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Mario Kart Wii review

Remember Excitebike? Chances are you only do if you're a bit older. Excitebike was one of the first mainstream racing games to gain notable popularity. Released in late 1985 for the NES, Excitebike was different from most conceptual racing games: No cars, just bikes. Excitebike went on to be an instant classic and is often considered to be a major part of Nintendo's early history.

Fast forward to 2008. Nintendo's big racing series is Mario Kart. It's spanned numerous games on all their major systems. Mario Kart Wii was unleashed in April of 2008, adding a new chapter in the Mario Kart series. With new courses, characters, and controls, Mario Kart Wii was a perfect follow up to feed off of the success of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

At first glance, Mario Kart Wii looks pretty much similar to its predecessors: Mario characters racing on go-karts, smacking each others with items. But that's where the stereotypical thoughts end, because Mario Kart Wii changes a lot from the previous installments. One might say that it's almost like Nintendo went back and took a page out of Excitebike's book.

And that's because Mario Kart Wii's most significant new feature is the introduction of motor bikes. As if driving karts wasn't enough, Mario and the gang must've been getting bored of them. The addition bikes was the biggest improvement in the series. They add a whole new dimension to racing, offering players more choices that actually affect performance.

Bikes have completely different properties than karts, mainly with speed. Most bikes tend to be faster, though not all of them are. Their boost and drift are also new in Mario Kart, because they can only go blue, not gold for less boost. Some bikes have what many call "inwards" drifting where they take extremely sharp turns. They're hard to use, but highly rewarding. It creates such a drastic difference than using a kart that it's almost like playing a different game.

Of course, bikes aren't the only major change in Mario Kart Wii. The controls have changed as well, some for the better, some for the worse. Mario Kart Wii introduced the now famous Wii Wheel, a steering wheel used to race. In theory, many would think it would work. And it does for most people, but it still can't even come close to the Gamecube controller, which is by far much more responsive. It also makes the most sense out of all the controls. The Wii Remote+Nunchuck is another good combination that's better than the Wii Wheel, but a controller is the way to go.

All of the controls are simple to use making the game really easy to play. The game plays similar to the previous installments, but unlike its predecessors, Mario Kart Wii has significant problems. The actual racing is smooth and good, it's very typical of the Mario Kart series. Like the other games, 3 laps will complete a race. 4 races per Cup. Winning a cup leads to another one and so on. It's all standard Mario Kart play.

Battle, another staple in the Mario Kart series, returns in Mario Kart Wii. However, it is radically changed. For some reason, Nintendo decided that a player being eliminated from a battle is just too extreme for us fans. All matches are timed and a player cannot be eliminated until the match is over. Teams are also required for a match, so there is no more free-for-all. Coin Runners, where teams collect coins, is present, but it's not as good as the classic Balloon Battle. The older battle systems were significantly superior

The new courses found in Mario Kart Wii were highly disappointing. All of them just didn't fit with me. They all had something I could point out and say, "Wow, that's really dumb." I really only found 2-3 out of 16 that I liked, and even those weren't as good as ones from previous games. Even Rainbow Road, the symbol of the Mario Kart courses, was one of the worst in years. Most of them just seemed like Nintendo was trying to hard to do something different that they failed doing so. Maybe they weren't so bad, but everyone seemed to have some sort of gimmick, and it's just not for me at all.

Retro courses, ala Mario Kart DS, make their return in here, and that lineup is actually quite nice. Nintendo 64 courses are over represented a bit, but Nintendo made some good choices there. Unfortunately, there aren't that many Super Nintendo courses to go real old school on. However, all the courses have been modernized, and surprisingly, Nintendo didn't screw that up. All the retro courses have been restored faithfully and were really well done.

The real problem with the courses are those found when battling. The battle courses are horrific, at least the new ones. They are just absolutely terrible, and there's no other way to put that. Nintendo missed one big thing: Battle courses are not supposed to hurt the player with the exception of falling off. They're not suppose to steal balloons from the player, that's the job of the player's opponents. Luckily, there are retro battle courses, and that was a must. The retro course lineup for Mario Kart Wii's battle mode is significantly better than the new ones. So much so that I don't ever pick a new course anymore. There's that much disparity between the two lineups

The characters found in Mario Kart Wii are completely diverse - there's just so many of them. Actually, there's probably a few too many, but I suppose that having them all doesn't hurt. There's a total of 24 characters, most of which are unlockable. Some of the characters are obscure, but most are notable Mario characters. One new addition that was great was that players can use their Mii as a character. That was nice to see and really added something cool to the game.

The online functionality is really where Mario Kart Wii steps up and separates itself from other Mario Kart games. It is superb for a free service, it really is. All characters and courses are selectable, as well as having the choice to race or battle. The friends system is organized well, and up to 12 people can race or battle at a time. But the best part is that there is no lag online. After the disaster that Super Smash Bros. Brawl's online was, Mario Kart Wii's online was such a lovely surprise. The only problem I've encountered is that sometimes the game disconnects players randomly, but it's not frequent.

But Mario Kart Wii had some problems, one significant one in particular: Items. Items are a staple in the Mario Kart series, but Mario Kart Wii takes it over the top to a completely new level, and it's not for the better. For starters, the three new items introduced (Mega Mushroom, Thundercloud, and POW Block) all have significant issues such as appearing to often or appearing in spots that really don't call for them. The new items aren't even really that creative either, they're all some sort of derivative from a previous item.

The major problem with items though can be summed up in one way: They are put in the game so badly that I honestly believe that the game would've been better without them, or with only a few basic ones. At least in Grand Prix, the standard mode. Take for instance Lightning, which is in every game and make all characters small. What used to be a rare item, probably less than once a race in terms of frequency, is now very common, easily occurring more than once a race. Blue/Spiny Shells which knock out the first place racer are so far over-used by computers that many people don't even want them in Mario Kart anymore, including myself. They occur probably 2-4 times a race and are just too hard to recover from.

All this means is that the game puts luck into play, not skill. A player has to get lucky or he or she just cannot win, and that's not how it's supposed to be at all. I was racing in an 150CC Cup and on 1 lap, which is only 1/3 of the race, got hit 11 times. 4 times by Blue Shells, 3 times which knocked me off the stage. I wonder how I am supposed to win at that point, because it's literally impossible. It's just unbelievable how the computers rebound when a player gets a lead - not through racing, but strictly through item usage. It at points makes the game unplayable.

But Items are not the only problem that Mario Kart Wii has. The visuals in Mario Kart Wii are appalling. There's no guarantee that they're even better than those of its Gamecube predecessor: Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. A lot of characters look blocky and just aren't smooth. The courses are about the best things in terms of visuals, but they're nothing special. They are also kind of...not smooth. It looks as though a lot of the graphics were just recycled from Double Dash!!

However, there is one positive from the game's visuals: The menus and non-gameplay elements, such as backgrounds on stand still screens. Granted, they're not a big part of the game itself and don't matter too much, but for some odd reason, I loved the look of the menus and renders so much that I feel like it has to be mentioned. They were a positive thing compared to the rest of the visuals throughout the game.

The music, unfortunately, isn't much better than the graphics Well, it is, but not by a whole lot. I'm a big critic on the music: it sets the tone for the game. A lot of the tracks in Mario Kart Wii just lack flare. There aren't a whole lot that stand out from the others, and there aren't many that have that pizzazz that the music had in others. There were a couple that stood out, but not enough that deserve praise.

The retro music though is another story: It's not altered. It's just that same music a player loves or hates. It's nice that it wasn't changed despite the tracks being updated because it kept a lot of the classic feel in the retro courses. The retro music probably is actually better than the new music in terms of enjoyability, but that may be a little too harsh saying that. It's tolerable, just nothing special.

The bottom line is that Mario Kart Wii is a tale of good and bad. There are parts of it that are just better than previous versions, such as retro courses and the online play. Unfortunately, these factors that deserve praise are overshadowed by its negative side, mainly the times where it is just unplayable with the items. Sometimes it seems like Nintendo should stick a spike through the series and kill it off, other times it seems like if they just could put it all together in 1 game, it would be incredible. While the game will be highly long lasting because of the online play, it just has too many major flaws to be considered an elite Mario Kart.

Overall Score: 8.3/10