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.
There is no stunt system to speak of. Just a jerk of the remote prompts your character into random move when timed with a jump, or a wheelie when riding a motorbike. Seeing Peach or Yoshi pulling rad somersaults off a half-pipe is a faintly uncomfortable kind of silly - like watching Master Chief dance a tango, or Tony Hawk jumping on mushrooms. But Mario Kart can weather a bit of silliness, and the stunts themselves are irrelevant; like everything else in this game, stunts are actually about speed, since they grant a boost when you land. In that sense, they work superbly, more so on the new tracks which have been designed with them in mind.
The bikes are a little bit more of a departure. In theory they make no major changes to the controls or mechanics of Mario Kart, apart from losing one level of powerslide boost - the yellow sparks - to balance out the addition of wheelies, which neuter steering but can add some speed on the straights. Even the heaviest bikes are markedly twitchier than the karts, however, and although their manoeuvrability can be a blessing when it comes to threading through littered banana-skins and tightly-packed racers, they take some getting used to. The lightest bikes have powerslides that turn so incredibly sharply that they emerge from the other side of 'effective' into a world of 'almost useless'. Ultimately, they're rewarding and exciting to ride, but the learning curve is not inconsequential.
Bearing that in mind, it's odd that Nintendo has structured Mario Kart Wii the way that it has. The entry-level 50cc Grands Prix are for karts only, and the 100cc medium-difficulty races are exclusive to bikes, while 150cc allows both types of vehicle. As with Mario Kart DS, there eight championships, with sixteen new tracks and sixteen reprisals from former versions of Mario Kart, all the way back to the SNES original. Only once you've fully completed all eight will you unlock the chance to race 50cc and 150cc with both bikes and karts.
Combined with the bikes' unfamiliarity, this makes for a steep difficulty hike after 50cc, which many will find off-putting. That said, 50cc isn't such a pushover that it's not rewarding to work through in itself. The Special Cup tracks - including renditions of Rainbow Road and Bowser's Castle that must rank alongside the all-time best, and the frantic traffic-weaving of Moomview Highway - are superbly dramatic and challenging. Meanwhile, even the first of the retro cups features the fiendish Ghost Valley 2 from Super Mario Kart, hardly the most straightforward of rides.
By and large, the new track design is very close in style to Mario Kart DS: a good number of technically interesting corners slipped into hyperactive barrage of spectacle, hazard, incident, dynamically changing racing lines and opportunities for accident and mischief. There are too many memorable sections to list, though special mention must be made of the treacherous conveyors of Toad's factory and the ridiculous, icy slaloms of DK's Snowboard Cross.
The similarities with Mario Kart DS don't stop there. Mario Kart Wii has the same superlative music - comically squeaky play-room funk, warp-speed folk fiddling and heartbreakingly nostalgic chip-music originals. It has the same plethora of unlockables: you can win access to more characters and six more vehicles. Characters and vehicles are grouped in three rough groups of three, with light, medium and heavy for each. This means you can choose to either exaggerate or balance out the characteristics of your favourite member of Mario's crew: a nice touch. Vehicles are now rated for off-road ability, drift and speed boosts alongside speed, weight, acceleration and handling.
Multiplayer is Mario Kart's lifeblood, and as you'd expect, the Wii version offers a very solid set of options: two- to four-player split-screen, online racing with up to two players per machine, team racing, battle modes, and the excellent Mario Kart Channel for keeping track of your friends, ghost data, online rankings and Nintendo-created competitions. The Channel goes some way to making up for the Wii's lack of voice chat or proper social features, such as a centralised friends list.
However, Nintendo has made a couple of strange and quite damaging decisions in multiplayer. Battle Mode features some great new dynamic arenas for both classic Balloon Battle and a clever and entertaining variant called Coin Runners, where coins you pick up count as health. But it's only possible to play in red vs. blue team games; there's no free-for-all, which to our mind runs contrary to the true spirit of Battle Mode, that of the gleefully ruthless fracas. We were also bitterly disappointed to discover that you can't race through whole GP championships in multiplayer. Only one-off races are available. Hard-fought leaderboard battles with friends over four races have been our favourite way to play Mario Kart since 1993, and that loss will be keenly felt.
(Correction: Since this review was published, Nintendo has informed Eurogamer that it is possible to play sequences of four races with friends both offline and online. Offline, you can choose to select a race each time, randomise, or play in order - effectively allowing you to play through a regular GP if you select the usual first track. Online, racing with Friends, each player can select a track from those available on their save file. This clearly contradicts our observations of the review code and we apologise for the error. After discussion we feel the score below still fits the game.)
But if you're starting to think you might be able to resist Mario Kart Wii, you need to think again. Because as soon as you see the Wii Wheel it comes packed with, you'll fall head over heels in love with it.
In theory, the Wii Wheel is pointless: it's just a plastic housing for the remote, and you can play the game just as well by holding the ends of the remote and steering, unless you want to circumvent that entirely and just use a Classic or GameCube pad. Indeed, the very same steering wheel accessory has already been tried with no discernible success by third parties, including Ubisoft with its dreadful Wii launch games, Monster 4x4 and GT Pro Series.
But that doesn't take into account Nintendo's incredible ability to mould plastic in such a way that it inspires feelings of happiness as soon as you pick it up. The Wii Wheel is ergonomically brilliant, satisfyingly solid and adorably chunky. There's a big fat B button extension underneath for hopping into a slide (or using an item if you opted for the mum-friendly auto-slide control scheme) which is much nicer than using the naked controller. You have a firmer grip, too. It doesn't actually do anything - and yet, using it changes everything.
Powersliding has been at the absolute core of the Mario Kart experience ever since the SNES game. Now that the d-pad-friendly wiggling of the DS game has been removed, sliding in Mario Kart Wii is all about controlling the perfect line with gentle, progressively applied counter-steer. That is far easier and more satisfying with the Wii remote than it is with a stick, and the gorgeous Wii Wheel makes it more enjoyable still.
Ultimately, the sheer sensory pleasure of playing Mario Kart Wii - from the charming animations, to the bopping tunes, to the sugar-rush boosting, to the exquisite steering - far overcomes the few concerns we have about it. It still has to be docked a mark for the awkward structure and compromised battle modes - but it's still unreservedly recommended to anyone for whom Mario Kart is a gaming cornerstone. And really, that should be everyone.
8 / 10
26th March: Review updated with correction about multiplayer GPs.