Requires skill, but doesn't reward it.
I'll start with everything I liked first, to get that out of the way. Don't get me wrong by my score; I do like Mario Kart. The cutesy art style and happy-happy sound effects do grate with my sensibilities a little, but everything is at least tolerable. The graphics, technically, are fine – and in any case, I really don't care for graphics, a tendency probably brought on by my constant purchasing of last-gen games because they're cheaper. The game has enough to keep you occupied for a very long time; this is no 5-hour movie tie-in game. The battles are fun, and 4-player splitscreen is great fun any day of the week. It's something I'd love more games to do. (Digression: I'm not going to bother to buy The Conduit or Metroid Prime for precisely this reason. If I buy a console shooter, I want to be able to play it with my friends sitting beside me! So, I guess it's back to Perfect Dark.) The controls, however, are my favourite part.
Though my siblings prefer to use the nun-chuck, it apparently being easier, I find that using the motion controls is much more fun. Despite what some people have said, the controls are easy and responsive, and can pick up subtle changes in your steering. The waggle controls are bit less responsive than the steering, though, and this does create some annoyance – but it's probably a good thing that the steering is as responsive as it is! Especially with manual mode, which lets you drift for a small boost bonus, I find it very easy and a lot of fun to navigate the courses. It's a great feeling when you drift with a perfect line around a long corner, and get a little boost to get you going as you line back up on the track. It's a perfect risk/reward balance of needing to nail the corner, but getting a present if you do it right. This great feeling, however, is ruined more often than not.
Yes, here comes the reason why I gave this game a 'fair' instead of the 'great' I would have liked to give it. I said it in my review deck: this game requires you to play skilfully, but it doesn't reward you for doing so. Now, that's a snappy point to make, but it's not entirely true. What I really should say is that even if you play skilfully, you can't avoid the game's punishments. You're rewarded – but you're also punished just as much as an unskilled player (probably more so). Yes, I'm talking about items. I cannot count the number of times I have weaved my way through a course, hitting corners perfectly, using my boosts right, storing items to block red shells – and there's this great warm glow of 'I'm winning because I'm doing everything right'. Then a blue shell hits me, and I'm overtaken by the next five racers. And I think to myself 'I'm losing because... I did everything right?' These seemingly random events have caused me to swear and want to throw something so many times that I'm willing to believe that students who decide their schools are the perfect place for target practise with live ammunition have in fact been playing Mario Kart, not Doom. And it's not a good swear-and-want-to-throw-something, like when I get beat down by a friend in Halo multiplayer. It's the bad kind of swearing and throwing, the kind that comes from anger and frustration, not competitiveness and high spirits. Because it makes me realise that no matter how well I play the game, I will still be subject to all manner of random events beyond my control. I'm not just talking about the blue shell here – nearly every item in the game is an offender, except maybe the humble banana.
It seems like the designers at Nintendo had some inkling of this problem when implementing the POW item. Waggling the controller right as the POW is about to strike lets you avoid the worst of its effects, which are otherwise quite severe. This lets players who are more skilled (at controller-waggling) avoid the random event of someone using a POW. However, there is no equivalent for many of the other items. Red shells, as I mentioned, can be successfully fended off by trailing items – but whether you have any suitable items often depends on the luck of the draw.
Now, this huge problem really isn't so huge at the 50cc level of competition, or when you're just racing some buddies. However, the game seems to encourage you to play it hardcore, not casual. To unlock stuff, you need to play it at a high level of competition (all the way through 150cc and beyond), and it's at this point where the game becomes a roulette. I can race as skilfully as I like, but I still may not get that triple-star that I need. So it becomes a matter of repetition, until you get a run where you get lucky enough that nobody blue-shells you at the finish line or that you've always got a banana to fend off red shells. Repetition can be fun – when I know I'm getting better every time, and I can tangibly affect the outcome of the next race from what I've learned this race. But no matter how much I know about Mario Kart, I can still get blue-shelled.