Mario Kart Wii

When I was eight, we called stuff like the blue shell “cheap”. Playing as Oddjob, the Konami code, spawn camping — all cheap.

Mario Kart‘s blue shell is not only cheap, it symbolizes everything that’s wrong with Mario Kart Nintendo’s recent approach to game design. Now that we’ve brought lil’ sister and grandpa into the living room, we have to make it fun for everyone. We can’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Problem is, when you are unavoidably punished for success and arbitrarily rewarded regardless of skill, you are no longer playing a game. This is why little girls should be braiding friendship bracelets and old men should be playing bingo at the VFW. These demographics aren’t interested in competition or the payoff that results from dedication to a good game.

Simple solution: Allow players to eliminate cheap items. With all the stupid variations offered (Would you like your kart to be .0001% faster in exchange for .0001% drifting?), you’d think allowing players the chance to choose between “Grandma’s Playing! Quick, Get the Camera Mode” and “Serious Mode” would at least be on the list. And it’s not like you and your Hardcore Gamer Buddies will be able to make a gentlemen’s agreement anyway, because once you get a blue shell, you can’t not use it.

And the other items? The three mushroom power ups, bullet bill, and invincibility star all basically do the same thing, as do the fake item box and the banana peel, the lightening bolt and the POW block. This superfluous game design is not limited to items. Each character is given six (count ’em, six) vehicles from which to choose, each offering slightly different attributes (acceleration, speed, weight…yawn), and a passle of not-fun decisions.

What on the outset looks like fan-service and replay value and endless variety and a high-five from Miyamoto is really just deviously lazy design. The 25 characters already provide slightly different specs, why do we need to add yet another layer of miniscule, meaningless kart karacteristics? What is this, Gran Turismo? The inclusion of bikes is a mild diversion until you realize it’s the essentially the same vehicle with different drifting and turning mechanics.

Forget choosing a character with a high maximum speed, you won’t need it because your character will almost never remain untouched long enough to take advantage of it. There are so many items in play and so many karts on the track that you’re much better off choosing a character with a high acceleration that can more readily recover from the inevitable, frequent crashes.

Mario Kart Wii has reached critical mass levels of madcappery. I almost immediately turned the volume down. If the boppin’ tunes aren’t enough, the incessant yelps, wails, and growls of the characters will make you long for the days before dialogue. There’s just too much happening. Why do we need a constant stream of sound effects emitting from the Wii Remote and the TV?

The inclusion of stunts and halfpipes is welcomed, if unrequested. Stunts, at least, give you something to do while you’re waiting to land, although it would’ve been even better if we could choose from a series of tricks or were punished for bad landings like a traditional skate/snowboard game.

The Wii Wheel is the game’s Big Idea. It takes getting used to, but it’s ultimately a satisfying evolution of the control scheme. I found that I could not complete a single Grand Prix series using the wheel, but was easily able to do so with a Gamecube controller. Thus, I’m torn. I really want to like the Wheel, and I haven’t figured out yet if I could ever become as adept at drifting with the wheel as with the GC controller. I hope so, but as of this writing, the Wheel ain’t bringing those trophies home, and it sure ain’t winning any online races.

Despite what you’ve already heard a million times over about how annoying Friend Codes are, playing online with friends and strangers is a painless experience. I experienced no lag, and was rarely disconnected. It is something special to see Miis from around the globe greet you upon joining. My first game was played with Helski from Finland, Andreas from Brazil, and Keyzer Söze, from the US. Their Miis, standing tall above their respective homelands on the globe, waved cheerfully. The future is now.

Battle modes are OK, perhaps better than the actual races. You can’t play every-man-for-himself, which is disappointing, ostensibly to lubricate the online experience. Again, it would have been nice to have the choice. Battle Mode has also been tarnished with respawning. I guess the logic is that lil’ sis won’t want to play if she gets killed in the first thirty seconds. The game loses a lot of its suspense when only having one balloon left isn’t being on the verge of anything.

This is ultimately where Mario Kart Wii fails. You’re rarely on the verge anymore. If you are in first place, you’re helpless to unavoidable attacks. If you’re in last place, you’ll inevitably cop all the tasty items. Whether you’re winning or losing, it’s no big deal, because your performance had little to do with your standing in the first place, and it could change drastically at any time. Nintendo provides little incentive to do well.

Gripes aside, it’s still the only Wii racing game worth playing these days, and the Mario Kart Koncept is so fun to begin with that the game manages to remain mildly enjoyable for a while.

RATING 6 / 10