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Mario Kart returns on the Wii and fails to completely shake off its Double Dash inspired party game feel. This not withstanding, Nintendo comes to the table with some great innovations and additions to the series: a well designed clutch of new tracks. Online racing, Mii integration, motorbikes. half-pipes and new weapons. These new features complement the inclusion of historic course to make this the most complete Mario Kart experience to date.
With Nintendo heading off into the grand open waters of the causal gamers and family-friendly market, us hardcore gamers are left wondering whether they have forgotten all about us. But all it takes is a little look at their AAA first party games (read: Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime and Zelda) and it is clear that currently they are doing very well keeping the gamers happy whilst courting the masses. The question is how long they can keep this up before one of these strategies impinges on the other.
Mario Kart, although a very competent game as we shall discuss, could be the first chink in their armour. Here we find there has been a greater focus than before on their casual gaming aspirations. Firstly the packed in Wii-Wheel, you pop a Wii-mote into its middle and off you go for some waggle based racing. However, even the most modest of Mario Kart player will soon discover this wheel control just doesn't deliver the direct quick steering action that the game requires. It seems a real nod to the really young (or really casual) players that they have spent time and money including this peripheral. Secondly, the single player game seems to have suffered from too much focus on the online multiplayer features. The tracks are largely too wide for racing with fewer players, and have had their shortcuts either moved or curtailed. Mario Kart has always been built around the stellar single player experience, but Mario Kart Wii leans a lot heavier on the multiplayer aspects. Admittedly not a bad thing, but certainly a departure for the series.
Here we find there has been a greater focus than before on their casual gaming aspirations.
Apart from these concerns, Mario Kart Wii delivers a strong experience. Once you have discarded the wheel and opted for with the Wii-Mote and Nun-Chuck combo, or even the supported Gamecube controller, the game starts to make a lot more sense. These controls are as direct and delightful as even. Our preference was for the Wii controllers (rather than the Gamecube) this not only let you waggle to wheelie the bikes (yup bikes are playable this time around) or jump, but you had a little speaker plinking and plonking alerts of upcoming hazards.
Graphically, things are still very much in the Mario Kart: Double Dash era. The Wii is obviously not an awful lot more powerful than the Gamecube, but they have squeezed a little more style into the visuals. Widescreen support is also a nice addition, and the whole game seems very solid at 60 fps even on the four player split screen. Sound is not quite as impressive. Apart from the nice addition of the Wii-mote audio warnings when shells or racers are close behind, things are exactly as they were in Double Dash. After the exactly aural work Nintendo has delivered with the orchestral tones of Mario Galaxy and the sing along funk of Mario Charged Football we had hoped for something more inspired for Mario Kart on the Wii. But it's the same old chip tunes that have to suffice, and there is no getting away from the fact that these are getting pretty tired in 2008!
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The game is structured around the familiar Grand Prix circuits, with some new additions for the Wii game. You work through these at 50, 100, and 150 cc's to unlock extra courses, characters and vehicles. More interesting is the multiplayer. Here you have the option to play the good old local four player split screen games, or dip your toe into Nintendo's WFC online gaming service. For no charge you can hop on and grab a random race with people from around the world. You can also bring a friend along on the same Wii so the two of you can compete. If you have been used to the 360 then the lack of voice chat is sorely missed, but those that haven't experience Xbox live probably won't notice this shortcoming.
Online you can compete in grand prix style races to improve your standing in the online leaderboards. You can also exchange Mario Kart Wii codes with friends to play head to head against your nearest and dearest. Additionally, you can practice your lap times against ghost racers. This was surprising fun as you worked your way up the ranks of online fastest lap times. Here too you can compare times with and challenge friends to races. All very well presented and confidently pulled off!
As we said at the top of the review, this is a confident game but one that needs a little digging into if you are looking for a true Mario Kart racing experience. At first we were a little put off by the general random nature of successes in the races. The sheer number of weapons and weighting on those at the back, meant that maintaining a lead was almost impossible. After a little fiddling with the settings (limiting the weapons and turning off the CPU players) we soon discovered our old friend lurking beneath.
Overall, this will appeal to the Nintendo faithful and there is certainly enough here for them not to worry about Nintendo's commitment to these old franchises. But the real work on Mario Kart Wii has been done making it more attractive to the mass market. The Wii Wheel and the wide open online courses all make it a lot less difficult for first time karters. And to be honest, as long as they keep delivering their A game, who can complain if Nintendo manage to share the fun with a wider audience. Perhaps it's because I'm a little older now, but I really like the direction Nintendo are taking with this and their other titles. And perhaps more importantly for me, I've recently discovered that my kids and my Mrs also like it as well.
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