‘Mario Kart’ Stuck In Reverse

“Mario Kart Wii” goes in one direction: backward. It was a tall order to beat the innovative “Double Dash” and the milestone “Mario Kart DS.” Nintendo certainly didn’t do it. “Mario Kart Wii” spins out from the moment you start turning the useless Wii wheel.
The problems of the game hit you in the face like a blue shell as you fire up the game. The characters and vehicles are well-rendered, but levels lack detail and Nintendo seems to have skimped on polygons by the thousands. The backgrounds are blocky and the textures are blurry. Even the stages returning from the GameCube game are slightly muddier than they were five years ago.
Nintendo’s “innovation” is the Wii wheel, which fails miserably. The wheel feels cheap because it’s really just a shell for the Wii remote. Go ahead and plug it in and turn it from side to side. It doesn’t add any features and the lack of weight and resistance makes the wheel feel gimmicky.
If you’ve played “Excite Truck,” you know what to expect from the controls. The accelerometer in the Wii remote works fairly consistently on slight curves, but when you start making sharp turns at high speeds, it gets confused quickly, and you wind up facing oncoming karts or just skidding to your doom. You have to jerk the wheel in mid-air to do tricks and get boosts, which can throw off your turning when you land.
The motion controls hold up well in the slow 50cc mode, but you will have to get attuned to the remote’s fickle turn-axis in order to make use of it in the harder difficulties. All is well, though, if you just plug in the nunchuk. The controls fit like a glove when you have a joystick at your thumb. Flicking the Wii remote for tricks is much simpler and doesn’t throw off your game. You can also switch to two old reliable controllers: the GameCube controller, or even the Classic Controller. Both are slightly hampered because you have to reach to the d-pad for tricks, but neither is as clumsy as the wheel.
Nintendo scaled back the speed and skill of the game, probably aiming to make it more family-friendly. Even at 150cc, the game feels slow. Advanced techniques such as “snaking” have been removed. Instead of performing a button combination for mini-turbos on drifts, they are now automatic. The two-passenger karts from “Double Dash” aren’t even an option. As a replacement, Nintendo added motorcycles, which feel more or less like karts with slightly better handling. Half-pipes are a new addition and they are placed strategically throughout different levels for quick trick-boosts.
The items are shiny and detailed. There are some new weapons, but most are just updated versions of the same item.
The attacks do more damage than ever. Your lead is in danger at all times, which can get a bit frustrating if you’re racing really well. Sometimes it feels like a game of “Mario Party,” where you’ve been winning the entire time only to get hit by a string of items at the last minute as last place takes the win. That might be good for a casual-gaming grandma, but not in a tournament.
Most of the new tracks are high-flying and complex. Some, like Coconut Mall, make ample use of Miis, throwing in your own custom-built characters into the background. The same level has several routes and hazards making each lap dynamic. DK’s Snowboard Cross feels a bit like DK Mountain from “Double Dash,” but has a lengthy section of half pipes to change things up. There could have been a lot more new levels; too many stages are returning from previous “Mario Karts.”
The soundtrack is a bore. The new songs are straightforward, digitized tunes of the Disneyland variety. Usually Nintendo is good about coming up with memorable, appropriate tunes, but the music is as mediocre as the graphics.
Where “Mario Kart Wii” really shines is the multiplayer mode. A big step up from “Brawl’s” spotty, limited online capabilities, “Mario Kart’s” Wi-Fi mode offers you clean, lag-free gameplay with up to 12 players. There isn’t a hitch in the gameplay, no matter how much is going on.
Unfortunately, Nintendo is still forcing players to use “friend codes” for all of its games, making it impossible to replay opponents you meet online in the future. Still, Nintendo included a two-player co-op, a battle mode, team racing and a grand prix, which make the off and online modes more robust than “Mario Kart DS.”
The online isn’t enough to stop this game from driving off the cliff. The graphics and diluted gameplay are inexcusable, especially after the extreme detail in “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” and the sprawling, shimmering masterpiece that was “Super Mario Galaxy.” This was a lost opportunity for Nintendo. “Mario Kart Wii” is totally off- course.