Mario Kart Whee! (soon to be a full review)

10 Jun

[This is a review in progress. It’s been sitting on my laptop for a month, but I never got around to trimming the fat and elaborating a bit on the core gameplay. I figured posting this here would be the motivation I need to finish it.]

Mario Kart Wii takes safe, yet enjoyable steps forward by introducing a steering wheel periphiral, motor bikes, and the best online interface seen on the Wii so far. Nintendo’s attempt to bridge the gap between the hardcore and the casual is a bit sloppy at times due to “rubber band AI”, but overall skill *typically* dominates in online play.

The classic gameplay of the Mario Kart series is mostly unchanged in Mario Kart Wii. Up to 12 racers compete against one another on 32 tracks set in the Mario universe. Along the way, racers grab items to boost their abilities or attack their opponents. The single player mode is highlighted by the Grand Prix which is composed of eight cups, each of which contain four tracks. Players can also participate in time trials where they race alone to achieve the fastest times possible. The multiplayer mode allows for up to four players to race or battle against eachother and computers using splitscreen.

While the core gameplay of the series has gone relatively untouched, there *have* been a few major changes made in this installment.

The biggest change is the introduction of the Wii Wheel, a steering wheel-shaped frame that houses a Wiimote allowing the player to steer his racer like an actual go kart. The Wii Wheel is included with the game, and extra Wheels are sold seperately for around $15. A large extension of the B button is placed on the back of the Wheel allowing players to drift, a vital technique on most tracks. Players can choose either automatic or manual options for drifting. The automatic setting executes drifting *for* the player as they turn. Players that choose the manual setting must drift on their own but can achieve mini-turbos, small bursts of speed, by holding a drift for an extended period of time. The drift mechanic makes it so that players don’t have to over extend their turning of the Wii Wheel. The result is a comfortable and fun control scheme that quickly becomes second nature.

Players aren’t restricted to *just* the Wii Wheel to play Mario Kart Wii.

Obviously, the Wiimote on its own can be held sideways to play with the same control scheme as the Wii Wheel, but players can also use the Wiimote with the Nunchuk, the Classic Controller, or a GameCube Controller for more traditional control schemes. Each method has its own pros and cons so players should be sure to test out each type to find the one they prefer. It should be noted that Nintendo encourages the use of the Wii Wheel by awarding players with a golden Wii Wheel icon by their names in online play if they use the Wheel as their primary control method.

Another obvious change, mentioned earlier, is the inclusion of motor bikes.

While karts can achieve super mini-turbos after drifting, bikes can only achieve regular mini-turbos. To make up for this, bikes allow racers to perform wheelies, a technique that slightly increases the racer’s speed while greatly reducing their handling and making them vulnerable to physical contact with other vehicles. Wheelies are performed by pulling up on the Wii-Wheel, back on the Wiimote, or by pressing up on the D-Pad with the other control methods. These controls also allow players to perform tricks after jumping off of ramps. After performing a trick, the racer’s vehicle receives a small burst of speed upon landing.

Using these techniques in conjunction with drifting are vital to place well in the online versus mode.

The online interface for Mario Kart Wii is executed extremely well for a Wii title. Players can choose between single player or two player splitscreen and are then given the choice of competing against other players across the globe, in their continental region, or in their friend list. They are then prompted to choose between versus or battle mode. Players begin with a rating of 5,000 in each mode and gain or lose points depending on their performance. Versus mode attempts to pit you against up to 11 other players. When you first join a group, you are able to see the liscenced Mii for each player along with their name and their location on the globe. Players can come and go between races. Before each race, players are allowed to vote on the track they would like to race on next. Once all the votes are in, a track in chosen at random from the list. Playing high will typically earn you rating points though placing in the top half won’t always guarantee a positive gain as your rating seems to be based on your progress from race to race as well. With no “rubberband AI” to compete against, players are able to rely more upon their skill to win in online versus mode, but players in lower positions will still receive powerful items more frequently maintaining the somewhat random nature of the races. Players will see their fair share of landslide victories, split-second upsets, and all around close matches. In the case of players finishing a match way ahead of others, the race will end with the current position either 30 seconds after someone has finished or when the one before last position has been decided. That way, players won’t be held back by less experienced or less serious racers.

In battle mode, players drive around tracks made exclusively for the the mode. They also vote for the tracks in the same way they do in versus mode. Players are split into two teams before each match and alternate between balloon battle and coin runners. Balloon battle is based on the traditional battle mode from previous installments. Players hit opponents with items to pop the balloons attached to their vehicle. Doing so gains that player a point which is added to the team’s total. When the time runs out, the team with the most points wins, and individual players are rewarded with rating points based on how much they contributed to the team’s score. Coin runners uses the same concept, but instead of scoring points by popping balloons, players race around collecting coins on the track. Only a limited number of coins spawn on the track so players must attack opponents to make them drop their coins. A player’s coin total is displayed when they are close by.

The online play suffers from typical problems that other online games have such as lag which, of course, depends on the internet connections of the participating players. Red shells, which are supposed to seek nearby opponents, will *sometimes* hover around the player and not strike them right away or even at all. Also, while there is no headset communications available, players have found other ways of showing their agression, primarily through picking the same (often disliked) track repeatedly, even after having raced on that track with the same group. Of course, tracks are chosen randomly from a list of each player’s vote, it can still become a source of frustration.

Mario Kart Wii also features the Mario Kart Channel, where players can add new friends, race other players’ ghosts in time trial, view rankings, and participate in tournaments which consist of a single race against computer opponents on slightly modified courses.

All in all, Mario Kart Wii stands out among other Wii titles in its excellent online interface and gameplay. On its own, the core gameplay is the same, but rather soulless in its presentation. Nintendo insists on playing it safe, and while I’m sure the long time Mario Kart fans have everything they need here, the inclusion of a story or campaign mode of some sort would add the depth and face this franchise needs to remain innovative.

Until then, enjoy playing like a girl. 😛

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