It's been nearly five years since Nintendo unleashed Mario Kart Double Dash on the GameCube and, if you can believe it, roughly 16 years since the kart racing series first kicked off on the Super Nintendo. The popular series has, like the traditional Mario platformers, become a staple of all Nintendo's platforms. So, in that regard, the announcement of Mario Kart Wii is hardly surprising. However, the big question marks for fans have been what, if anything, is going to be done to advance the gameplay, and how will the game take advantage of the Wii? Nintendo recently had us over to its Bay Area offices to get a look at a work-in-progress version of the game, and it looks like it will remain true to the spirit of the beloved series.
If you haven't been keeping up on Mario Kart Wii, here's where we last left off: The game was announced at last year's E3 during Nintendo's press conference. News of a wheel peripheral and online support hit the right notes for fans, and supplemental information released in the ensuing months revealed the addition of bikes to the mix. Our recent meeting with Nintendo reps gave us a good overview and some hands-on time with the game, and Nintendo promises to introduce some new features without messing with the existing formula too much.
Before we dive into the specifics, we'll call out the game's controls--one of the things we've been most curious about since the game was announced. It appears that Mario Kart Wii is in the same "kitchen sink" category of control schemes that the upcoming Super Smash Bros. Brawl is. You'll be able to choose from a whopping five control schemes, one of which makes use of the included wheel peripheral. You'll be able to use the wheel (which holds the Wii Remote sideways), simply hold the Wii Remote sideways without the wheel, use the remote in conjuction with the Nunchuk, plug in a GameCube controller, or, lastly, use a classic controller.
We tried both the wheel and GC controller during our demo and found the wheel to be fine, with a bit of adjustment, although we're pretty big fans of the GC controller given the hours we spent with Double Dash. For those curious about the wheel, it's really just a piece of white molded plastic that's made to hold the remote. You'll find a clear window on the side of the wheel that goes over where the infrared output on the remote is, so you can use it to point on menus. A button on the back of the wheel on the left side lets you hit the B button on the back of the remote, and an oval hole on the right side across from the button lets you pop out the remote by pushing up through it. While it's not strictly necessary, the wheel does have a nice feel to it, and it's more ergonomically pleasing than the wheel released with Ubisoft's racers in 2006.
As for the actual game, we'll drop some quick stats on you before going over its different modes. Mario Kart Wii features a total of 32 courses to race on, evenly divided between 16 brand-new courses and 16 classic courses taken from previous Mario Kart games. You'll find a total of eight cups in the game, four initially selectable and four to unlock. We got to see four of the eight cups, two classic and two original. The two original cups were the Mushroom and Flower cups. The Mushroom Cup courses were Luigi Circuit, Moo Moo Meadows, Mushroom Gorge, and Toad's Factory. The Flower Cup was made up of Mario Circuit, Coconut Mall, DK Summit, and Wario's Gold Mine. The two classic cup competitions, Banana and Shell, were composed of tracks from previous games. Banana featured Sherbert Land from the Nintendo 64, Shy Guy Beach from the Game Boy Advance, Delfino Square from the DS, and Waluigi Stadium from the GameCube. Shell included Peach Beach from the GameCube, Yoshi Falls from the DS, the dreaded Ghost Valley from the Super Nintendo, and Mario Raceway from the Nintendo 64.
You'll initially have a total of 12 characters to choose from, broken down into three classes. The light class is made up of Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, Baby Peach, and Baby Koopa. The medium class is made up of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi. The heavy class is made up of Wario, Donkey Kong, Waluigi, and Bowser. As you progress, you'll unlock more racers, courses, vehicles, and, most importantly, support to use your Miis. Each racer will have three vehicles to choose from in the kart and bike categories. Each vehicle will have an automatic or manual setting. Before anyone freaks out and thinks the game is going in some new realistic direction, don't. The setting refers to the game's powersliding controls. Automatic lets you automatically powerslide around corners, while manual lets you do it yourself. The downside to automatic is that you won't be able to be daring and gain speed boosts, while manual lets you tempt fate and charge up your boosts by drawing them out.
On Mario Kart Wii's main menu screen you'll find the same assortment of modes from the previous games along with some interesting online additions to the mix. There are four basic game modes with a slew of variations under each. The single-player game has you participating in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc races. The new wrinkle here is that you'll be required to use a kart in 50cc races and a bike in 100cc races, and you can choose your own set of wheels for the 150cc races. You'll find the usual grand prix, time trial, versus, and battle variants for online or offline play. The multiplayer mode lets you play with up to four players in split-screen offline. When you're online in the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection-powered multiplayer mode, you'll be able to race with 11 other players for a total of 12 online. A nice feature of the online mode is the option to have two people play online from the same Wii for some proper team-based action.
The final gameplay-focused mode was the Mario Kart Channel, which is basically a hub for sharing information and testing your skills. You'll find leaderboards that let you check on how you stack up next to your friends, as well as ghost data from other players that you can download and compete against. You'll be able to check out worldwide player rankings for each course, along with those players' Mii designs and controller configuration preferences. Lastly, you'll find a tournament option, which is essentially a challenge mode featuring various missions for you to complete and which will ultimately offer new downloadable challenges courtesy of the WiiConnect24 feature. Outside of the game modes you'll find a license option that lets you check out all manner of tracked stats on your performance. Besides the single-player game, we got a peek at the battle mode options, which included balloon battle and coin runner games.
Based on the time we spent with Mario Kart Wii, the karts' handling feels familiar, while the bikes are quite different and will take some getting used to. One interesting perk when using the Wii controllers is that audio cues can be heard coming out of the Wii Remote speaker, allowing you to dodge incoming shells and the like. In terms of actual gameplay, Mario Kart Wii loses the copilot system seen in Double Dash and adds some excitement. You'll be able to perform wheelies on your motorcycle and pick up a few new power-ups. During our matches we caught a glimpse of some of the new pickups, which included a giant mushroom, a pow block, and a lightning cloud.
We tried Yoshi for some of our races and got a handle on the game's comfortable control scheme. When using the wheel you'll use the 2 button for gas and the 1 button for braking and reversing. Hitting up on the D pad lets you throw an item forward, while pushing down throws it behind you. Hitting left or right will let your character hold on to the item to help you deal with incoming projectiles. We like the game's handling with the wheel, although we found ourselves overcompensating initially. When using a bike, we could perform a wheelie by a quick upward motion on the wheel and get both tires back on the ground by motioning down. As we've mentioned, powersliding is back and works well, as does drafting. New to the series is a trick system that you can check out using any ramp in the game. When you're airborne, if you quickly make an upward motion, your racer will do something acrobatic and yield a speed boost when you land.
The classic courses that we raced on felt right and looked sharp, especially those that were originally designed for handheld systems. The new courses were a bit more adventurous and featured some wicked challenges. For example, the Coconut Mall course is set in a shopping mall and features a down elevator you can get hung up on if you're not careful, which will cost you precious lap time. Wario's Gold Mine features a devilishly fast run down a length of mine cart track that is guaranteed to cause you to fly off the side of it at least once. And DK Summit is a snow-covered run through Donkey Kong's hood with snow traps and halfpipes to negotiate.
Mario Kart Wii's visuals have a typically cartoony look about them with characters and tracks that don't appear to work the Wii hardware too hard. As a result, everything has a very polished and clean look to it with only a few noticeable jaggies here and there. It's nice to see the face-lift given to the classic levels, although the brand-new levels really promise to take the gameplay to new heights.
The audio in Mario kart Wii seems to be taking the same approach as the visuals and offers up the usual array of voice samples, sound effects, and music tracks. We heard the familiar cries from the usual suspects, with some new baby variations for the newcomers. The music tracks balance new content and nostalgia to match the in-game split of classic and original tracks. Our first impression of some of the new tracks is that there isn't anything too catchy in the mix, but we'll withhold judgment until we spend more time with the game.
So far Mario Kart Wii looks like it's got all its bases covered and then some. The overall racing experience has the solid gameplay that has given the series its longevity. The addition of bikes and new racers helps freshen things up some. The online features are welcome additions that should ensure the game remains in heavy rotation in people's Wiis for a good long while. All told, we were pleased by what we saw of Mario Kart Wii. We're eager to spend some quality time with the various game modes and online features to see how they all pan out. Look for more on the game in the coming months. Mario Kart Wii is slated to ship later this year.