Mario Kart Wii

14th April 2008 – 2.34 pm

I popped in to London on Saturday to pick up a ticket for Blitzen Trapper, as well as a bunch of tickets for this year's Sci Fi London film festival, which thankfully looks far better than last year's disappointing schedule. I was able to get all the tickets that I was after, although I was a little concerned that one of the showings at the film festival may have sold out, being a rather popular choice. I would have ordered the tickets earlier but the e-mail mailing list had an odd choice of timings. One e-mail was sent informing me that 'the programme should be available and tickets on sale in two weeks' time!', but the next e-mail was three weeks later, reading 'tickets went on sale last week!' That doesn't strike me as the best system either to remind people to buy tickets or to prompt them to buy them early.

After I had bought all the tickets I found myself standing in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, watching the traffic go by on a sunny day, wondering what to do next. I live close enough to London, only a tube trip away, that I probably don't make the best of any visits in to the city, as I can come again almost whenever I want. Still, that realisation is also what prompts me to enjoy the sights and sounds whenever I make the trip, however short it is, so it's never really wasted. I was just enjoying being in Piccadilly Circus, looking at the graceful curves of the buildings up Regent Street one way and seeing if I could catch a glimpse of the large cinema displays in Leceister Square the other way, amidst the bustling tourists and traffic.

And then I saw a big display in a shop for Mario Kart Wii, which I remember from a conversation was released this week. I had been thinking about buying the game, and as I don't go shopping too often being this close to being able to carry it home with me was quite alluring. I had no idea how popular Mario Kart Wii was going to be and whether shops would be out of stock or not, and I also wasn't sure whether I'd enjoy it. I didn't much like the Gamecube's Mario Kart Double Dash, and I never got around to buying it. I don't remember why I didn't buy Double Dash when it first came out because I really enjoy driving games and the Mario Kart games have all been favourites of mine back from the days of the SNES version, and Mario Kart 64 was amazing.

I first played Double Dash on a friend's system, and I wasn't impressed. The handling of the karts was rubbish. When I started to steer I didn't get the impression that I was in control, it seemed that rather than the front wheels turning the back wheels were kicking out and initially moving the kart in a different direction than my input would impel. Feeling out of control of the vehicle was rather detrimental to my enjoyment of the game. That's not to say that Double Dash wasn't fun, as it remained a great multiplayer game, but as I have negligble opportunities to play console games multiplayer at home there was little reason to buy a game solely for its multiplayer option. As a single player game I knew that the poor handling of the karts would frustrate me, as steering a kart skilfully is fundamental to feeling like a racing driver.

I had no idea if the handling was better in Mario Kart Wii, or at least nowhere near as bad as in Double Dash, but I made my way across the busy roads and picked up the game box. As anyone knows, everything about a game can be gleaned by looking at a tiny screenshot on the back of a box, and so I was sold. In a fine display of spontaneity I decided to buy Mario Kart Wii and have not just something new to play but a new Mario Kart game to play. I was also intrigued by the included steering wheel in to which the Wii controller was inserted in order to play the game. Being directed to another floor in order to get a box with the game actually inside I doubled my spontaneous acts for the day and picked up a reasonably priced copy of Futurama's Bender's Big Score on DVD as well. Damn my impulsive purchasing!

On the way home on the tube I pondered again on whether I'll ever play Mario Galaxy to the full, having picked it up again briefly the other day and had a good time playing it. I suppose it depends in part on how much I'll play Mario Kart. Thinking about my previous post about gaming selections I came back to the idea about finishing games in relation to Mario Kart and racing games in general. With games like Mario Galaxy or Lego Star Wars there may be plenty of levels to negotiate and hidden content to explore or unlock but once you've finished it there is nothing more to be done and little to bring you back to the game. It is a great game indeed that inspires you to play through from the beginning again, a feat that Mario games have tended to achieve but still quite a feat. But racing games don't really suffer from that problem too much.

In Mario Kart there are still courses, characters and vehicles to be unlocked, and there is a definite progression through the game, starting from the 50 cc Grand Prix and working up through 100 cc to the 150  Grand Prix. If Mario Kart Wii follows the previous versions there will also be the mirror mode to be unlocked after getting gold cups in all the 150 cc Grand Prix, if not adding more content then at least adding more variety. But the great thing is that once all the content has been unlocked you haven't so much completed the game as opened it up finally to be enjoyed. With all the content available there are more reasons to continue playing, instead of a reason to find something different to play. The game is in winning races around circuits, and is only enhanced by having more courses, characters and vehicles to race. I have no qualms about sitting down and playing through as much as the content as I can as quickly as I can, because I know that I won't get to the end of a game that doesn't end.

So it was that I powered up my Wii and inserted the disc, getting my controller in to the steering wheel accessory. I started with the 50 cc Grand Prix, racing with Toad, my favourite character. I had decided to play with the wheel rather than traditional console controls so that I could see what it was like. I am also of the opinion that a game can best be enjoyed by getting as involved as possible in it. There is no sitting on a couch flicking my wrist to play golf or bowling, as I'd rather be either immersing myself or using traditional controllers. My first impressions were positive, with the kart handling as I'd expect it to given my inputs, so the failure of Double Dash for me was averted with Mario Kart Wii. The steering wheel was also quite easy to get the hang of. It requires a little bit of practice but I certainly think it's worth using. I still occasionally start a drift in the wrong direction, but I am fairly sure that's operator error that can be corrected given time. Considering that I ended up power-sliding around corners before boosting off a ramp and firing red shells at the same time I would say I am comfortable both with the handling of the karts and using the steering wheel.

There are 'over 30' courses in Mario Kart Wii, which sounds like quite a lot. As in a previous game, probably Mario Kart DS, there are two Grand Prix styles. The first uses entirely new courses, designed specifically for the new game. The second pulls in courses from other games in the series, from the SNES, N64, Gamecube, GBA, and DS, with some updated graphics and occasionally tweaked sections. With four cups per style and four courses per cup that gives sixteen courses per style and thirty two courses overall. With half of the courses coming from other games it doesn't quite seem to offer quite as much promised. The courses from the GBA and SNES are also remarkable in being flat, a restriction based on the hardware at the time, but offer a stark contrast to the flowing and often thrilling contours offered on the more modern courses.

Mario Kart Wii also offers on-line play, either against friends (my Mario Kart Wii friend code is available on request) or against random people from around the world. After playing a few games with a couple I knew who bought the game at the weekend I thought I'd see how many people were obsessively spending every waking moment in the on-line arena, boosting their ratings to astronomical levels. I played several rounds of on-line racing, and was able to boost my own rating a bit. There was one chap in the group I was joined to that was clearly ahead of everyone else and racing off in to the distance, but there was plenty of racing to be had in the middle of the pack. With many a power-up being released during the course of a race it can get quite hectic, and positions can change quickly and often. It all adds up to a great deal of fun, particularly as the control system and handling becomes transparent after a short while and you find yourself racing and not fighting the kart.

I completed the 50 cc class Grand Prix over the weekend, but turned the system off Sunday night after getting my arse handed to me in the first race of the 100 cc Grand Prix. I'll get back to that later and put in some more practice. The game looks to be a stunning and highly enjoyable addition to the Mario Kart series, and one that will surely see a great deal of play time from me.

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