Friday, May 09, 2008

Mario Kart Wii - Yaay....Yawn....Yaay...

I finally managed to play a little bit of Mario Kart Wii this week, since the game is now installed on the Wii kiosks at the Gamestop stores at the Megamall. Yes, I am still without a Nintendo Wii, although in all fairness, I haven't bothered to look for one since Christmas. My turntable and record collection are consuming all of my playtime.

But, anyway, at least I got to play a couple courses on the new Mario Kart. I realize I haven't spent nearly enough time to make any final pronouncements or any bold opinions, just first impressions and early vibes. And I have to be honest. My feelings are pretty mixed.

First the good. Mario Kart Wii looks terrific, is bold and bright and loaded with more karts than ever before. Trying to steer with the Wiimote on its side (sadly, without the steering wheel) was a bit of a mess for me, but it's a learning curve I'm sure can easily be fixed. I can understand why that steering wheel was packaged with the game - it really is necessary for driving.

I've long been a critic of analog thumbpads for racing games, since they never mimic the rotation of a steering wheel. It just never feels right. Mario Kart Wii gets it right, and that's a great bonus. This is something that will become more pronounced over time, as players become more skilled with the controls. Everything is intuitive and easy enough for just about anybody to get into the game. I'm really looking forward to playing this game for extended sessions with the wheel, and especially with friends. As soon as I can find some friends.

Being able to play online games will be endless fun, and having all your custom Mii's lurking the courses is bound to be good for a few laughs...depending on how weird your characters are. I can just see myself playing now, pulling a cool mid-air stunt, and waving hello to The Dude and Walter on my way down.

Now the downside. This is essentially the big-screen tv version of Mario Kart DS. Again, I've only raced on a couple courses, but I've got a pretty good vibe for the game. The same structure of old and new courses returns, as the multiple karts, as Mario Kart DS. Even the new racetracks feel like a continuation.

This just reinforces my belief that Mario Kart DS really was the series' peak, the absolute high point. It's a good thing, overall, especially since we can get straight to playing friends on the couch and online. But one of the things I loved about Mario Kart is that each game was essentially different. Most game series play it safe by repeating the same formulas, changing as little as possible...The Madden Effect. Hey, it sells, kids...this is consumer capitalism we're talking about. And yet Mario Kart was the lone holdout, the one series that dared to reinvent the wheel at every turn. This had the effect of splitting the fans with each new installment, but the upside is that each version remained fresh.

Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo is nothing like Mario Kart 64. They're completely different beasts, and that's a good thing. I can play both games and enjoy them equally on their merits. Mario Kart Double Dash was another shift, with the second player riding shotgun. Mario Kart on the Gameboy Advance was a throwback to the original, but that one was developed by Intelligent Systems instead of Nintendo proper, so it worked fine as a side project, instead of a full studio album. Finally, Mario Kart DS managed to bring together all the games' best traits, while adding all those extra karts, the brilliant track designs, online play, and the best damned steering in the whole series.

So that's where we've come from. Mario Kart Wii is the most conservative of them all. It takes the fewest risks; instead, Nintendo seems to have realized that the formula was pretty much perfected on DS. The only real gameplay gripe - and this is another one of those things that split the fans down the middle - was the "snaking," or the ability to endlessly chain together powerslide boosts. I tried in vain to figure out how to do the old powerslides on the Wii version, and I didn't have any luck. I don't know if the old "three left-rights" result in that red boost, or if you only get one powerslide now. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Which brings us back to the present, where I'm complaining like a spoiled child. Mario Kart Wii is no doubt another triumph for Nintendo, and it should be a no-brainer for every Wii owner looking for that perfect game to appeal to the hardcore and the casual player. There's probably no other Wii title that can make that claim, apart from maybe Wii Sports. So ignore my faint sighing. So there doesn't seem to be any real surprises this time. So the jazz combo has perfected their sound. My fear is that I will lose interest and become bored with the "Mario Kart DS Director's Cut," where a completely different paradigm would hold my interest for years.

Ah, well. It's Mario Kart. What am I supposed to say about it? Discussing this series is like discussing a pizza. You already know everything there is to know. At this point in your life, you either like pepperoni or you don't, and you've learned to make your peace with that fact.

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