Mii’s a demon on wheels.
First and foremost, almost everybody can relax. Mario Kart Wii is more or less the game you’ve come to know and love for... what is it, six platforms now, including the handhelds?... well, for a long time, for damn sure. They’ve changed some aspects all right, but almost all of it works well. They’ve opened the experience to a broader skill-range of gamers (without screwing anything up too badly), and the online play is so good that the game could probably stand on its own on that alone, even if it didn’t offer a decent single-player game—which it has. And you don’t have to use the Wii-mote or Wii-wheel shell control scheme if you don’t really want to. So breathe.
Mario Kart Wii initially offers three Grand Prix speed-classes - 50cc, 100cc and 150cc - with each of the 24 unique characters having his/her/its(?) own racing class, as well as designated light, medium, and heavy vehicles in each class for particular play styles. This time around there are bikes as well as kart racers, new Track Items, 32 stages (16 of them "Wii-cycled" ‘Classics’, and the other 16 actually new), and four general modes of play - Grand Prix, Time Trial, Versus, and Battle. For those of you who care, there’s even Mii support for a somewhat more personalized racing experience.
And of course, that Wii-mote racing-wheel shell which looks like a small, simple, cheap, arguably needless bonus feels right if you’re taking the motion-sensitive control route. If you’re just not feeling the hands-in-the-air Wii-mote thing (with or without the wheel casing), you can always use the Wiimote-and-Nunchuck, the Gamecube controller, or the ‘Classic’ Wii controller - it is, literally, all good.
If you’ve played any kart racer before—especially any previous Mario Kart iteration—you already know the drill. You zip around the various dreamy tracks (many of which are studded with half-pipes, jump-ramps, or other features meant to make you use of the trick system, which we’ll get to in a minute) as your favorite Nintendo characters, scoop up weapons and items, and try to finish first by any means necessary. From the outset, 12 characters are available, with the remaining characters being unlockable through satisfactory performance in the Grand Prix, multiplayer, and Time Trial modes.
In addition to returning regulars (Mario, Peach, Bowser, and the usual suspects), Mario Kart Wii showcases some fresh mugs, such as Funky Kong, Baby Peach, the completely-new-to-the-series Baby Daisy, Rosalina… and eventually your own ugly-ass Miis (though in a nice touch, these latter can also turn up as racetrack crowd members and other ambient, environmental eye-catchers).
Up to 12 characters can take part in a race, which can lead to a new level of brutality, especially when you’re way out in first place, so close to the finish line you can taste it, and every loser behind you is cranking off desperate last-ditch weapons/items to take you down. If you thought you were getting your candy-colored, pole-position posterior kicked in previous MK games, just wait until you get a sudden final-lap assload of Payback in this one. It’s almost ridiculous and a little infuriating sometimes, considering the proposterous frequency with which the really nasty, high-yield weapons-of-mass-destruction track items can pop up into the mix for use against you.
You’ve seen many of these track items and weapons before, but there are some that are new: the Thunder Cloud, which shrinks you in a strike of lighting, unless you quickly pass it along to a nearby racer; and the Mega Mushroom, which grows users to a ridiculous size, allowing them to mercilessly steamroll any competitors they can overtake. Don’t even get me started on the blocks that spin everybody out and make you lose your items.
My favorite is still the Bullet Bill, which turns you into the Mushroom Kingdom’s favorite sentient cruise-missile for a handful of precious seconds. It lasts just long enough to streak ahead down the track and screw some race leaders while your own character’s vehicle auto-pilots along for the ride.
Mechanically, the Mario Kart formula is still great. Even with the Wii-wheel control, the vehicles handle well, while keeping with their respective weight classes. The new bikes are obviously quicker and less useful in a shoving match, but they have their own unique ‘wheelie’ function: A flip of the controller sends the bike into a wheelie and grants a speed-boost, at the temporary cost of control and resistance to getting jammed by other vehicles on the track. All vehicles can slip-stream, a feature that’s been around since Mario Kart 64. Regular karts can’t do wheelies, of course, but they can milk a drifting skid for a power-boost as well.
And speaking of power-boosts, you can basically forget about the arguably-skillful but oft-maligned practice of ‘snaking’. The new speed-boost scheme is essentially based on how long and to what degree players can hold a drift, so the practice of wringing a whole string of cumulative (some would say cheap) ‘mini-boosts’ through turns or down straightaways has been severely hamstrung—and good riddance. A determined player could probably still pull it off, technically—but it would yield nowhere near the payoff it used to.
In addition to the obvious Time Trial and local-player Versus mode (2 to 4 players in single races, with or without AI opponents), Mario Kart Wii offers two team battle modes - Coin Runner and Balloon Battle. Coin Runner players race about ten battle courses, snagging coins (and losing them when they’re hit), and the team with the most coins at the end of the round wins. Balloon Battle is also pretty straightforward; each team’s vehicle has three balloons, and a hit by another vehicle pops one. This is just two sides of the same, urhm, coin, really - one mode more geared toward aggression, the other toward collection and evasion. So it's still, a little on the skimpy side, mode-wise.
Also, you may notice I keep saying the word ‘team’. Alas, those four-player, every-character-for-himself free-for-all battles are AWOL here, and I can’t think of a single good reason why.
One positive new development, on the other hand, is the mid-air stunt scheme, accomplished by a flip of the Wii-mote or Wii-wheel just as you’re ramping from the ground. Your driver does a showy X-Games-style trick in the air, and gets a decent speed-boost by way of reward after hitting the ground again (hopefully, you’ve managed to stay pointing in the right direction) - hence, all the new half-pipes, ramps, slopes, and moguls.
Showing off too much can backfire on you, naturally, on a racecourse with weapons going off every eight seconds or so, and seething with trackside lava or howling with hideous drop-offs on either side. It doesn’t fundamentally change - or at least, fundamentally ruin - the core gameplay, but it’s nifty to pull off when you can.
The online, at least, is impeccably solid: race and battle modes for up to 12 competitors (friends, regional, and world-wide, including a map showing you the global region of your opponents). In particular, there is a voting scheme where the majority vote yields the best chance of a particular course-map being used. Add to that local and international rankings, sending and receiving ‘ghost’ time trials (against high-profile Nintendo-staff ‘names’, a very nice touch), Mii support, and a stand-by spectator mode for those who enter a game-in-progress. Best of all, it's all smooth and reliable across the board.
The weapons can get a little overwhelming and frustrating at times, especially when you’re in the lead (and the frankly unfair brutality of the 150cc-class rubber-banding, curse-evoking A.I.), but most of what’s in place, both old and new, still makes for a romping good time, locally or globally. This new Mario Kart iteration is the "Wiil" deal, for both veteran Cup-holders and up-and-coming racers of all skill levels. Gentlemen, Princesses, Self-Styled Miis, and Other Assorted Anthropomorphized Whoozits - start your engines.