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.