Since it's inception in 1992, the Mario Kart franchise has risen to one of the elite racing series, garnering numerous accolades as well as selling millions of copies per iteration. 2005's Mario Kart DS took the series one step further by adding an online mode for the first time, as well as expanding the gameplay to include "mission" modes on top of the standard content. Thus, Mario Kart Wii, the latest installment in the franchise, had a lot to live up to in terms of expectations from consumers. What Nintendo delivered is somewhat of a mixed bag of results.
In this iteration of Mario Kart, players have four control methods available to them as well. There is the Classic Controller option and the Wii Remote and Nunchuk setup, but most people will probably utilize the Wii Remote or GameCube controller setup. This is because the Wii Remote setup is bolstered by the Wii Wheel peripheral included in the package, which attempts to provide casual gamers with a more immersive experience. On the other hand, more serious players will probably prefer the traditional control scheme offered by the GameCube controller. Still, it is nice that there are four ways to play the title, much like Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Fundamentally, the controls are the same as Mario Kart: Double Dash!! sans the two-character setup. However, unlike every single Mario Kart title since Mario Kart 64, the ability to achieve a power boost through power sliding, or drifting, has been greatly nerfed. Typically, players achieve the power boost by holding a button to initiate the slide or drift, and then toggling the d-pad or analog stick back and forth to create sparks that would signal a successful power slide. This process resulted in a short power boost which gave more skilled players an advantage, as well as greatly enhanced the gameplay. The technique resulted in a maneuver known as "snaking" to the average fan. While power sliding around corners is seen as a standard mechanic, players were able to continue this technique during straight portions of the course, resulting in a technique known as Straight Stretch Mini-Turbo, or SSMT. Combining both strategies, players are able to almost continuously power slide over the entire course, which was seen by many as an unfair oversight by the developers.
Mario Kart Wii throw a wrench into the entire system by altering one basic principle of power sliding; players can no longer control how fast they build up the power boost. Instead, holding a drift will cause the Kart's sparks to shift from blue to red, signaling the boost is ready, over a set period of time. This tweak prevents all-out snaking on many courses, although it is still possible to drift consistently over most of the courses, including many of the Nintendo DS courses.
The other major gameplay alteration is the inclusion of motorcycles. Each character can select from a wide variety of karts, but also a selection of bikes. Bikes provide superior handling and speed, and they generally take more skill to master. Still, the gameplay seems to favor the bikes, and judging from some of the best times online at this point, the hardcore crowd agrees. Bikes can also perform a wheelie to gain a short boost as well, though they can't achieve a full power boost from power sliding. Both the karts and bikes are capable of aerial tricks done after launching off a ramp or incline. Upon landing, the vehicle will gain a short turbo boost as well.
A fleshed out online mode really bolsters the depth of the game, allowing players to race with up to twelve players. Unlike Mario Kart DS before it which only allowed for a portion of the tracks made available for online play, Mario Kart Wii allows players to tackle any one of the available courses, as well as duke it out in battle mode, an option sorely missed in Mario Kart DS. Player's also have the ability to earn ranking points to determine their level so as to be paired against others with like skills, or see how their best times match up against their friends, their region, or the entire world. Yes, friend codes are back, but this time around, players who meet up with another kart racer online have the ability to invite them to be a friend, and player names are displayed throughout the race.
The Mario Kart Wii Channel allows for players to download ghosts from random people online and test their skills, or send a ghost challenge to one of their friends via the ranking page. Players can also download their rival's time trial ghost or the first place ghost for each setting (friend, region, worldwide). Videos and other cool downloads are available as well, and there's even an official tournament option which has challenges and competitions from Nintendo, which are now live. Of course, players can opt to not have any of this available to them, and the Mario Kart Wii Channel is available via the Wii Menu or the Mario Kart Wii menu.
Grand Prix, Time Trial, Versus and Battle modes all return from Mario Kart DS, but this time around there is no Mission mode, which seems like a step backward in the innovation department. Players unlock new cups, vehicles and characters by earning gold trophies and star rankings in the Grand Prix mode, as well as taking down all of the normal and expert staff ghosts in Time Trial mode. Just like before, the Grand Prix mode consists of four cups dedicated to the new courses (Mushroom, Flower, Star, Special), as well as four for the retro courses (Shell, Banana, Leaf and Lightning). 50CC, 100CC, 150CC and Mirror courses all make their return as well.
During Grand Prix races, the rubber banding AI that's plagued previous incarnations returns in the most prominent form yet. Players in first place can expect a barrage of cheap projectiles and attacks that can in an instant change the entire complexion of the race. There's some new items as well, such as the POW Block which will spin out everyone on the ground, as well as make them lose all their items, the Thundercloud which provides a boost but eventually will shock the racer unless it is passed off via bumping into another kart, and the Big Mushroom from New Super Mario Bros. which turns any racer into a jump sized version that squashes anybody they run over. To counter some of the projectiles in the race in both offline and online modes, players can still drag items behind them, though there is one significant change. The question mark boxes will no longer shield players from an attack.
The new courses really showcase some wonderful visuals, with courses such as Mushroom Gorge, Wario's Gold Mine, Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road being the highlights. This time around, Rainbow Road takes on a Super Mario Galaxy theme, incorporating warp stars, star bits and planetary bodies in the distance. Even the music is a remix of the Rainbow Road song from Mario Kart 64 and Gusty Garden Galaxy from Super Mario Galaxy. Bowser's Castle also features a part where players must go up a corridor while avoiding a massive ball of fire rolling down at them. The updates to the retro courses are also a nice touch, though the Double Dash!! stages look fairly close to their original counterparts.
Half of the game's music is simply updated versions of themes from the retro courses, and the new music has an upbeat feel to it that's well suited for the game. Most of the new music is fairly simple in nature, and at times many tracks can sound too similar. Some of the tracks, however, do retain a theme that is representative of the course being played, such as Coconut Mall, which uses hints of Delfino Island music from Super Mario Sunshine, and Dry Dry Ruins, which retains familiar tunes heard in desert stages in previous Mario titles.
Mario Kart Wii really shines in the online department, providing the most comprehensive online experience yet from Nintendo, and one that easily surpasses the flaw-filled Super Smash Bros. Brawl online mode. The only issue with the online is the fact that downloading and sending ghosts manually is a bit of a pain in the ass to figure out, as it is only possible via the rankings area, and then figuring out how to toggle over a character in the rankings and pressing a button to bring up various options. All of this, of course, is done offline. A simple "Ghost" option somewhere in the online mode would have been much more intuitive.
Unfortunately for the offline experience, it feels a bit watered down due to some of the alterations to the power sliding mechanics, and the lack of a mission mode. This is by no means a knock on the presentation or the courses themselves, as the game is one of the most refined and polished titles on Wii to date. However, except for the inclusion of bikes, which are really just new types of "karts" in essence, as well as tricks, which are merely new ways to earn boosts, there's little done in the innovation department and the game is simply more of the same in terms of Mario Kart.
Final Verdict - 8/10
Mario Kart Wii features an impressive online experience, but falls a bit short in the offline content. The alteration of power sliding and the lack of a mission mode or anything new other than rather gimmicky tricks and bikes pushed the series backwards rather than forward. Otherwise, the game has a really solid presentation and provides an experience that will be enjoyed by almost any gamer.