The Mario Kart series has had a triumphant run of popularity on Nintendo games consoles, from the SNES right through the handhelds, N64, Game cube and now, happily for all concerned, on the Wii. Fittingly, then, the new slew of race tracks is complemented by a host of returning tracks from previous iterations of Mario Kart on the older platforms, effectively doubling the offering here.
Each of the previous games has juggled game play between two quite different elements; racing, of course, and battling. The racing part doesn’t need any further explanation, but the battling is there because, scattered around all the courses is a selection of ‘power up’ devices that affect the way your race goes. These ‘power ups’ can help you, or slow down one of the other players, like giving you a speed boost, slowing down another player, or be fired like missiles, amongst other things, and their use can often completely dictate who ends up on the podium.
The inclusion of a gaming peripheral – the Wii Wheel – is great for the price, with the regular controlling slotting into place as usual. However, it’s still debatable whether the wheel is easier to use or, more importantly, more responsive, than using a regular controller, magical wireless system or not. Expert gamers will probably revert back to the Wii remote pretty quickly.
The game play in Mario Kart is organised in a series of ‘cups’ to win, making navigation and selection very simple, even for complete novices to the game who don’t recognise the returning names. There’s a lot of action on track to enjoy – fields of 12 racers, starting at the lower end with 50cc karts, moving through to 100cc bikes and eventually graduating to the 150cc cups, where both kart and bike are welcomed onto the grid.
How much you enjoy this game may depend on how familiar you are with the series. Visually, Mario Kart is far from the best looking title on the console, some animations are over used, the inclusion of motorcycles is obviously more aimed at offering a bit of visual variety than anything else, because handling doesn’t really change in any dramatic way, and multiplayer is fun, if you can forgive the quite dreadful drop in graphical quality. But if you’re going to have any real problem with the game, it’ll likely be around the AI, which in computer-controlled racers has been set to be crushingly aggressive when you’re working through the game on your own, and in terms of weapon ‘selection’, teeth-gnashingly frustrating at any other time. It’s not random, as it has been in previous games, but attempts to ‘balance’ out the choice by giving players at the back of the pack more effective items than those up at the front. Which means that you can be mere meters from the finish line, having raced really well, and be unexpectedly taken out by your Sunday-driver-Gran sitting smugly next to you on the sofa, left spinning your tires as she or anyone else races past.
So Mario Kart on Wii is much less a racing game than a fighting game on wheels. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun – it is, particularly in multiplayer offline or in the excellent online matches – just that if you’re after some real Mario racing, you’re better off dusting off your N64 console and playing the game on that.
But as a social gaming experience, allowing the whole family to play (and trade virtual blows!), the Wii version of Mario Kart is a real success. It may play more like Super Smash Bros than F-Zero, but there’s plenty of variety and imagination in terms of track design, the characters are endearingly familiar – the other Miis on your console even make an appearance as spectators, track obstacles and on billboards or statues – and that dodgy AI makes for plenty of position swapping and means that nearly every race comes down to the wire.