There are few gaming locations as lonely as first place in Mario Kart Wii. Pitched as a chance to spend a day at the races with your favourite Nintendo mascots, at the front of the pack you find you’ve left the gang behind, aside from the occasional blue shell flung by the cruel AI. Where the grand adventures that spawned the cast pride themselves on discovery, storming ahead here is rewarded with nothing more than eerie stretches of tarmac, made all the emptier by their bloating to accommodate the 12-kart starting grid.
Such bloat wasn’t always the way. Face the 16-track retro cup and memories flood back of surgically pressed SNES shoulder buttons to squeeze a win from tight bends. While zipping through a fattened Ghost Valley 2 or Mario Circuit reminds of hard-fought victories, those pixel-perfect racing lines are rendered obsolete. It’s felt more so in new courses. Luigi Circuit appears as wide as it is long and so generous are the labyrinthine walkways of Coconut Mall that one must plot racing lines within racing lines.
The liberal architect’s handiwork extends beyond course design. A new boosting mechanic does away with the analogue tweaking drifts of previous incarnations: drift length instead determines speed boosts. While the righteous will celebrate the death of Mario Kart DS’s dreaded snaking, it does come at the cost of some skill. Indeed, switching between amateur automatic and expert manual drift reveals nothing more than a hop separating the two. Sure, automatic refuses you a boost reward, but never has the title ‘expert’ been so cheaply given away.
Just one race with the packaged Wii Wheel justifies, or rather betrays, the reasoning behind the tweaked boost. Failing to respond to split-second tweaks, the kind of furious handiwork that would be required to steer in and out of the drift leave no place for the old technique. Abandoning the wheel for an analogue stick – Nunchuck, Classic Controller and GameCube pad are supported – the series’ solid steering instantly returns, but the wheel’s shadow looms in those sweeping bends and slightly sticky karts.
Arguably, such sloppiness is simply a continuation of that prioritization of fun over technicality that so divided Double Dash’s audience. However, this is to overlook additions that attempt to deepen the races played out on the unwieldy fields, finding again that time trial impetus that Double Dash lost. A new bike class adds a preliminary choice: do you stick with the tried and tested kart or take to Mario’s dirt bike or Peach’s more respectable scooter for a lighter, if boost-starved, ride? The decision will be swayed further by the bike’s wheelie capacity that sees slight acceleration at the price of being susceptible to shunts.