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by Mike Schiller

29 Apr 2008

One of the most misleading aspects of game journalism as a whole is the relentless air of positivity that goes into game and gear previews.  On one hand, it’s true that you don’t necessarily want to dismiss the potential of a game based on an early build or a demo; on the other, if something looks like it’s going to be lousy, even if it’s a hotly anticipated piece of software from a major publishing company, shouldn’t we go ahead and feel free to say so?

It is in this spirit that I ranted for a paragraph or so about just how awful an idea the Wii Wheel was, how its presence sullied the good name of Mario Kart and put it in the company of such peripheral bad ideas as the Wii Baseball Bat and the Wii Tennis Racket (I mean, really, just the Wiimote, all by itself, had been proven dangerous—did we have to find ways to make it bigger?).  I know that the Wii Wheel isn’t exactly an uncommon target for criticism, but between the Wii Zapper fiasco (so when’s the next “Wii Zapper Compatible” game coming out, anyway?) and this, Nintendo’s propensity to hop on the plastic-shell bandwagon seemed too troubling not to call out.

Given the quickness with which I jumped on the bandwagon of Wii Wheel rippers, then, it seems only fair that I should now admit that I was wrong.

There is no game out there right now, not a single one, that has brought my family together for game time more reliably and consistently than Mario Kart Wii.  Let me be clear: we are not a house of Mario Kart enthusiasts; I’ve had only a passing interest in the franchise for most of its life, apart from a brief time with the original when I was utterly obsessed.  The DS version is fun enough, but it didn’t exactly steal my life away, and I’m a little bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never even played Double Dash.  The kids have played a couple of previous iterations of the franchise as well, finding the most interest in the DS version, but even that struck them as not exactly worth giving up things like Dogz and Spider Man: Friend or Foe.

Mario Kart Wii, on the other hand, has a Wheel.

As suggested by my wife, a teacher, it seems to be a matter of context; in education, the use of appropriate contextual cues can not only make learning easier, but can also make the students want to learn.  It seems like such a simple concept, but I had never considered that a simple wheel, attached to nothing at all, could make playing a game so much more fun than holding the Wiimote and pretending that I was gripping the three-o’-clock and nine-o’-clock positions on a wheel.  In doing so, I obviously made a huge error in judgement, because not only does the wheel seem to drum up interest in the game, it gives the kids confidence.  The game then transcends the label of “daddy’s video games” and becomes, simply, a toy.  Turn the wheel left, car goes left.  Turn the wheel right, car goes right.  Hold down the ‘2’ button the whole time, and you’re driving.  Easy as pie.

My six-year-old has won a few 50cc races, which was a surprise to me given that she has never shown a propensity for games that require quick thinking and fast action.  These wins have been utter events in our household, things that can be attributed not only to her increasing-all-too-fast age, but also to the fact that turning a steering wheel probably seems like a pretty basic mechanic, even for her; combining the function of an analog stick and various buttons is still a bit abstract for her mind, while turning a wheel is entirely logical and mechanical, and the confidence of knowing exactly what that wheel is supposed to do was enough to convince her that she could win.  And so she did.

This all may seem like fairly minor stuff in the grand scheme, and it’s true that the Wheel is not going to win you any tournaments the way the more traditional Nunchuck/Wiimote combo will.  Still, for casual players, children, and anyone else that Nintendo is trying to “bridge” to more serious gaming via Mario Kart Wii, the wheel is absolutely useful, and borders on essential.

And no, I can’t believe I just said that.

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