With its inclusion of bikes, stunts, and the Wii Wheel, Mario Kart Wii is an almost note-perfect riposte to all of those accusations that Nintendo is reluctant to innovate in its first-party games. In fact, in its bid to simultaneously please both newcomers and veteran players, Mario Kart Wii ends up feeling like the biggest deviation for the series since its inception sixteen years ago. And, on the whole, that turns out to be a good thing.
The Wii Wheel seems like a good place to start, considering it's the first thing you'll see upon delving into Mario Kart Wii's bulky box. As a Mario Kart purist (okay, as a gaming snob), I've been pretty dismissive about the Wii Wheel in the past. In one way, my cynicism still feels justified -- I personally found that a GameCube controller allowed far greater precision when steering, and provided an important advantage when racing human opposition (on that note, the game even appears to acknowledge that the Wii Wheel is the inferior option, by recording how much time you spend playing with it). But get this: against all of my horrible expectations, the Wii Wheel is actually fun to use.
I forced myself to use the Wheel from the moment I first started playing, and six hours later, after a brief stint on the GameCube controller, I was back to using the Wheel! So yes, readers, this is me eating crow. No, the Wheel isn't as accurate as other controller configurations -- trying to perform stunts can be especially frustrating, as flicks of the Wheel don't always seem to register -- but it's definitely a more entertaining option.
Speaking of stunts, all of the new circuits in Mario Kart Wii feature zany jumps, half-pipes, and ramps (while some of the older tracks have had -- sacrilege! -- the occasional ramp added). At times, it's a bit like racing around inside Tony Hawks' head, but be warned: pulling off stunts (by flicking the Wii Wheel or tapping the D-pad) isn't always recommended. Despite the speed boost that can be gained from executing tricks, there are sections in most tracks where there is more to be gained from simply driving (you remember driving, right?). Even your AI opponents don't always seem that fond of stunts. They're not an entirely redundant addition, but knowing when to deploy them is important.
Bikes, the third of Mario Kart Wii's controversial newcomers, are a far more useful addition. Initially tricky to handle (particularly with the Wii Wheel), they're worth persevering with, if only because their extra nippiness in the turn and the ability to boost by pulling off wheelies give them the edge over karts. Do they upset the balance, as at least one site has suggested? In a word, yes. The advantage is narrow, but it does exist, and the number of bikes you'll see online is, unsurprisingly, high; people have twigged that there's a difference. In time trials, bikes become a necessity. Does any of this prevent the game from being hella fun? Not one bit.
And that's because Mario Kart Wii handles joyfully. Whether on bike or kart, or whether using the Wii Wheel or a controller, drifting and producing measured power slides and counter-steering to just the right degree as you take on a bend feels as deeply satisfying as ever. Of all the games in the franchise to date, it feels closest to Mario Kart DS, and such a comparison should tell you all you need to know about Mario Kart Wii's quality.
It's no technical slouch either, and although it does fall short of being as beautiful as, say, Super Mario Galaxy, there are still parts that can take the breath away. The first, ultra-steep drop in Wario's Gold Mines (above) is one such moment, as is the whole of Bowser's Castle, the penultimate race in the Special Cup, and surely the most visually stunning circuit to ever grace the Mario Kart franchise. Rainbow Road is another technical tour-de-force (complete with a cute Galaxy reference or two), not to mention as tough as old leather thanks to its brain-bending twists.
However, although there are plenty of pretty tracks, not all are ideal. Now that the number of competitors in each race has been increased from eight to twelve, many of the Wii-exclusive circuits are far more spacious. There's some indisputable logic behind making tracks bigger -- more racers require more space, after all -- but proceedings begin to feel rather empty and barren once you head online and find yourself in a field of three karts.
Thankfully, such small fields are uncommon, and besides, I don't like to chastise the online mode too much, because it's here that the game absolutely sparkles. Wonderfully, lag is extremely rare, regardless of the number of opponents, or their location. Only last night, I took part in a race with a full field of twelve players scattered all over Europe, Japan, and Australia. The resulting race was a revelation, a lightning-fast, lag-free contest from start to finish. Whether or not the North American servers will survive the inevitable onslaught this weekend is another matter, but the signs are good.
Indeed, the whole online set-up is quite excellent, from the brilliant and extensive Mario Kart Channel (which lets you keep tabs on your friends, store and share ghost data, enter Nintendo-created competitions, and view online rankings) to the littlest of touches (such as the game estimating how many players will be in the next race before you decide whether or not to continue, or how every player is introduced through their Miis before you start racing). My only complaint? In the hours I've clocked up online, there have been three occasions where a race suddenly froze up, and I was declared the winner (I was leading in none of them). Thankfully, such hiccups hardly spoil what is a generally stellar experience.
There are other issues I could nitpick at. The offline multiplayer is typically fantastic, but only Nintendo will understand its decision to not allow every-man-for-himself play in the game's Battle mode (you're forced to play in teams), and at least one of the new power-ups, the POW Block, is rather underwhelming (though I did love the Thundercloud, which hurls lightning at whoever picks it up, but which can be cheekily passed to other players by barging into them). Oh, and the rubber band AI? At times, it's a little too forgiving on those at the back of the field.
Yet the game does so much right (a lot of which was a gamble to start with) that you can't help but admire it. Frankly, Mario Kart Wii put a whole lot of happy into my head, and I've adored every turn and chicane since I first fed the disc into my Wii. Is it better than Double Dash!!? Unquestionably. The best home console Mario Kart ever? Not quite, but it comes scarily close at times.
Final score: 9/10