May 15, 2008

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Mario Kart Wii, (Wii)
Nintendo, April 27
By Glenn "King Boo" Given production@hippopress.com

Mario drifts around mushroom kingdom streets like a toonified Vin Diesel.

Since the SNES launch of Nintendo’s kart racer series, Mario Kart has been a reliably good time: tight controls, clever tracks and balanced-to-the-point-of-socialist gameplay have been the order of the day. Perhaps this sixth installment has taken that credo a bit too far. Mario Kart Wii dials back the skill level of predecessor Double Dash considerably. Karters choose from two dozen Mario cast members across three weight classes (although there are a number of copout inclusions like Baby Mario) and from six possible vehicles (three karts and three bikes). Each combination subtly changes the racing style with heavier drivers and cars emphasizing top speed over acceleration and handling. You hurtle down ski slopes or through castles avoiding environmental hazards and scooping up ordinance like heat-seeking turtle shells, speed boosts or the abiity to transform into a giant freaking bullet and mow down the next half dozen racers in front of you. Power-up distribution is again determined by race position, with lagging drivers receiving the most devastating arsenal. This attempt at equaliztion has been par for the course for a number of installments now, but in Mario Kart Wii it seems particularly disruptive.

After being smacked out of pole position by enough unstoppable weapons one begins to wonder why we should even bother trying to get first place if you’re just going to spend half the race spun out and kicked around. Kart Wii has done so much to remove the advantage of truly skilled drivers that I suspect its design philosophy can be boiled down to “I totally freaking hate Ayn Rand.”

Mario Kart Wii recycles 16 courses from prior games to fill out half its tracks and that is a damn shame since most of the older speedways don’t compare favorably to newer inclusions. There is a general underwhelmment to the whole affair, especially if you’ve been suckered into purchasing and utilizing the Wii Wheel, which allows you to perfectly simulate driving like an 85- year-old drunkard. The screamingly bright spot, suprisingly, is online. Wii racers can compete with friends or random strangers in grand prix races, kart battles and time trials; you can even download ghost examples of record-breaking runs and race against them. Unlike Nintendo’s last major online multiplayer attempt (Super Smash Brothers Brawl), Mario Kart is virtually lag free and waiting times are brisk. Global and regional rankings, skill matching and the ability to install a Mario Kart Channel for on-the-fly rank updates and competitions round out this A-Glenn Given