Version tested: Wii
Mario Kart Wii sets out its stall in the last corner of the first track in the Mushroom Cup, Luigi Circuit. There's a chicane, followed by a huge, wide, banked curve, which leads onto the finishing straight. Inside the chicane, off the track, is a ramp. The top of the banked curve is lined with a series of ten or so on-track zip pads.
So, if you have a mushroom item in store, the quickest route around the corner is this. You use the mushroom for a speed boost, short-cutting across the chicane. You hit the ramp and jerk back on the wheel, executing a stunt. This gives you a speed boost when you hit the track again. Then you hit the first zip pad, and get a speed boost. You hop and slide, counter-steering with the wheel, sparks flying, first blue, then yellow. You hold the slide as the zip pads give you speed boost after speed boost after speed boost. You hit the straight and come out of the slide - which gives you a speed boost.
If you're really lucky, you'll have been doing all this in line behind another racer, slipstreaming granting a speed boost. If you're on a motorbike, you can then pull a wheelie down the straight. This gives you... you get the idea.
With Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo seems to be making a world record attempt for the greatest number of boost mechanics in a single racing game. We haven't even mentioned the half-pipe track designs, where there's a strip of vertical boost along the lip of the track that sends your kart up in the air in a soaring, Tony Hawk-style parabola. Pulling these moves gives you a particularly huge speed boost when you land. And then there are the tracks that feature conveyor belts and water rapids that nearly double your basic speed. Not to mention the other speed boost pick-ups: triple mushrooms, golden mushrooms, New Super Mario Bros-style giant mushrooms, bullet bills, invincibility stars...
Mario Kart Wii has an obsession with ever-escalating speed that rivals the Burnout series, or even WipEout. You're constantly searching every inch of track for opportunities to go faster amid the classic confusion and slapstick chaos for which Mario Kart is known - albeit ramped up by the expansion of the field from eight to twelve racers. It's intense, addictive and powerfully exhilarating. It blends cartoon foolishness with a viciously random cruel streak. But beneath both is a deep, precise, and technically rewarding racing game that you can sink hours into in time trial alone. In other words, it's classic Mario Kart.
Well - mostly. Mario Kart Wii is very similar to its immediate predecessor, Mario Kart DS, considered by most to be the strongest Mario Kart since N64 days at least. But it has made a couple of controversial additions to the fifteen-year-old formula: stunts and motorbikes. In an odd coincidence, these were also the additions made by a very different racing game - Project Gotham Racing 4 - last year, and they were initially met with scepticism in both cases. In both cases, the scepticism turns out to be unfounded. If anything, Mario Kart Wii's stunts and bikes are better integrated with the game than PGR4's were.