Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Everyone needs an excuse to use the phrase "Wii Wheel" in conversation

And now we all get one!

Review: Mario Kart Wii

A motif that's developing in Nintendo's big flagship first-party games is a near-reverence for its old big flagship first-party games. It makes a deal of sense, really. If it got them this far, why not milk every drop out of each and every series? They've turned out brilliant games a decade ago (Ocarina of Time, Mario 64) and brilliant games within the past year or two (Twilight Princess, Mario Galaxy).

And it's the duty of Nintendo's multiplayer party game trinity--Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Smash Brothers--to tie all these games together. In past generations, they've been content to incorporate Nintendo characters and settings and thematic elements in general. But in the Wii incarnations of these games, we get not only the Wii interpretation of the Nintendo stock history, but the Wii renditions of previous interpretations of Nintendo's annals.

That's usually a good thing. Previous games has shown what's worked and what hasn't. That makes the later version doubly good, as it can use the elements that do work for its original content, and it can appropriate the best of the old content. And that's exactly what Mario Kart Wii has done. To date, every Mario Kart game has invented sixteen new levels. Most of these levels were entirely new content, and each game featured a remake of two iconic Mario Kart levels: Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road.

The Wii version does the same thing: fourteen completely original levels, some of them rooted in the larger Nintendo culture and some of them made up for the game, plus the obligatory Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road. But Wii doesn't stop there. We get sixteen of the best levels from Mario Karts past--including, yes, two Bowser's Castle incarnations. So from the start, Mario Kart Wii succeeds in exactly the same place that Smash Brothers Brawl did: in evoking a nostalgia and appreciation for the old days of Nintendo gaming. I played Mario Kart on the SNES when I was 8 yeard old and first got a game console, so I'm on the tail end of the gamers that would actually appreciate each and every one of the references in the game, from the lowly SNES Ghost Valley 2 to the grand and storied DK Mountain from the Gamecube version.

The biggest, most apparent addition to this game is the inclusion of bikes--and tricks. I was skeptical of the bikes at first--after all, this is Mario Kart, not Mario BMX or something like that. They grew on me, and fast. It adds a sliver of complexity to the game that it didn't per se need, but turns out to enhance it a lot. New characters, excellent as always: I'm a Dry Bones fanboy myself, and Funky Kong is another nice throwback to the SNES glory days. And the aforementioned Wii Wheel may never be used in another Wii game again, but it's what the Wii is supposed to be: clever and intuitive.

Pursuant to the Nintendo tradition, of course, were a few missteps. I'll never understand why a sequel to a game should ever be worse than the original, or fail to include elements from the original that made the original so good in the first place (eg, Oblivion). Here, there's a bizarre turn on the battle system, where it's not the last-man-standing that we've become accustomed to from the previous games. But that's not even the problem. The real issue here is that there were incredibly fun modes of battle from the Gamecube version (I was a huge fan of the "bomb the crap out of everyone" mode) that were merely left out of the Wii version.

Finally, it's good marketing to allow the use of the Gamecube controller in these multiplayer games. After all, if someone has, say, two Wiimotes but a lot of friends who may want to play, this person may get discouraged from buying a game that mandates the use of the Wiimote. But a considerable fraction of the people who own a Wii are also going to own a couple Gamecube controllers... problem solved! The place where this becomes a problem is in the ultra-hardcore gamers, the ones who care enough to test every controller configuration and are willing to sacrifice the spirit of the game (and the console for that matter) for a few extra seconds' speed. These people have way too much time on their hands anyway; the least Nintendo could do is level the online playing field by standardizing a controller configuration.

All in all, Mario Kart Wii is an excellent game, absolutely recommended for a fun multiplayer game. If you're a casual gamer, don't expect too much out of the online mode except for last place, but that's the beauty of the Wii: the ability to simultaneously appeal to anyone from the most apathetically casual to the most obsessive hardcore gamer.

Currently listening: "Joggin Gorgeous Summer", Islands

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