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When I got my first job, I started buying consoles and games left and right and one of the first consoles I bought as a working man was the Wii. And the first three games I got for it were Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii. The only Mario Kart game I owned as a kid was Super Circuit but I had friends who owned the others so I would play them occasionally. I loved playing them and my newfound employment finally allowed me to catch up on the series and check out the latest game which happened to be released for the Wii at the time. Developed and published by Nintendo, Mario Kart Wii was released for Wii in April, 2008 and it came bundled with the wheel accessory. Mario Kart is one of the most popular racing video game franchises in history and if we exclude the arcade games, Mario Kart Wii is the successor to two of the best games in the series up to this point; Mario Kart: Double Dash and Mario Kart DS. Both introduced some new features and tried some new things and one thing they have in common is extremely fun gameplay. They aren’t perfect games, they have their issues, but they easily blow away the games that came before them.
Mario Kart Wii gives you several options when it comes to how you want to play. You can play with the Wii Remote and wheel accessory, Wii Remote and Nunchuck, and it also supports the Classic Controller and GameCube controller. Mario Kart Wii introduces several new elements like bikes, performing tricks and increased the number of racers from eight to twelve. The online services were officially terminated some time ago but it did support online multiplayer and comes with the Mario Kart Channel which allowed players to register friends, race ghosts and other players and receive updates from other players and Nintendo.
Despite the fact the online services were shut down, Mario Kart Wii does offer a healthy does of single player content. Grand Prix, Time Trials, VS and Battle are all here. Winning cups in the Grand Prix mode is the fastest way to unlock content including additional characters and vehicles. Characters and vehicles can also be unlocked by meeting certain requirements like by participating in a certain number of races or unlocking all expert staff ghosts in the Time Trials mode. If you actually look up how how many races you would need to participate in to unlock some of this shit, you’ll find the numbers are in the thousands so playing through the Grand Prix is the fastest way to unlock most things. The Grand Prix will force you to race in karts in 50cc and bikes in 100cc but you can unlock the option to allow both karts and bikes in both classes and you’re free to use any vehicle in the higher engine classes.
The configurable VS mode returns and just like in Mario Kart DS, you can enable team racing and you still can’t select AI opponents manually which I still think is odd. The Battle mode can also be played in single player and features eleven stages. Six are new including one that is exclusive to online and the remaining five are from the previous games. Battle includes two game types; Balloon Battle and Coin Runners and both do force team play which I also think is odd. Balloon Battle has teams attacking each other for points and the objective of Coin Runners is to collect more coins than the opposing team. Ultimately, the Battle mode is just okay. I think they could have done more with it.
Mario Kart Wii features the largest roster of characters in the series up to this point and you can even race as your Mii character. The characters are split up into different weight classes and each weight class has access to a certain set of karts and bikes. Most of the mechanics from the previous games return. You can accelerate, brake, hop, drift, and perform drift boosts or mini-turbos. Mario Kart Wii introduces tricks. When driving off ramps, you can perform a trick and doing so grants you a small boost upon landing. Nintendo did make efforts to remove snaking. From what the internet tells me, this was their answer to the large skill gap in the previous games or at least Mario Kart DS. Apparently, players that could snake successfully did significantly better than those that couldn’t in multiplayer races.
All vehicles have different stats in speed, weight, acceleration, handling, drift, off-road and mini-turbo. The game lets you choose between Automatic and Manual drifting and Manual is the way to go because it allows you to perform mini-turbos. Performing them works a little differently than it did in most of the previous games. The strength of the turbo will depend on how long you drift and your vehicle’s angle during a drift. This change essentially means the mini-turbos are triggered automatically instead of manually. As a result, you can’t quickly snake around the courses. You can kind of pull it off if you practice but it’s not like it was in Mario Kart DS.
The biggest addition to Mario Kart Wii is the bikes and they do perform a little differently than the karts. When driving karts, you can trigger a stronger mini-turbo and when on a bike, you can perform a wheelie and you move faster when doing so but any collision will slow you down significantly. I’ve always been under the impression bikes were better. The wheelie mechanic gives them an advantage on straightaways, and as a result, a bigger advantage in general. All vehicles can drift around turns and trigger the weaker mini-turbo and while the karts can trigger a more powerful turbo, it’s not enough to counter balance the wheelies. There’s more opportunities to perform wheelies than there are powerful mini-turbos, partly due to the automated mini-turbo mechanic, and a wheelie is simply performed by pressing a single button. You don’t have to meet certain requirements or wait for anything and you can pull it off at any time. You can even keep tapping the button to keep the wheelie going for as long as necessary. A mini-turbo only gives you a short burst of speed so the only way karts could have an advantage is by frequently drifting for mini-turbos. But because you can’t chain the turbos together very quickly like you could in DS, bikes clearly have an advantage.
In Mario Kart DS, snaking required practice but once mastered, it allowed you to overcome any bullshit the game threw at you. As you may or may not know, Mario Kart games are often cheap thanks to ridiculous rubber banding and unbalanced items. For example, if you’re in first and driving well, you’ll often become the victim of an insane chain of attacks. Double Dash and DS were not subtle in their attempts to stop you or slow you down. It was always obvious when the games were targeting you. Snaking was easier to pull off in DS and if you mastered it, you could blaze around the courses and gain such a big lead that it didn’t matter how big of a target you became, especially in single player. Actual skill let you overcome the bullshit. By making efforts to remove snaking in Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo essentially made winning races rely more on luck than skill. And that’s because the item balancing is still fucked up, rubber banding is still present, the AI are still aggressive in the higher engine classes and with the increase to twelve racers, now you have to deal with more bullshit.
Mario Kart Wii is a fun game if you don’t care about winning. If you do care about winning, even if it’s just to unlock things, it can be a very frustrating game. The lower engine classes are easy. You should be able to win each cup without too much resistance from the AI. But in the higher engine classes like 150cc and Mirror, things are much more challenging and problematic. You are ranked at the end of each Grand Prix cup and your rank depends on many factors. A three-star rank is the best and earning a three-star rank for each cup in each engine class is quite the challenge. I did it once years ago and vowed to never do it again. And that’s because Mario Kart Wii is a bunch of bullshit. In fact, I feel it’s the most unbalanced game in the entire series. It’s completely fucked.
You can hold certain items behind your vehicle to block incoming attacks like shells but I was never able hold them for long. Many attacks or items cause you to drop or lose whatever you items you have and if you’re not hit by a Spiny Shell, you’ll be shrunken by Lightning, or spin out because of a POW Block. The POW Block is one of the new items introduced in Mario Kart Wii and is by far the most annoying, especially in single player because, like every other item, the AI will use it frequently. With a properly timed trick, you can maintain some speed after spinning out but you’ll always lose your items. Another new item is the Mega Mushroom which temporarily increases your size and lets you squash opponents. Then there’s the Thunder Cloud. It grants you more speed for a limited time but if you don’t pass it to another opponent before time runs out, you’ll be struck by lightning which will shrink you for little while.
Rubber banding returns and in the higher engine classes, the AI is aggressive and they will fuck you over six ways from Sunday. It’s ridiculous. If you’re in first for too long, more often than not, you’ll be the victim of a Spiny Shell among other things. And funnily enough, the Spiny Shell is basically a useless item for any racers in last or close to it because it only targets the racer in first. It doesn’t really help them get ahead. Getting struck by lightning is also common as is being the victim of a crazy chain of attacks which is the game’s obvious effort to stop you from getting too far ahead. Rubber banding and unbalanced items are only part of the problem. These issues have been present for a while now but they seem amplified in Mario Kart Wii. My guess is the increased amount of racers means more racers getting items which means you’re more likely to get attacked. Since many attacks cause you lose any items your holding, trying to defend yourself can sometimes feel impossible during the more chaotic races. Items like Lightning, Blooper and POW Block affect multiple racers and are used so frequently that they become very annoying very quickly. And the rubber banding means AI opponents are never too far behind you and with all of the racers using items and driving into each other, races can simply get out of control with chaos. As I implied earlier, Mario Kart Wii can be a lot of fun if you’re playing casually but if you want to win anything, it can be a very frustrating endeavor.
Mario Kart Wii features two Grand Prix’s; the Wii Grand Prix featuring cups consisting of all new courses and the Retro Grand Prix featuring cups consisting of courses from previous games. Many of the new courses include ramps, jumps, humps and bumps to compliment the new trick mechanic so there’s plenty of opportunities to perform tricks. Mario Kart Wii includes one of my favorite iterations of Bowser’s Castle in the series. Besides just looking cool, you’ll speed around lava pillars and have to avoid fireballs from Mecha Bowser and the end of the course is populated with lava geysers that can be utilized to perform tricks. All of the new courses vary in style and most of them are well designed and include shortcuts and alternate routes. You’ll have to avoid cars on Moonview Highway, snowboarding Shy Guys in DK Summit and you’ll drive through a cool glass tunnel in the Koopa Cape course.
There are some courses I don’t care for and it’s not because of their layout or hazards but because of the unbalanced gameplay. For example, Mushroom Gorge is a pretty cool course but I dread it because there’s a segment where you have to jump or hop across multiple mushrooms and there’s a very good chance you’ll be attacked which can mean you’ll get knocked off the mushrooms, setting you back several positions. The selection of retro courses is pretty great. In fact, some of the courses I didn’t care for in Mario Kart 64 make an appearance in Wii but I like them here because unlike 64, the vehicles in Wii don’t handle like shit so it’s easier and more fun to drive around these courses. The retro Bowser’s Castle is a good example. In 64, I think I bumped into everything and would frequently slide into walls when making turns. In Wii, I was able to easily drift around, make clean turns and avoid the Thwomps. The only two retro courses I could do without are Waluigi Stadium and Ghost Valley 2. There’s nothing really wrong with them. I just rarely do well on Waluigi Stadium in the higher engine classes for some reason and I don’t care for ghost courses in general. Objectively speaking, overall, I think Mario Kart Wii features an excellent selection of courses, both new and retro.
Mario Kart Wii is a colorful game and does run in widescreen. It does feature what appears to be bloom lighting and like many games with bloom lighting from the era, its gotten worse with age. Not only does the presentation often look overbright but it appears washed out. The website Supper Mario Broth features a post that compares what the game looks like normally and what it looks like with bloom removed. Personally, I think it looks much better without bloom. Other than that, the presentation is fine. The animations are solid, the courses and backgrounds are detailed and the visual effects look cool. The sound effects are on par with the previous games and I do think Mario Kart Wii is yet another game in the series with a disappointing soundtrack. I found most of the new tunes to be unremarkable. Luckily, many classic tunes are still jamming. On the technical side, I encountered no major issues and the game ran smooth.
I’ll be honest, Mario Kart Wii is not one of my favorite games in the series. I still say Mario Kart 64 is the worst because the kart handling in that game is terrible, resulting in driving being simply not enjoyable. That’s not a problem in Mario Kart Wii. The vehicle handing is great and it’s fun to actually drive around the courses. However, the gameplay is extremely unbalanced and because Nintendo decided to close the skill gap by eliminating snaking, in effect they made winning more reliant on luck than skill. I’m all for making games accessible so everyone can enjoy them but I also appreciate when practice and skill lead you to victory, especially in a racing game. What I’m saying is I think removing snaking was a terrible decision. Snaking did not break the gameplay in DS. If you mastered it, you could be just as good as anybody else who did as well so I think they should have kept the snaking and could have balanced things in other ways. Snaking might have broke the single player but depending on how you look at it, the single player in these games have always been broken anyway. Snaking just gave you a way to overcome the bullshit. Let’s not pretend the unbalanced items and insane rubber banding make for a fair racing experience. I admit these things are probably necessary to make the single player challenging to some extent but Mario Kart Wii is a good example of what happens when you don’t tweak things enough, resulting in gameplay so broken that it feels cheap and unfair more often than not. The snaking in DS let you overcome these obstacles and it was an actual skill that was beneficial in multiplayer races as well. Regardless, while the previous games, including DS, did often exhibit cheap AI behavior and unbalanced gameplay, they were never as bad as what’s on display in Mario Kart Wii. And now with snaking removed, you’ll quickly learn that basic Mario Kart driving skills mean jack shit amid unbalanced chaos.
I’m not going to say I don’t enjoy Mario Kart Wii because that’s not true. The vehicles control well, the course selection is excellent and there’s a lot to do and unlock. It’s a fun game if you’re playing casually. When I first bought my Wii, this was one of the first games I got for it so I played it a lot. And most of my memories are of my experiences towards the end of my time with it. After I won all the cups in each engine class, I decided to go for the three-star rankings and that took me a long time and led to a lot of aggravation. I would occasionally jump into online races and then get frustrated because I remember the gameplay being unbalanced there, too. So I left the game very frustrated and haven’t returned to it until I played it for this review. It’s been over a decade and now that I’ve played it again, I think my aggravation back then was definitely justified. The balancing issues aren’t just related to items and AI. I still say the vehicles are unbalanced. The bikes have a big advantage and once I won all the cups in 50cc and moved onto using bikes, I found no reason to ever go back to using karts.
I would recommend Mario Kart Wii because despite its problems, it can still be a very fun game. It’s typical Mario Kart with some new and fun mechanics. It’s a shame the game isn’t properly balanced but if you’re just looking to play with some friends and/or simply enjoy the Mario Kart gameplay in general, then you’re in for a good time so definitely check it out. There’s a lot to love about Mario Kart Wii and I tip my hat to anyone that also achieved three-star rankings across the board. I respect your patience and tolerance.