Monday, May 12, 2008

Mario Kart Wii

Played one, you've played 'em all

If you count both the handheld versions, then Mario Kart Wii is the sixth entry in the Mario Kart series, and I've played and enjoyed every one of them. This latest entry is no exception, but I must stress the fact that, just like Super Smash Bros Brawl, this game was meant to be played with a group of friends.

Not a lot has "evolved" this time around. All of the classic weapons are still there (annoying blue shell included). The rubber band AI is back in full swing and seems to have reached new levels of elasticity, with first-to-last and last-to-first shenanigans being the rule, not the exception. This time, the newest gameplay additions are the inclusion of bikes (that can usually corner better and have the unique ability to pull up a wheelie for slight speed boosts on straightaways) and the tricks system (where a quick flick of the wiimote during a jump adds bit of nitro upon landing).

A few things have been actually removed from the last few iterations. The move from Double Dash to Mario Kart DS took away two-characters per kart, so keeping an extra item to block incoming red shells requires an extra button hold. Also, the special character-specific unique items are gone as well. Drafting, which was introduced in the DS version makes a comeback, but noticeable gone is the traditional powerslide mechanic. You can still drift around corners, but the sparks will form automatically over time, preventing anyone from performing the infamous snaking-technique down straightaways.

The Control Schemes

Just like Super Smash Bros Brawl, this game comes with 4 different controller options, and here they are in order from best to worst:

#1 - Wiimote + Nunchuk. You press A to step on the gas, B to initiate a powerslide, Z (nunchick) to use items, the analog stick (nunchuk) to steer, and shake the wiimote to pull off tricks in the air. This control scheme gives you the ability to do everything along with the tactile feedback of traditional analog stick control. Hands down, the only way to play.

#2 /#3 - Gamecube controller/Wii Classic Controller. Both these are more or less the same as the wiimote + nunchuk combo mentioned above. The only difference is that performing tricks are activated by pressing any direction on the d-pad. The problem here is that on both these controllers, the d-pad and analog stick are used by the same finger, your left thumb, making it impossible to steer while pulling off stunts. Major oversight by the design team, in my opinion.

#4 - Wiimote + Wii Wheel (aka the Motion Wheel). Apparently, this is the recommended control method by Nintendo, since all copies of the game include the plastic shell in the box. I for one hate this control method. It makes driving equally bad for everyone, which might have been Nintendo's intention.. To set everyone on the same learning curve, no matter if you've always been a fan of the series or are starting out for the first time. And to anyone who buys additional Wii Wheel plastic shells ($9.99 each), I hope you throw your wheel into your TV screen.

Changes Needed

So it's probably too late for Nintendo to make any changes to Mario Kart Wii, but perhaps the next title can incorporate some of the following concerns I have..

- Make every power-up attack avoidable or addressable in some way. Just like you can hold a turtle shell behind you to block incoming homing red shells, why can't you block every attack somehow, at the cost of maybe an item or speed decrease. The POW Block evasion is a good example of this. When you see the POW block counting down, you can time it just right to minimize your damage by pulling off a stunt at the right moment. What if you had a Smash Bros-like block button, that would allow you to put up your shields in Mario Kart?

- Give a brief few seconds of invulnerability when you are damaged. In some ways I can tolerate the cheap attacks launched upon those at the front of the pack. The thing I can't stand are when you are continuously ass-raped for 10 seconds, by a blue shell, then a lightning bolt, then a couple red shells and then a guy running you over with a star, especially when it happens during the last leg of a race. How about giving the player immunity from damage for a few seconds after an initial attack, at least until you can build up a bit of speed to actually avoid the subsequent attacks. I could see the danger of this being used for shortcut exploits, but I'm only talking about item attacks here. You'd still be slow down when off-road and still be susceptible to falling off ledges into fiery pits.

- Group online matches by skill levels. Great Nintendo.. You actually made an online game that works (sorry, Smash Bros didn't), that has online leader boards, friend list comparison, and a decent party system. How about making it so my skill ranking doesn't fluctuate by hundreds of points each match? I understand that the system takes into account if you win over a player with a higher skill or lose to a person with a lower skill. That makes sense. But since in this game, you can go from first to last in all of five seconds, and vice versa all due to a single, well-executed item, I'd be happy if I could at least be grouped more frequently with players of a similar skill rating. This might actually be irrelevant because this game can, at times, become so random that skill and the item roulette are one and the same.

- More online options. The dev team did a great job in adding several customization options for offline multiplayer (tweaking the available powerups, adding AI opponents, etc), but these features are sorely lacking in online play. A custom-game mode would have been a nice addition to the online component here, so friends from all over could enjoy a varying selection of match-types, maybe turn off some of the more brutal items.

Just like Super Smash Bros Brawl, Wii Sports, and other Nintendo offline-multiplayer games, Mario Kart Wii makes for a great party game when friends come over, but that's probably the only time I'll ever decide to play it.

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