Mario Kart Wii — my impressions

Mario Kart WiiWith Mario Kart Wii having arrived today, I’ve spent some time going through the four (of eight) cups available to you at the beginning and have come to some conclusions. To put it simply, I don’t think I’m going to spend much time with it.

While my recent countless hours spent on the PlayStation 3 will be a big influence, one of the predominant factors constantly getting on my nerves is just how dated the game looks. I’m not going to sugarcoat the reality: Mario Kart Wii looks almost technologically identical to Mario Kart: Double Dash, which is quite underwhelming when you recall that Double Dash was released five years ago.

What makes it even more underwhelming is that the vast majority of the play mechanics are also the same. Half of the 32 maps are directly lifted from past Mario Kart games, which I’ve played a billion times before. The remaining half are new, but don’t really innovate much beyond what we’ve seen before. Map elements that were once impressive such as the big barrel that launches you up the mountain return, but are actually executed less impressively and just fall flat. Moments that made me go “Wow!” and smile in Double Dash entirely fail this time around.

Mario Kart WiiThere only seems to be one new item added to the series too, which is the thundercloud (not to be confused with the lightning strike). Otherwise it’s the same items, half the same maps, and the same general racing mechanics. There’s almost nothing that significantly drives the series forward, with the changes that have been made — such as the addition of motorbikes — feeling very insignificant.

I realise this is sounding very critical, so I’ll clarify: Mario Kart Wii is not a bad game. Instead, it’s one that rests far too heavily on its laurels and fails to innovate. While Mario Kart and even Nintendo games in general do often reuse past elements and we’re normally fine with it, in this case it just doesn’t work. I’m not excited by the game at all, with a constant feeling of “I’ve seen this before” creeping around in my head.

The only thing that actually makes the game feel different to Double Dash is the steering wheel, which is admittedly very well done. Everything else is so derivative that I just cannot genuinely enjoy the game, despite me really, really wanting to. I suppose someone who’s never really played Mario Kart before will have a lot of fun with this, but for series veterans it brings little to the table. It almost looks like they directly imported the animations and whatnot from Double Dash when it comes to many of the items (bananas, shells, bombs, etc); they look and behave exactly the same.

Mario Kart WiiI guess a lot of the blame lies on the Wii itself, though. The developers were clearly limited by the technology, which has allowed them to do little in the way of fancy environment physics (a huge part of modern racing games) and core graphical beauty. The only real distinction between the graphics in Mario Kart Wii and Double Dash is the addition of a bloom lighting effect, which does little to help the game escape looking like a last-generation relic on today’s high-definition televisions.

Perhaps those who’re more serious about their Mario Kart will get more mileage out of Mario Kart Wii than me, but I for one am really disappointed. Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash felt like they really pushed the series forward, but Mario Kart Wii simply doesn’t. Even Double Dash didn’t introduce that much new stuff, but due to its graphics and course complexity being far beyond Mario Kart 64’s it still felt very different and new. I have a hard time seeing how anyone could get the same thrill from Mario Kart Wii that they felt when they tried Mario Kart 64 or Double Dash for the first time.

One final thing worth noting is the online play: it’s pretty good. The execution is much better than Mario Kart DS’s online component, although the core online play experience hasn’t changed much. Still, it’s a feature that may enable you to look past all the shortcomings mentioned above if you’ve never really experienced Mario Kart online before.

In short: this is the best Mario Kart game yet, but may not bring enough to the table to impress you as much as its predecessors did. If you’re new to Mario Kart then definitely pick it up, but if not I recommend trying it out before buying.

Update: I’ve bought this month’s copy of Edge and it looks like they share a lot of my discomfort with the game, awarding it 6/10 and clearly picking up on the same “I’ve seen this before” vibe. Their chief complaint seemed to be the tracks themselves, which are much wider than in past Mario Kart games. Nintendo were obviously trying to cater for the new maximum of 12 carts, but in the process removed much of the furious bashing and overtaking that was present in the past. They also disapprove of the removal of normal balloon battle mode, and the way that trying to mix the feel of online/offline play has resulted in both being not as good as they could have been (tracks too big for a few people, AI ruining online games, etc).

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