With less than two weeks separating us from Mario Kart Wii's North American release, major announcements from Nintendo have all but dried up. Now all that's left for fans is to make it through the home stretch. Luckily for us, we got the chance to hold ourselves over by playing a near-final build of the game during Nintendo's Media Summit last week. Left to our own devices, we spent enough time playing to pick up on more than a few differences between this installment and the series' two most recent outings on Nintendo's DS and GameCube.
In our first race, we went with Bowser on Mushroom Gorge. Straight out of the gate, we felt back in the world of Mario Kart, right down to the initial speed boost gained from hitting the gas button just after the countdown strikes two. Bowser felt like his usual self: heavy, not the easiest to control, but fast down the stretch, and able to bop smaller racers at a moment's notice. Soon after hitting the first batch of power-ups, we had our first encounter with the game's new indicator system. A little marker pops up on the screen when a bullet, red shell, or other dangerous projectile is quickly approaching you. If you're using the Wii Remote, you'll also receive a warning beep from the speaker in your hand.
Another heads-up is that fake power-ups are now more distinguishable from real ones thanks to their solid reddish hue that stands out from the rainbow coloring of the others. These new additions feel a little odd at first, but after a while you can't help realize why they're there. The field of competition has been boosted from 8 to 12, so with 50% more enemies to deal with, a few helpful tips on the screen can preserve your sanity over the course of three laps--as much as you can keep sane in the mad world of Mario Kart.
Mushroom Gorge's addition to the Mario Kart formula is a stretch of bouncy mushroom sections. At certain points in the track you'll drive off of the usual dirt road and find yourself on giant mushrooms sticking out from a bottomless abyss. These mushrooms come in red and green colors. The red ones bounce you high into the air when you land on them, whereas the green ones act as normal track. This increases the challenge by forcing you to bounce from one platform to another, all while trying to avoid a devastating midair bopping.
But in terms of new obstacles to deal with, Mushroom Gorge pales in comparison to some of the other new courses. Among the various hazards we had to deal with were the two-way escalators and NPC-controlled cars in Coconut Mall, conveyer belts carrying loads of crates on Toad's Factory, mining cars on Wario's Gold Mine, and deep powder on DK Summit. Of course, that's not even mentioning the newest Rainbow Road, which features a track so treacherous it resembles a slice of swiss cheese.
Considering all these new obstacles we had to deal with, it's a good thing we found ourselves enjoying the controversial Wii Remote wheel. The wheel itself has a nice bulk to it, with enough bulge to make it ergonomic and comfortable to hold. It reacts well to subtle movements, an area in which most motion-controlled racing games on the Wii have failed. There is a tendency to oversteer when panic sets in, but a good finish requires you to take it easy with the turns. We found it equally easy to control standard karts and the new motorcycles. Though they handle differently, they're both fun to control with the wheel.
Some of the other new controls tend to feel a little less responsive. When on a motorcycle, you can do a wheelie on a long stretch by shaking the wheel upward. The same motion also lets you do a midair trick after taking off with a jump, capped by a speed boost when you hit ground. Unfortunately, these tricks don't seem to respond as consistently to the controller shaking as you would like.
Rounding out the new additions to Mario Kart's control scheme is an option to let you choose between automatic and manual power drifting. It's nice to have an option here because beginners will no doubt be confused by having to jump before every turn. Giving them the ability to ease into some of the more advanced techniques will only help the game attract new players. However, players who have spent much time with the series will find automatic to be a little on the boring side, and they're likely to opt for manual mode instead.
Mario Kart Wii looks like it should be both friendlier and more hostile to series beginners. Thankfully, none of that hostility arises from the Wii Remote wheel that had previously generated so much skepticism. The controls are solid, the new additions add variety, and the formula feels just as great as it always has. Now all that's left is to wait until April 27.