next installment continues in the direction the series is currently heading it's going to be a broken, unplayable mess. The racing element has been stripped down to virtually nothing and I'd honestly be impressed if they managed to make it any simpler, the good items are already overpowered and are getting more so with every game, and they're definitely starting to run out of ideas when they start introducing "mad tricks" and "sweet hogs" into a game about kart racing.
Still, I can't bring myself to end on anything but a high note when it comes to this game. The controls are tight, the tracks are good and the gameplay is fun. It has good local and online multiplayer modes, clever integration into the Wii system menu, effortless Friend Code management and a hell of a lot of extras to unlock. It isn't the best game in the series, but it's certainly one of the best games for the Wii.