March 5, 2008 - It was a nice surprise today to come into the IGN office, content with our review of Smash Bros., only to find that Nintendo's upcoming arcade racer Mario Kart Wii (you may have heard of it) was waiting for us. We've had a chance to go hands-on with the game previously, as our own Craig "Yoshi is the Best Racer" Harris sat down for about an hour with the game just days before GDC, and our second outing with the game is none too different, although we now have far more time to spend with the title.
As a quick note, we're only able to cover the initial content available in Mario Kart Wii, which is based on the starting cast of 12 racers and 16 tracks, and while we're already unlocking the deepest, darkest secrets Mario Kart Wii has to offer, Reggie will destroy us should we say anything more.
Giant Mario will crush all.
The big question on everyone's mind is, of course, geared towards the performance of tilt steering with the Wii remote. Simply put, is it fun to play? The short answer for me personally, is yes, it works just fine. Already people are getting their hands on the tilt control though, and each person has a different overall feeling on it. Some gamers here in IGN LA aren't too keen on the tilt, and like Craig Harris mentioned previously it has a bit of a learning curve. Some even switched from tilt to classic control within seconds, demanding traditional control. With that being said, it's still fun to use in my opinion, and while I'm sure more hardcore competitions will come to down to GameCube controller vs. GameCube controller (myself included in that camp), it took only a few laps around the track for me to get used to the new play style as a whole. In fact, fans of Kart that have tracked down the Namco-designed arcade version of Mario Kart will find the feeling to be very similar here on Wii, minus the intense force feedback of the arcade wheel mount.
The core design of Mario Kart Wii is pretty straightforward. Once the game boots for the first time, a prompt alerts you to select a Mii for your Mario Kart license. The save file actually displays your Mii head and small grid of all cups and classes in the game, complete with the medals scored in each respective spot on the table. From there, the main interface is very simple, complete with huge IR-supported buttons. A quick flick of the Wii-mote will then get you into single player mode, multiplayer, single or two player Wi-Fi Connection online play, or the Mario Kart Channel. If you want the channel to appear on your Wii menu, make the change in the main options menu and it'll be added to your home screen. Any more details on online and the Mario Kart Channel will have to wait, however.
As it stands right now, Mario Kart offers a pretty robust list of characters and levels, although half of the tracks available at this time are repeats from older games, which leaves us only with eight newcomers. Characters include Baby Mario, Baby Peach, Toad, Koopa, Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Peach, Wario, Waluigi, Donkey Kong, and Bowser. Each character starts with three cars, and three bikes, and as mentioned previously it's kart-only for 50CC races, bike-only for 100CC, and mixed in 150CC. The Mushroom cup is made up entirely of new tracks, including Luigi Circuit, Moo Moo Meadows (a new take on Moo Moo farm), Mushroom Gorge, and Toad's Factory. The Flower Cup is also entirely new tracks as well, with Mario Circuit, Coconut Mall, DK Summit, and Wario's Gold Mine rounding off the package.
The other two cups, however, are made up of tracks from previous games. Nintendo mentioned that half the tracks in the game will be new, while the other half are essentially a "best of" with remade retro levels. Shell Cup includes GCN Peach Beach, DS Yoshi Falls, SNES Ghost Valley 2, and N64 Mario Raceway, with Banana Cup adding in N64 Sherbet Land, GBA Shy Guy Beach, DS Delfino Square, and GCN Waluigi Stadium. There are little changes to the retro tracks as well, including a few added boost and jump areas in Delfino Square, and a bit more open space on Shy Guy Beach.
We've had time to play through about 50 or so races thus far, and while Mario Kart is undoubtedly fun at times, there's still a bit of hesitation to automatically put this one above Double Dash in terms of overall entertainment value. The experience is more traditional, as it has more in common with the N64 and DS versions of Kart before it, but there are some definite changes that have been made to aim Kart at the Wii audience specifically. For starters, the game does feel a bit slower, even on 150CC levels. While the actual speed may be pretty close to Double Dash and Kart DS respectively, it has more to do with a global decision to make the roads wider this time around not only for the 12 racers on-screen at once, but also (we'd assume) for the less-hardcore Wii audience. There are still tracks such as the new Wario's Gold Mine that will push your drift abilities to the limit, housing tight turns and narrow roads, but in general the tracks feel bigger, and you feel a lot slower and smaller as a result. To say it's still early on in our time with Mario Kart is a gross understatement, but the slower overall pace is certainly worth noting, as the game could use a huge kick in the pants in the speed department.
Luckily there's the motorcycle class, which adds a bit more speed. Bikes have much tighter control, offering very tight cornering and more speed at the sacrifice of sweeping drift, and a level two boost when power sliding. Bikes and cars alike can still draft behind rival racers, but in return for less drift focus, bikes can also wheelie, putting them in a mode where turning is nearly impossible (aside from "lane to lane" movement), but a constant speed boost is rewarded. It isn't as fast as a full boost, but rather sits at about the speed of your pre-boost drafting, where you can gain on opponents slowly but surely all the while. To wheelie with the bikes, pull back on the Wii remote. We've put some serious time into racing with bikes, and it's worth noting that wheelies don't always translate the first time, so you're better off trying a few quick yanks as opposed to one huge pull back. This is still a preview build though, so that could all change.
Waluigi reps the West Coast Choppers.
The final aspect that's worth noting during our kick-off to the next few weeks of coverage, is the trick system. With boosting simplified (and snaking removed; we tried for a few solid laps to do it, and the time it takes to earn the level one boost is just too long) tricking is where pro players are going to set themselves apart. It's as simple as pulling up on the Wii remote when taking off into the air, and it results in a speed boost equivalent to a level one power slide. Tricking can be done with either karts or bikes, and can actually be done anywhere you can catch air, including obviously placed ramps and boost pads, but also including smaller exploits, such as the arm rails of the escalators in Coconut Mall. If you can hop off it, you can trick it. From our experience thus far it's impossible to fail a trick, rather the game will only reward you with one if there's ample time to pull it off. Which trick you do, by the way, is entirely random.
We also had a chance to play a small amount of multiplayer to kick off our hands-on with the game, but it was limited to a few times around the track due to time. Two player split-screen runs nearly identical to the single player mode, while there was a noticeable drop in frame rate with four players on-screen, hovering around 30 frames-per-second, and occasionally dipping below. Again, whether this still holds true with the final build of the game is unknown. As for options though, players can team up and race, or go free-for-all with just human players or a full 12-person race, with the same going for battle mode as well. It's pretty impressive to see a 12-racer battle mode in action (though it ends up being more about killing the AI, and less about direct competition), but we'll take the classic four player free-for-all any day.
Visually the game is none too impressive, but it does hold at a solid 60 FPS when running single player mode. Mario Kart Wii's visual style is far simpler than any before it (Double Dash and DS included), which fits the Mii look a bit more, but levels could stand to have more going on, and the texture work is far from incredible. In general the new levels have more overall appeal than the remade retro ones since part of the retro feel is gained from the simple visuals and design of the tracks, but that's to be expected. We'll be focusing more on the specifics of Mario Kart Wii's visuals, and how it stacks up to the other recent Kart titles, in the near future.
There's a huge mass of things to see and do in Mario Kart Wii, and we've admittedly only scratched the surface in our opening hours with the game. Right off the bat the initial speed difference, open roads, and mass of Mii integration can make this one feel less like the hardcore kart racing of the past, and more of a "bridge title" for the hardcore and casual markets as Reggie has mentioned, but that change was to be expected at least a bit. We're anxious to get in and try out the Mario Kart Channel, take the game online, unlock more tracks and characters, perfect our tricking, and really push Mario Kart Wii to the limit and see what it's really made of, but until we check back in with more info be sure to take a look at our direct-feed video below, as well as 10 new screens of the game in action.