8.5

The latest Mario Kart game is out. Does it live up to its predecessors?

To say that Mario Kart DS, the last installment in the venerable kart racing franchise, is one of my favourites would be grossly underestimating my love and admiration for it. Mario Kart DS was my first Mario Kart game, and it simply managed to pull me into its quirky world like no game had since the first Pokemon games were released. I remembered being simply stunned at the depth the game had to offer, the plethora of play modes, the subtle balance achieved in everything, from track design to the selection of karts on offer to different characters. The game claimed hundreds of hours of my life, as I kept going back to it, time and again. Four years later, it still hasn't severed its hold on me. I have played other Mario Kart games in the meanwhile, but all of them have fallen short of delivering the experience that Mario Kart DS provides.

It was with some trepidation, mingled with excitement, that I started playing Mario Kart Wii. Excitement, because of course, it was Mario Kart, and might it not just live up to the DS game? Trepidation, because all other games in the series had simply fallen short of providing the same pure, unadulterated fun that Mario Kart DS had given me. And now, after spending over a year with it, my feelings for this game still remain more or less the same. I'm just not sure where to place it- I think I'm pretty sure that I don't enjoy this one as much as the previous one. The trouble is, I don't know why. Because in all respects, Mario Kart Wii is the most packed and loaded Mario Kart ever. It also represents the biggest leap and fundamental change in the series' playing mechanics yet. So then, what is the problem?

For the uninitiated, Mario Kart is a series of kart racing, that more or less encourages underhanded means to achieve victory. The basic structure involves of characters from the Mushroom Kingdom racing on tracks inspired by various locales from Mario's world, and unlocking rewards, including more tracks, more characters and more karts. The main mode of any Mario Kart game is the Grand Prix mode, which can be played with three engine sizes indicating the difficulty level- 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. However, the Grand Prix must be completed in all of them, if you are to unlock everything that the game has to offer.

This basic structure of rewarding victories with desirable rewards is what remains at the core of the single player Mario Kart experience, as it is what drives people on to win every last race offered. Yet the fun comes from the chaotic feeling afforded to each race by the various items available in every race, which can single handedly turn the flow of the tide. There are items like banana peels, which you can leave in your wake to confound those following you closely. There is a squid which squirts ink into everybody's eyes but yours. There is a homing 'missile' shell, which explodes on the racer in the lead, and almost always takes down everybody in the vicinity as well. The selection of items is diverse and hilarious, and it lends to every race the feeling of uncertainty, as you can never be sure that you've won until and unless you've crossed the finish line.

Mario Kart Wii tweaks the formula a bit by adding motorcycles to the mix, and by adding tracks that favour the usage of these motorcycles greatly. These tracks usually include tons of ramps and pipes everywhere, that launch you into the air- while midair, you may perform a stunt, that always lands you with an incredible speed boost. If that sounds fun, it's because it is, but the system does come with its own sets of flaws.

The first of these is that the inclusion of ramps makes some items simply lethal. If struck by a blue shell while in air, you risk falling right down to last place, and if this happens in the final lap, you can almost never recover. Yeah, it does actually highlight the fun, chaotic feeling I mentioned earlier, but it also lends itself to great frustration, as sometimes, the results are just so unfair.

The second problem is that, of the 32 tracks available in this game, 16 are remastered versions of older tracks. This means that they essentially do not support the new stunt system, which actually makes the it seem redundant. There are a couple of ramps here and there, but on the whole, Nintendo played it whole by (mostly) faithfully recreating the older tracks.

These two flaws aside though, Mario Kart Wii certainly offers the most polished single player experience experience in the series. yes, the AI can get distinctly unfair in the later difficulty stages, and it often seems unfair. But, on the whole, it still remains solid, if not as much fun as the DS version, and you get used to it after a while.

There is so much else on offer apart from the progression oriented Grand Prix mode. There are Time Trails, which are made better thanks to the ability to download and upload ghosts online, and racing against the very best in the world. There are the battle modes, which offer for a compelling way to experience the Kart mechanics in differing style of play. And there is, of course, the multiplayer play, which has to be the best offered in any Mario Kart game yet.

Nintendo worked hard to cover the flaws of its online service and bring, at least on a rudimentary level, up to par with the online on competing consoles with this game. The matchmaking is flawless, there is no lag, and if you join a match in progress, you enter spectator mode, and can join in the festivities from the next race. Via WiiConect24, you can see which of your friends are online, as well as their latest exploits even if the disc is not in your system. There are various needless, yet still fun, features consisting of a Mario Kart themed newsletter, and the ability to upload snapshots of you celebrating with the Mushroom Kingdom characters after a victory, online. Mii support is also integrated.

The controls of this game, too, are crisp. You can opt for the motion route, by inserting your Wiimote into the wheel shell that comes included with the game, and it certainly offers a solid experience. There is also support for the classic and Gamecube controllers. Really, you cannot complain about the controls of this game, because you are definitely going to find something to your liking.

But inspite of being chock full of features, Mario Kart Wii lacks that charm that the DS version was brimming with. Sure, there are more characters included this time around, more than double of last time, in fact. Sure, the courses are as whimsically designed as they were then. But, I don't know, it all comes down to how the game feels, and I don't know why, this game simply doesn't feel as right to me as DS did. I don't know, maybe it's because that was my first MK game, and I attach too much nostalgia to it. Maybe you'll find it better, maybe you'll judge this one more objectively than me. Maybe I will change my opinion of this game as time passes by, too.. As it stands right now, though, I find Mario Kart Wii to be a very solid and enjoyable, gameplay experience. Just not as good as Mario Kart DS though.

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