At Nintendo's Spring Media Summit, Mario Kart Wii dominated the available couches, with a half-dozen demo stations, twelve Wii Wheels and an opportunity to go hands-on with the game's online multiplayer modes. It was our first chance to spend time with the Wii entry in the series, now well into its second decade.
The biggest additions to the Mario Kart formula come in the form of a new ride—the motorbike—the ability to pull off tricks mid-jump for an extra boost, and the option to race others via the internet. How do the new features stack up?
Mario Kart Wii does a respectable job of integrating the completely new vehicle, one with different handling properties, courtesy of some well-timed exposure. Bikes are initially only available during the 100cc league races, with 150cc races, the final tier of single player, featuring a mix of karts and bikes. With bikes added, each character will have plenty of racing options to choose from, the most ludicrous of which is the high speed baby stroller, which characters like Toad and Baby Mario can pilot. It's far more emasculating that choosing Princess Peach as your driver.
Mario Kart Wii also adds one new power up, the Mega Mushroom introduced in New Super Mario Bros. It does exactly what you'd expect, increasing the size of your driver and their ride to steamroller-like proportions without slowing him or her down. Sadly, the Blue Shell power up returns—the one that attacks whomever is in first place—bringing all of the frustration and unbalance it's known for with it.
The Wii Wheel, the steering wheel shaped shell for the Wii Remote that is packed in with Mario Kart Wii—the value of which we've regularly questioned/mocked—is actually quite good. Steering your kart with the wheel feels natural, with the ability to execute tricks via Wii-mote flicks totally feasible. Keeping one's thumb depressed on the "2" button while turning the wheel can be a bit of a finger dexterity challenge, but we found that power sliding (and applying the appropriate corrections) with the Wheel worked better than anticipated. It's certainly more comfortable that holding a horizontally orientated Wii Remote. The Wheel attachment also undeniably makes "B" button pressing much more comfortable, but that aside, it's mostly a decent peripheral.
Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity to try out any of the other control methods
Nintendo Treehouse employees were available for online matches, in locations as far off as Germany, Italy and Japan. We played a handful of matches with Asian and European challengers and were pleased with the results. The frame rate takes a noticeable hit, but remains locked in a manageable rate. Our online races were mostly lag free, as were the trio of battles—both Balloon Battle and Coin Runner types—in which we engaged.
The only downside to our online experience was the inability to tailor the multiplayer games to our liking. We couldn't, for example, set up a match that forbade the use of Blue Shells or limit the vehicle choices to karts only.
Mario Kart Wii may be largely familiar, recycling stages from the SNES, Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS entries, but it sticks closely to the tried and true Mario Kart gameplay conventions. Online multi-player is a nice touch, but fans may be more excited about the ability to replay classic stages with new rules (and a host of controller options) than what the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection has to offer.