The 2008 review revue, part six

Mario Kart Wii | Nintendo | Wii | Racing party
I gave it: C (I think?) | In retrospect, this was: Tragically correct

It seems Mario Kart games are a tricky thing to create, which you wouldn’t expect to be the case given that every one of them is basically just a variant on the original Super NES game. But whether a given effort succeeds or fails all comes down to the fine details — the specifics of those variations. For that reason, I’m always wary of a new Mario Kart, because it’s better to be pleasantly surprised than tragically disappointed. Sometimes, the surprises are nothing less than fantastic: Mario Kart DS was one of the former, and in fact is one of the best games available for DS. Its Wii-based follow-up, unfortunately, falls into the “tragic disappointment” category.

I’ve written at length about its shortcomings, and everything I said there holds true. In summary: MK Wii compromises the series’ tenuous balance between skill and accessibility by dumbing down its racing mechanics to the point that stupid luck rather than any sort of talent becomes the determining factor of each race. While Nintendo offers some race customization options, you’re only rewarded with any sort of progress if you play the game by its awful default rules. There are two crappy tracks for every good one. As in Smash Bros., “high-level play” basically boils down to exploiting a single, simple tactic that drains the game of any entertainment it might actually have to offer. And some of the new embellishments, like the waggle-based mini-boosts, are straight-up dumb.

In retrospect, though, the biggest issue I have with Mario Kart Wii is that it marked the first volley in Nintendo’s assault on “core values.” Gamers panic about things like Wii Fit and Wii Music, seemingly convinced that Nintendo’s catering to a wider audience is the death knell of gaming. That’s silly. What is alarming is watching the company diminish its long heritage of great traditional-type games, weakening its internally-developed titles and farming out great franchises to developers who lack the creativity and ambition to uphold those series’ quality. Titles like Wii Fit are exciting, forward-thinking attempts to break gaming beyond its stagnant boundaries; titles like Mario Kart Wii are just stagnant. There’s room for companies like Nintendo to cater to both hardcore and casual markets, but the company either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care.

Of course, it’s unfair to hold a single game accountable for a vast corporate failure. But that’s OK: I can dislike Mario Kart Wii because it’s boring and broken.

26 thoughts on “The 2008 review revue, part six

  1. Mario Kart Wii is still a blast to play, despite getting so many things wrong. The good: the level design is fantastic, bikes are a blast to play with, and the Wii controls work well.

    Bad: Battle mode is a shell of it’s former self, no shine thief, overpowered items, karts are useless, and the only way to compete at a high level is with a GC pad.

    All that said, this game, of all the Mario Karts, favors the player with the most skill far more than any previous Mario Kart. Yes, even with the items. If you play a skilled player with a bike, you will get lapped. Karts can hardly compete with the boost mechanic and turning of the bikes with heavy characters. Of course, you would never initially see this because everyone starts off at an even skill level, but the game, like Brawl, is looked down upon because people fail to find the hidden depth.

    And that, quite honestly, is my biggest problems with magazine reviews: very few games get the attention that they deserve. I appreciate the idea of reviewing a game in retrospect, but it’s kind of pointless if you don’t play it again later and try to find out the status of the community. Maybe you wouldn’t change your opinion anyway. I certainly did.

    And remember, Double Dash had it’s fair share of dissenters, but few would argue that it isn’t a classic.

  2. Call me the Devil’s Advocate if you wish, but I think you’ve gone about playing Mario Kart Wii entirely the wrong way. It’s a bridge game, not a core game. It’s not the sort of game you play for endless hours upon hours to master it so that you can completely dominate over anybody who plays against you. That’s the core model of game design: rewarding time spent playing.

    On the far other side of the spectrum are games like Wii Sports: anybody can figure out how to play them, anybody can do well in them without much practice, and you aren’t likely to look at it and call it a time sink. Those are what you would call mainstream games (or if you wish to perpetuate a tired and inaccurate meme, “casual” games). They are games which possess entertainment value no matter how long you play them, but it boils down to the same experience over and over again.

    Mario Kart Wii is between those two extremes of gaming. There is still potential to “learn” the game and get better. But there is also immense pick-up-and-play appeal, as well. Grabbing the Wii Wheel and racing with it feels perfectly intuitive and won’t scare off many players (except, ironically, the analog- and joypad-dependent). There is always the risk, when bridging extremes, that you will fail to appeal to either side, but MK Wii has skirted that nicely (if sales are any indicator; it’s stayed in the top 10 everywhere all but perpetually since it came out).

    Actually, I think the reason it offends the enthusiast gaming crowd so much is because it IS a bridge game, designed to help the expanded audience grow interested in more complex games gradually. Remember how offended PC gamers used to get when you lumped them together with those “NES kids”? Well, welcome back to 1988, ‘cept this time WE’RE the “PC gamers” and those “NES kids” are the ones who actually have the audacity to enjoy games like Wii Sports and Mario Kart Wii.

  3. Suprised to read that. MK:Wii’s online tournaments and ghost time trials capture the very essence of the original Super Mario Kart, and I’ve been playing it regularly to shave seconds off my times for nine months now with the same fervour and passion as I did back in ’92.

    But then, I never really liked the battle mode as much as the time trials. I must know many MK:Wii stages now as well as I ever knew Ghost House 1. And that’s pretty darn well.

  4. “Double Dash had it’s fair share of dissenters, but few would argue that it isn’t a classic.”

    That fair share of dissenters surely won’t let a statement like that slide for anything except politeness. The game’s fans may call it what they want, but for the majority, DD was a mediocre entry in a waning series, not really much fun and certainly not a “classic”. But it does seem like a lot of the DD fans are in turn MKW dissenters, and vice versa. I’m not a big fan of MKW, but in my (premature) consideration, DD was the death knell of the series.

    “–between those two extremes of gaming– There is still potential to “learn” the game and get better.”

    I assume you have [PRO] Skill Levels in Sports? There’s a lot of learning to be had there.

  5. >As in Smash Bros., “high-level play” basically boils down to exploiting a single, simple tactic that drains the game of any entertainment it might actually have to offer.

    Oh dear, Parish is trolling again.

    Anyways, back on topic: I sort of agree about MKW, but my total play time has been a total of about two hours, so I don’t really feel too qualified to say so. *cough*

  6. “by dumbing down its racing mechanics to the point that stupid luck rather than any sort of talent becomes the determining factor of each race”

    That is the one thing that irks me the most about this game. It doesn’t matter how much skill you have if you’re going to get blasted by 3 or more blue shells on the final lap.

  7. The biggest, most lasting impression that Mario Kart Wii left on me, after attempting to deal with every control scheme possible, was the thought that I’d rather be playing Double Dash than this new entry. Realizing that I preferred Double Dash, a game I only kept in my collection because it was a fun party game in lieu of everyone keeping Mario Kart DS handy for just such an occasion, emphasized to me just how poor Mario Kart Wii felt to me. I still can’t decide if I dislike MKW or Super Circuit more, though.

  8. Ugh, I disagree intensely that MK Wii is a “bridge” game. There’s so much less substance to the game (once you get the basics down) than in MK DS or Double Dash it’s not even funny. And I couldn’t find a single playable match online; it was all a bunch of snakers, which is hardly my definition of fun. Sky Render in particular seems to have played a completely different game than me.

  9. Having recently played the hell out of MKW’s online mode, I can say that the game is arguably among the best in the series. I say “arguably” because it still has the cheapest AI in a franchise infamous for cheap AI (true story: twice while playing on 150cc I was on first place in a race, got hit with a red shell, passed by one opponent, then hit with the blue shell and passed by three or four) and worst of all, the game won’t let you unlock stuff unless you repeatedly face the cheap AI.

    However, when up against 11 human opponents, skill still wins against luck. I may have come out 2nd in a race thanks to a blue shell, but that’s because the other guy was good enough to keep up with me. Likewise, if I end an online race at last place, it’s because of luck, yes, but in the sense of having gone up against better players without knowing it than of getting combo-ed by overpowering items in one moment.

  10. Other than Super Mario Galaxy, all of the Wii-sequels to established franchises have suffered from same-old-shit-but-slightly-different syndrome. I never would’ve thought I would think back fondly on the Gamecube, of all systems, but Wind Waker, Double Dash, and Smash Bros. Melee are all superior to their Wii counterparts. Er, and Animal Crossing, I guess, because it was new and fresh back then.

  11. “stupid luck rather than any sort of talent becomes the determining factor of each race”

    As others above have said, I think you’re off the mark in thinking talent isn’t the major factor in who wins the race. If you’d put any serious amount of time into playing the game online, you’d see people who are consistently winning races and people who are consistently losing. Sure, there’s some luck involved, there always has been, but talent is key. In my case, as I’ve put in more time, I’ve definitely gotten better at the game. When I first started out I would always be near the bottom of the results online, but over time, learning the tracks and learning how to take advantage of power ups, I now usually end up in the top half of the results, often in the top 3 or 4. Also, I thought snaking was much more of a problem in the DS version of the game, which you apparently liked, so?

  12. I love Mario Kart, but I gotta choose Double Dash!! over Mario Kart Wii.

    MKWii does a few things better such as online play with 12 players (but no LAN play!). The driving mechanics handle better than Double Dash with the classic hop for power sliding and a different mini-boosting scheme to prevent snaking. The good tracks are thought out with the shortcuts and paths, although the track selection isn’t as good (Yoshi Falls?)

    Mario Kart Wii doesn’t feel as good as the last 3 games overall though. The 4 player split screen, the most important part of the multiplayer side, only runs at 30fps (Double Dash was 60fps), which is awful because its a racing game and it feels sluggish at the lower frame rate. The new items add nothing more than annoyances to knock you back to last place just as you’re coming to the finish line in 1st, when the game already had lightning bolts and blue shells. At least Double Dash!!’s character specific items felt balanced, and even with double item slots I don’t remember being hit so much. I couldn’t stand playing battle mode with the gigantic tracks, even with the SNES track, which missed the whole intense feeling SMK had as you held on to the feather while your opponent tracked you down with a red shell. The game also feels slower than Double Dash!!, even the cars SFX sounds slower, and going back to DD!! feels like F-Zero.

    Mario Kart Wii is fun for a Wii game, but its not as good as the previous Mario Karts in some of the basic features that make Mario Kart, Mario Kart.

  13. >As in Smash Bros., “high-level play” basically boils down to exploiting a single, simple tactic that drains the game of any entertainment it might actually have to offer.

    um… whatever, someone misses those 40+ comment threads, i guess.

  14. high-level play” basically boils down to exploiting a single, simple tactic that drains the game of any entertainment it might actually have to offer.

    – YES! (that and the god damn turtle clusterfucks that toss you from 1st to 8th in seconds). MKWii is simple: either everyone breaks the game the same way or everything is up to chance. There is little I find more frustrating than things being left up to chance. If I’m ahead, I’m ahead not because of some cheap trick, but because I deserve to be there. The old MKs had some elements of chance but nowhere were they as destructive and unbalanced as they are now.

    I’m very happy to see that I’m not the only one who recognized the ridiculous nature of MKWii.

    I wish someone would make a true F Zero X sequel. GX wasn’t bad but it was nowhere as awesome. The music and track design were top notch, 2 things GX lacked.

  15. Parish: I noticed how you mentioned MK DS. Have you tried competing online? Snaking is a far worse offense than blue shells. In fact, Nintendo did the same thing from Melee to Brawl as they did from Mario Kart DS to MK Wii (albeit to a lesser extent with Smash Brothers): they took out certain mechanics like snaking and wavedashing to make things more accessible, but left the core gameplay intact. There are very few secret techniques in Brawl or MKWii: what you see is what you get, and you have to work within the system to win.

    Isn’t that why everyone loves Nintendo? They make simple games with hidden depth. Indeed, there are AI quirks in SP, but with a level playing field against human opponents, you’d be hard pressed to find more competitive games. And all of them play differently. I still boot up Mario Kart 64, Double Dash, and Smash 64 from time to time because all of them are unique.

  16. MKWii died for me when I realized you can’t do Grand Prix in multiplayer. I’m getting tired of local multiplayer options in games being gutted in favor of online play, to be honest.

  17. Yeah, I didn’t expect a lot of understanding. I knew, in fact, from the moment that I first played the game, that Mario Kart Wii was more intended to bring the expanded audience closer to the core than it was to bring the core closer to the expanded audience. And it’s working wonders at that: well over 10 million copies of the game have been sold.

    I know that a lot of enthusiast gamers don’t see the appeal of the expanded audience games, which is kind of funny since most of us in said enthusiast crowd started off with games not far off from the likes of them. Most of us also started playing deceptively complex games that seemed so simple on the surface and that repulsed the core crowd of their time. Go back and play the first Super Mario Bros or the original Legend of Zelda some time, and you may see what I mean. Then again, maybe you won’t. I guess it all depends on how determined you are to believe that you were never “like them” at one point…

  18. Mr Parish’s ham-fisted attempt at trolling supporters of Pro Smash inspires curiosity rather than outrage. I know from experience he’s not an idiot and he doesn’t fit the standard profile of a Nintendo fanatic who refuses to admit the company is anything less than perfect so I’m left to wonder where he gets his misinformation and why he believes it so strongly.

  19. The problem with saying Mario Kart Wii is a bridge game, is that Mario Kart in and of itself is a bridge game. A lot of people I know who normally loathe games like ‘Trendy Girl,’ or, ‘Studious Premed’ all loved to play Mario Kart on GameCube or SNES. It was an inherently a simple game to pick up, and enjoyed greatly in the company of friends. It also took time and commitment to master. The Wii version then is totally redundant: it’s already simple and easy. Making it even more simple and easy by taking out the little bits that made it fun to play longer than ten minutes totally breaks the game into baby-status. Mario Kart Wii was a disappointment of disastrous proportions.

  20. Sells pretty well for a “disappointment of disastrous proportions”, I’d say… But what do I know? Apparently, sales are meaningless in the face of individual opinions.

  21. You know what else “sold pretty well for a ‘disappointment of disastrous proportions'”? The Matrix sequels.

    I mean, I’m defending MKW as well, but commercial success shouldn’t be used to measure quality.

  22. Believe me, I’ve heard all of the arguments about “quality over quantity”. The problem is that there’s no corollary between any of these standards of “quality” and the actual success which products receive. If any of the many, many measures of “quality” were accurate, then they would show a definite positive corollary between level of “quality” and level of sales. The usual excuses (poor marketing, niche appeal, etc.) don’t hold up for me. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertisement, and niche appeal indicates that the standards of “quality” being applied have no relevance to most people anyway.

    Again, you can call me a Devil’s Advocate if you wish, but I don’t believe that leaning on the crutch of “quality” works in any meaningful context. In a personal context, sure, you can reason that something has “quality” to you personally. But on the large scale, the only genuine indicator of success is quantity. Critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills, and critical scorn doesn’t actually stop anything from selling like hotcakes.

  23. “The 4 player split screen, the most important part of the multiplayer side, only runs at 30fps (Double Dash was 60fps), which is awful because its a racing game and it feels sluggish at the lower frame rate.”

    That’s a tradeoff, since for the first time on console you can have CPU racers on-track in four-player multiplayer games. Personally I liked the extra traffic, but I can see why for some people the lower framerate would be a big deal.

    I think that, as a single-player game, it isn’t very good. The new track designs aren’t great (better than the SNES and GBA games, yes, but there’s nothing that stands out), and while I know the mode had some obvious issues, taking out the All-Cups challenge really hurts the game’s “okay, I have to be really good on all courses now” feel (as well as the “hey, cool, it’s actually kinda like F1” feel). Unlockables weren’t much to speak of this time, aside from the Miis, which I think everyone agrees should’ve been up-front. Big loss from the DS version in the lack of the challenges. Tricks are a decent risk-reward thing. Right there, the game’s a B, at best.

    But in multiplayer, when you CAN tone down the items, it works very well.

    BUT Battle mode is pointless. Absolutely, completely pointless, and I’m someone who rarely has played that since the SNES game. That there’s far more options in race mode than battle mode is more than a little goofy. It’s a complete failure in design concept (feels more like they designed it as online-only and then made it functional for local multiplayer with minimal effort), and more than enough justification to bump the grade down to a C.

  24. ‘Again, you can call me a Devil’s Advocate if you wish, but I don’t believe that leaning on the crutch of “quality” works in any meaningful context.’

    My counterexample: The New York Yankees probably brought in more revenue in the past 5 years than any other MLB team. Are they the best baseball team in the league? (Of course, my example doesn’t work TOO well since one possible candidate for best team in baseball in the past 5 years would be the Red Sox, who might be #2 in revenues, but… oh well).

  25. I’m sure countless counter-arguments can be made. My main point is that there is no consistent standard of “quality” that has even close to universal corollary with sales. Ergo I don’t trust any standard of “quality” when measuring worth. There’s a saying I’m reminded of here, in fact: an item is worth exactly what you’re willing to pay for it. It must mean something that over 10 million people and counting were willing to pay $50 for Mario Kart Wii. If the reason isn’t that it’s worth $50 to them, then why are they still paying money for it?

    Yeah, I’m going pretty philosophical here. I know personal values people hold don’t always align with what the larger group finds to be valuable. But I also refuse to believe that what my (or any other individual’s) values are the most important values. Sure, what I value is most important to me, and what somebody else values is most important to them, but we have no right to speak for any but ourselves…

    Heh, I wonder how many communication issues could be resolved simply by tacking “in my opinion” to the end of our sentences?

  26. I haven’t played a MK game I really enjoyed like I did the first. They are fun when purely multiplayer, but any multiplyaer game has its moments when playing with my friends (the point being: playing with friends is fun even if a game sucks). MKWii has incredibly cheap AI. I have a friend that plays the Hell out of it and even he agrees that (in single player) the game borders on being arbitrary with who wins. Just ain’t cool, which is why I didn’t buy it.

    @Sky Render: this is a side, but dude, your “philosophical” musings are espousing pure relativism (all the IMO stuff). This is fine and dandy with “what I like” but evaluations of (supposed) quality try to reconcile that with honestly and (at least attempted) objectivity. How “good” a game is (different than “why I like a game”) goes beyond “what I like” and is more about finding common ground. We can disagree on the merits, but just saying “everyone has their own values” or “their own opinions” and leaving it at that is a nice way of saying nothing at all. If value is purely relative their is really nothing to talk about. Not sure why you got aggressive with sales figures…they are something to take into account, but they are far from the ONLY thing.

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