Review: Mario Kart Wii

May 10, 2008

Summary: Mario Kart Wii is the latest in the long line of kart stalwarts from nintendo. Mario Kart has appeared on the SNES, N64, GBA, GameCube, DS and now the Wii – and the Wii version may be the most fun of them all. Why? Online multiplayer, that’s why.

Gameplay – A: If you haven’t played a Mario Kart game before the idea is deceptively simple. Race a go-kart around a variety of cartoony tracks against a variety of other Nintendo characters. Depth is provided by the choice of driver and kart as well as a thorough understanding of the gameplay mechanics, which are very solid. Drifting is one of the most essential techniques in any of the Kart games, and in the Wii edition it’s made a little simpler. Gone is the need to constantly push in and out of the direction of your drift – now you just need to hold your drift for a period of time to get a boost. You can hold your drift longer for a second boost while driving a kart, but bikes only get one boost per drift.

Did I mention bikes? Indeed – now in addition to the 3-4 karts available per character (which are mostly just re-skins of the same basic themes: standard, speed, control and unlockable), you have the opportunity to choose from various types of bikes. In general the bikes are more maneuverable and accelerate more quickly, but are more prone to on-track problems when they go up against a cart, especially one driven by a larger character (like DK). In single player mode the bikes are available in the 100 and 150 cc races, while karts are available in the 50 and 150 cc races.

It wouldn’t be a Mario Kart game without power ups, and a few new items make the list this go-round. Of note are the new super mushroom (from New Super Mario Bros.), which makes your character and kart “extra big” to smash other karts and obstacles, like those pesky goombas, brain-dead cows and discourteous AI-controlled drivers. Also available are POW blocks that cause all the other racers to spin out and drop their items and a thundercloud – you have to “tag” another racer within a few seconds of getting the cloud or you’ll be struck by lightning and turned into a teeny-weeny racer.

Another addition to the Wii version of Kart is the availability of multiple control schemes. Some might call it a plethora of control schemes. The options available include the new Wii Wheel (into which you place your Wiimote), Wiimote + Nunchuck, Wiimote only, Gamecube controller or classic controller. Each of these options (with one notable exception) has its drawbacks. The Wii Wheel is fun but because it relies on motion detection to steer it seems a little smooshy – in single player mode the wheel works OK in 50cc and some 100cc play, but at 150cc it just isn’t accurate enough in those races where every split-second counts. The Wiimote on its own just doesn’t work well at all – it’s too erratic. You essentially hold it horizontally as if the controller were in a Wii Wheel, but you lose some stability that comes with the wheel when just using the Wiimote. The GC and classic controllers suffer from the control flaw that tricks (which you can perform in mid-air on jumps to gain a speed boost on landing) require the use of the D-pad, which means you need to let go of the stick. This can be a killer in some of the tracks where mid-air course corrections are necessary – I’m looking at you, Mushroom Gorge.

The one control scheme that I don’t have any fault to assign is the Wiimote+Nunchuk combo. You get all the precision necessary to snake through some of the more challenging hidden corridors, you get the force feedback and remote speaker of the Wiimote and you still get a pretty immersive experience. Sure, it’s not quite as pure fun as the Wii Wheel – so I do recommend giving the wheel a try. It was universally panned as gimmicky prior to launch, but lots of the online reviewers have been rethinking their pre-release positions and retracting their skepticism.

Kart Wii includes 32 total tracks – 16 new tracks in four cups as well as 16 “classic” cups in four cups. The new tracks range from the “variations on a theme” concept of building on previous classics to the insane new ideas that can be either delightfully fun or maddeningly challenging – sometimes both. Here are some of my favorites of the new tracks.

Moo Moo Meadows (Mushroom Cup): This is an “evolution” of the Moo Moo Farm classic track and is pretty fun. There are cows that start to make their way onto the track in the 2nd lap, monty moles that now move around underground and can slow you down with their dirt piles as well as spin you out if you collide with them, and some jumps to use for mini-boosts. I enjoyed this track quite a bit in single player mode, but it comes up SO OFTEN in multiplayer that I’m actually getting a little tired of it.

Mushroom Gorge (Mushroom Cup): Make your way through the Mushroom kingdom, including jumping across giant bouncy mushrooms to bridge chasms and gorges. This can require some careful mid-air course corrections, and a badly timed blue shell or mid-air collision with a heavier player can send you into lakitu recovery mode very quickly.

Coconut Mall (Flower Cup): Drive your way through a giant two-level shopping mall, zooming up and down escalators and out into the parking lot where cars driven by the Miis on your system do their part to make your race even more unpredictable. This track shows up a lot online too, and there’s a reason – it’s lots of fun. Make certain you check the direction of the escalators as you approach – trying to go up the down escalator is a mistake you won’t want to make twice in the same race.

Wario’s Gold Mine (Flower Cup): This is a combination of a classic Wario dirt track and a suspended track that features the occasional swarm of bats and mining carts dragging question mark boxes along behind. This trick gave me some trouble at first, but now I’m finding it to be a lot of fun.

Koopa Cape (Star Cup): This is the Mario Kart equivalent of a water slide level, and it is way too much fun. The dry land sections of the course involve climbing up to the top of a hill where you then jump into a fast-moving stream that takes you into a warp pipe and through a see-through underground pipe laced with electrically charged fans. Sounds wild, right? It is, but in a really great way – this is probably my favorite new track and is worth spending some time on.

Moonview Highway (Special Cup): This course is one of those that includes other moving vehicles, forcing you to change lanes and weave in and out of traffic. This is made much more interesting when you have other players doing everything they can to (a) avoid the traffic and (b) cause you to collide with it.

Rainbow Road (Special Cup): The latest in a long line of amazingly fun tracks that requires some real skill to get through without falling to your doom. This iteration is stylized on the Super Mario Galaxy space theme and is really beautiful – until you plunge off of the side of the track and fall to the Earth below and start BURSTING INTO FLAMES when you gain re-entry. I am not kidding…your cart bursts into flames. NICE.

The difficulty level of the game increases pretty significantly as you progress through the different cups and CC levels, and this becomes especially apparent in the frequency that the AI uses weapons and power ups to make your day very annoying. Trying to spend your entire race at the head of the pack with a healthy lead will likely just cause almost every other racer to come up with those blue flying shells, all of which are heading right for you and there’s not a darned thing you can do to avoid them. This is really not a whole lot different from the other games (especially the DS version, in my opinion), but the AI does seem especially hard on players that are good enough to get into first place for a significant amount of time. The annoying thing is that being in first place means that everything you get is pretty much going to be just bananas and green shells. It is possible to deflect incoming red shells with those items, but the aforementioned blue shells spell doom for a significant lead. This can lead to some frustration, and that’s probably a slight understatement…but sometimes you can use the same type of trick to pull out a come from behind win, and those taste pretty darned sweet.

Graphics – A-: I’ve read a few comments around the interwebs that complain about the Wii version just not looking as pretty as expected, and I guess I may be missing something…but take a look at levels like some of those mentioned above (especially the Rainbow Road and Koopa Cape) and tell me that this isn’t a beautiful game. The thing about Mario Kart is that it is supposed to look cartoony, but this version of the game is very clearly drawn and animated. When other karts go driving by I have no trouble seeing who the character is, what kart model they are driving and even what items they are dragging behind them. Occasionally you see some graphic artifacts (like jaggy lines) that detract only slightly, but otherwise this is really a very solid game graphically – it’s certainly on par with the other Wii games out there. It isn’t as deeply saturated as Mario Galaxy, but I don’t really think that it needs to be – this is a racetrack after all, and not every course should look like the Rainbow Road. Sometimes you need to just make dirt look like…well, dirt.

Multiplayer: A-. This is one of the best reasons to play a Kart game, and this iteration of the franchise expands on the online capabilities introduced with Mario Kart DS. I’m personally a grand prix racer, so I spent several hours looking for random races – both wordwide and regional – to test my skills on. The games starts you out with 5000 points, and placing well in an online race will net you a point increase relative to your current point level while placing poorly will penalize you in a similar fashion. So if you’ve managed to get yourself up to 7500 points and win a race against a bunch of 5500 point racers you won’t necessarily score as many points as a 5500 point racer who had done the same – the game seems to be weighting point additions and subtractions based both upon your point level and the point level of those you’re racing.

The game supports the use of friend codes to play against people you know, which is just as annoying as ever. I have only tried to do this once against a friend from work and just didn’t have very good luck. I just don’t have that many friends with Wiis. 😦 So if you’d like to race online, let me know and I’ll send you my friend code. I’m thinking about getting in on the Infendo Thursday night Kart challenge.

Local multiplayer is always available for up to 4 racers, and you can also have a second racer join you in online multiplayer, which is quite cool. In all the hours I’ve spent now in online multiplayer I haven’t really noticed any lag while racing. The delays seem to happen between races, when you are waiting for the race to be set up or for the other racers to choose whether they want to vote for a specific track or for a random one. It’s obvious that certain tracks are much more popular than others online – I saw lots of Koopa Cape, Daisy Circuit, Moo Moo Meadows and Coconut Mall than any of the other new tracks. Every so often someone would vote for a classic track, of which the Gamecube DK mountain seemed to be the most often nominated.

Replay Value: A. Truth be told, aside from Twilight Princess this is the game I’ve spent the most time on since buying my Wii, with the possible exception of Mario Galaxy. Going through all the different cups on each of the CC levels is just the first step – there are tons of unlockables, including characters, karts and bikes. You can get special little icons that appear next to your Mii when playing online by doing things like scoring very well during the grand prix mode or playing with the Wii Wheel extensively…which is a good thing, I guess. There are also some pretty cool shortcuts on many of the courses that are fun to find, and online multiplayer with fellow racers from around the world makes each race unique and generally fairly challenging. I find the multiplayer races to be more fun than the solo grand prix mode, mainly because of the AI ruthlessness that I mentioned above.

So overall, this game scores a very solid A from me. That said, your mileage may vary. Ha! Get it? Mileage? Karts? Racing? I didn’t pay for that one, feel free to use it.


Now Playing: Mario Kart Wii

May 3, 2008

I picked up Mario Kart Wii from Target last Sunday morning but I just haven’t had that much time to play it yet. I did spend a couple of hours with the game earlier this week and thought I’d offer a few first impressions.

Controls: You’ve probably read all about it elsewhere, but there are at least 4 different control schemes for the game. I’m here to tell you that the only two that matter are the remote/nunchuk combo and the Wii wheel. The remote/nunchuk seems to be the most responsive to me, but the wheel is surprisingly fun. I did try the wavebird controller and wasn’t very excited – you have to take your finger off of the analog stick and hit the d-pad to pull off a trick when jumping, and that’s a little risky. I think I’m mostly going to stick with the remote/nunchuk.

Graphics: Pretty sweet! The tracks that I’ve seen have been very impressive, and as the franchise has developed the tracks have gone from being flat to much more 3-dimensional, with jumping and multiple levels scattered throughout. The eye candy is pretty nice, but it’s not what I’d call a “quantum leap” – it’s not as brilliantly eye-catching as Super Mario Galaxy, but very nice nonetheless.

Gameplay: Overall it’s just not that much different from the classic games. The Infendo podcast called it a combination of Mario Kart DS and Double Dash, and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The one big complaint that everyone has is about the merciless use of lead-killing weapons (like those blue koopa shells) that make the game more about random chance and less about skill. I will say that I haven’t encountered that to the degree that many reviewers have, but as I said I haven’t played it through entirely.

One comment to make about all the Kart coverage going on out there – has everyone forgotten Mario Kart Advance? That was a pretty fun game – not as exciting as DS, but it was the first to let you play Kart wherever you wanted to…

Still to Come: I haven’t really done much with the bikes or multiplayer (online or local), so I’m going to give all of that a spin and try to post a longer review later this week sometime.

Update 1: I finished the Williams Pinball challenge mode, and that was a ton of fun. Going through all the tables in a row was cool, and there was one table (Space Shuttle) that just about gave me a fit. I don’t know why – in arcade mode I routinely pwn that game, but in the challenge it pretty much pwned me.

Update 2: For you Doctor Who fans, The Poison Sky has finished airing on the BBC and is snaking its way around the world as we speak. I’ll have a review up later tonight – I’m really looking forward to this one!


My Thoughts on Grand Theft Auto IV

April 29, 2008

Disclaimer: I have never played a GTA game in my life. Not once. The only thing I knew about this game before today was that it apparently involves capping cops and banging whores, if the popular media is to be believed. So what did I think as someone completely new to this franchise after an hour and a half of gameplay?

FREAKIN’ SWEET.

The CIO at our company was gracious enough to get an XBox 360 for the IT department a few months ago, and since then we’ve been pretty content with playing local multiplayer in Halo 3. It’s a ton of fun – we have some people on the team that are pretty darned good at FPS games, we have some that are OK but not great, and then there’s me – Mr. Poo. I stink at any game that doesn’t have “Mario” in the title, and even those I’m just passable at.

So today one of our co-workers brought in the copy of GTA4 that he picked up at midnight at a local Blockbuster, along with some cheat codes so we could mess with different weapons. Since GTA4 just doesn’t have local multiplayer at all, we just took turns cruising around the mean streets of Liberty City, generally trying to cause as much mayhem as possible and avoid dying for as long as we could.

The scope of the game is really just amazing – there’s so much to interact with, and it seems like almost everything in the environment is in some way interactive or at least “blow-uppable.” Tossing molotov cocktails onto the front steps of the police station and watching hobos run in flames was something of a guilty pleasure, but then we discovered the amazing physics engine in place while driving.

Getting the hang of driving was something of a challenge, especially for those of us who had never played the game. It was fun finding more and more interesting cars to “appropriate” and drive in – I even managed to carjack a trash truck at one point. But then we discovered what happens when you slam into an immovable object (like a police barricade) at a high rate of speed – the car stops, but YOU don’t! I hadn’t really seen a game realistically portray the physics of high-speed collisions before – and I probably still haven’t seen a “realistic” simulation of it – but it certainly was fun to watch the carnage unfold. At one point one of my co-workers was thrown through the windshield of what appeared to be a Camaro and literally wrapped his bouncing body around a light pole. Crikey!

We obviously didn’t get into the online multiplayer or anything, and we only played for an hour and a half over some d’Bronx pizza at lunch, but it was quite the enjoyable experience. I don’t think the game would cause me to go buy an XBox 360 quite yet, but it’s darn compelling. The only reason I probably wouldn’t is because of my little boy.

Now before you go thinking that I’m a prude, hear me out. There is a lot of pretty raw language in this game, and TJ is just coming up on 2 years old – meaning he can say almost anything he can hear. I don’t really want him going around spouting off the things said in the game, and while I am firmly in the camp that “games are fantasy,” I do think that a mature game like this should be played by mature kids. I hope that TJ grows up into the type of boy that can understand these types of things for what they are, but I want the chance to watch him interact with these games and understand what he does. I know for a fact that some friend of his will someday break out an M-rated game and he’ll certainly here just as bad if not worse in the hallways at school, but that doesn’t mean I can’t at least try to help him deal with those things in a healthy and mature manner. If TJ can develop the maturity to see these things for what they are and not become too attached or influenced by them, I’d be cool with him playing these type of games someday in a supervised environment. But until then it’s going to be Mario Kart and Smash Bros.


Review: Pinball Hall of Fame for Wii

April 23, 2008

A week or two ago the good folks at Infendo tipped me off to a hidden gem – Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection for Wii. I thought I’d give a crack at writing a video game review here, so without further adieu…

Summary: Pinball Hall of Fame provides the player with 10  classic Williams pinball tables in a few different playable modes, all in a “retro” 80’s era arcade motif. The game makes use of the Wii remote and nunchuck, and includes some minor motion controls in the form of table-shaking. If you enjoyed the pinball tables of yesteryear, this game actually offers a lot in terms of gameplay, replay value and visuals.

Gameplay: A-. The use of the triggers on the remote and nunchuck for the right and left flipper buttons is inspired – it’s so obvious, but it works very well. The control scheme also includes the use of the nunchuck thumb-stick to pull the plunger on each table, which makes a lot of sense. For tables with a skill shot, you can visually adjust the power of your plunger launch with ease, but there’s a reason those are called skill shots. You can bump the table by shaking either the remote or nunchuck (or both), but I just haven’t really gotten the hang of that myself yet. The game offers a couple of different modes – an open “arcade” mode in which you spend credits to play tables, and a “challenge” mode that pits you against each of the tables in the collection.

During the challenge mode, you have three chances per table to score a targeted amount of points, otherwise the challenge ends. The scores range from pretty easy to somewhat difficult, and I’m about 7 tables in to the challenge so far. In the arcade more you can earn credits based on the score you earn on each table, and frankly there’s no reason why anyone with a central nervous system should ever run low on credits. By doing well on tables – getting high scores and performing other specific actions for each table – you can unlock “free play” mode for any table you choose. This allows you to play the table without the use of credits, which is not exactly a huge incentive but fun nonetheless. The goals for each table generally take you through the high-scoring gameplay options, like causing the creepy head in Funhouse to go to sleep, or hitting a specific point goal.

One of the best things about the game has nothing to do with core gameplay, but it can help anyone be a pinball wizard. Each table has an illustrated and spoken tutorial that walks you through the features and gameplay. While the voiceover essentially reads through text displayed on the screen, the table pans and zooms to illustrate specific points in the tutorial. Some of the tables included in the game have a dizzying array of scoring options, so this particular feature is actually really cool. Each time I encounter a new table in the challenge mode I go back to the tutorial to find out what I’ve missed.

The tables included are widely varied in terms of features and time periods represented. There are a couple of early tables, several from the 70’s and a few that go up into the mid 80’s. The earlier tables tend to have fewer scoring features and are generally a little more sparse, while the later tables have more ramps, magnetic features and multiball options.

Audio/Visual: B+. The graphics for the game are really very good – in fact, during normal gameplay they’re quite excellent. The reflections on the table are well done, and you can choose to even include reflections on the table glass, offering a little additional realism. The only reason I’m grading down a little on the graphic portion of the score is because of the opening titles – they’re just quite awful. Even though the entire game is obviously rendered and not some kind of video capture, the opening looks like a really grainy full-motion walkthrough of the arcade and it just doesn’t look good.

The audio component of the game is a little more mixed. Again, the core gameplay features realistic samples from the actual tables and is excellent. The sounds in the board select area pretty well reflect the sounds of an arcade, so those are fine too. The problem is the supposed 80’s music played during the stage selection and other intermission areas of the game – it’s just a bunch of awful junk that I would willingly spend no time to listen too. But the fact is, why would I want to when I really just want to get back to the awesome gameplay on the tables themselves?

Replay Value: A. This game can be played over and over again, just like a real pinball game. Even though you think you may have mastered a table, there is enough of an element of chance on each table that you can always do better. There are enough table goals to keep you busy for quite a while, and having the tutorials available makes it possible to continue to find more and more scoring options for each table. Honestly, I don’t know when I’ve played a game that keeps drawing me back for more as much as this one.

Overall Score: A-. This is hands down one of the best values on the Wii, and if you’ve ever enjoyed a pinball game at all you will likely enjoy this very faithful simulation. I’ve seen around the interwebs that the game can be found for under $20 at certain places (Target), but the retail price of $29.99 is not asking too much at all.