Retro Metro Volume II #5 / #6: Mario Kart Wii
“Everyone points to famous and historic ancestors in their family tree. It’s their way of being thankful that they themselves weren’t there when history was being made.”
–Arkol, Argivian Scholar, The Shattered Alliance
“May you live in interesting times.”
–English expression based on a nonexistent Chinese curse
Hey, it’s me, Ben Buyer. Someone remembers me, right? These days, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is my household’s de facto multiplayer game. Despite The Virus of Crowns, my step-siblings still come over to see their dad, and when they do, that game is often what is played. However, I have recently managed to change minds (re: gotten people to play Mario Kart while the Switch’s TV is being watched), and play a little of what is the greatest Mario Kart: Mario Kart Wii. In fact, just the day before I wrote this article, I unlocked Birdo and Toadette, knowing that they might see use.
Now, most video game article writers would disagree with me. Wii ranks consistently mid-tier on MK listicles, like this one, with people basically saying it’s a worse 8 or 7—a game I also have experience with, since I got Gold on all its courses. But to me, MKWii is perfection. There’s no dumb coins and no best kart-and-wheel combos you have to unlock. You have a balanced set of choices between karts and bikes. There’s also only Mario characters, and Mario stages, because it’s called Mario Kart, dammit! Furthermore, there’s no fancy gimmicks. The game doesn’t try to look cool with anti-gravity or hang-gliding. It’s just pure, clean Karting.
This is also the best Mario Kart because of its length. Courses in 7 and 8 are an absolute slog, and some of them aren’t even in laps, despite that being the whole point of a race. Wii has courses that are just the right length, along with a variety of shorter courses from older games. That really gives you a sense of continuity and history—you get courses from the past, but never feel like they are so dramatically different from the new courses that it’s jarring. As to courses, I’d like to talk about the music. The music in the new courses of 8 is just awful, and honestly boring. Wii however has all-time greats like Mushroom Gorge and Coconut Mall.
Wii also doesn’t shy away from a challenge. In 8, you literally cannot fall off the track unless you choose to, while in MKWii a single fall can be devastating. Rainbow Road is the fearsome last course it’s supposed to be: a final test of your adaptability that asks you to go slow, not fast. Ghost Valley 2 may be short, but is still the undoing of many Karters, even to this day. Even Koopa Cape can shrink you if you hit electric beams, a function that was removed when the course returned in 8. MKWii also is home to a Time Trials mode, where you can challenge yourself and take pride in beating the records of the developers themselves, and unlock characters to boot. But this game is also fair: shells do not ignore gravity to hit you in the air, for example.
MKWii also has quality items. There’s no gimmicky “7” item or useless coin. Instead, you get the “Lightning Cloud,” a vicious item that can confer shrinkage on a single enemy, but which can hit you if you do not bump the cloud into someone else. Many dislike this item, but it provides a sense of real risk and reward that makes games like this fun. Other items, however, are not so fickle. In 8, rotating items—which the three bananas have become—do not guarantee immunity from an errant shell, while in MKWii, they actually offer the protection they claim.
Finally, the thing Wii has above any other Mario Kart is exploits. Pretty much every course has a high-profile shortcut which abuses the game mechanics to complete races really quickly. For example, in Grumble Volcano, there is a small island to the left a bit after the starting line, and you can drive around that island to complete a lap. In later games, something like this would be patched out, and indeed this island does not feature in 8’s Grumble Volcano. Yes, the designers did not intend this, but these things are fun and cool and do not affect anyone’s enjoyment of the game, because of how cumbersome they are to pull off.
So that’s enough nostalgia-tinted ranting for one article, but seriously, play MKWii if you have it. For the remainder of our time together I feel it is only fair to give you guys a proper review of this game. This should help those of you who understood nothing of what I just said.
MKWii came out for the Nintendo Wii in 2008. It is the sixth entry in the long-running Mario Kart franchise, and as such, the game plays out in the same way. You pick a character and a kart, both of which can be unlocked by interesting conditions or playing a lot of races, like Super Smash Bros., as opposed to dumb coins, like microtransaction-filled mobile games. Then, you and 11 others (some of which may be other humans) race around on a track, vying to be the fastest and win. Items inside Mario staple “question blocks” keep things interesting by giving people randomized effects, such as a shell you hurl at others to delay their progress, a lightning bolt that makes everyone else small for a time, a Star Power that makes you invincible, etc. MKWii features 32 tracks to race on: 16 new tracks, and 16 from the other five games.
This does not consist of all the strategy to the game, however. For example, like in real life, riding directly behind someone for an extended time lets you “draft” and gain lots of speed for a bit (I used to refer to this as a “straightaway,” as this is easiest in a straight area and I assume that was the primary condition.) You can also drift, which lets you complete a tight turn, and build up charge to release later for a burst of speed. This can be set to manual or automatic, but automatic is pretty bad—I wouldn’t even bother. (Another contrast to 8: turning off a “training wheels” feature makes you do better, not worse.) When going off a jump, one can “trick” to gain speed when you hit the ground again.
Graphically, this game is at the quality of any Wii game, and is very nice. Like with many games, I actually prefer these older graphics to the high-definition modern ones. (See: the fur of characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.) The music is, as stated previously, also of a very high caliber.
Because the Wii is known for it, let’s talk about controls. This game’s signature control scheme is the Wii Remote turned sideways in a proprietary “Wii Wheel.” I would discourage this however, since you have to turn the wheel to move the Kart, and tricking requires annoyingly vigorous shaking. I myself use the Classic Controller, although if you don’t have one, the Nunchuck is fine. No matter what you use, I will say that this is infinitely superior to the Circle Pad of the 3DS, or a drifty Joy-Con on the Switch. And I applaud Nintendo for being willing to experiment with controls—something video game companies, who have all but standardized their controllers these days, are sorely lacking in general.
At any other time, I would heartily recommend Mario Kart Wii. Even now, it serves as a great distraction that many people can engage in together, a game whose challenge makes it that much more absorbing. However, of course, I understand that acquiring a Wii is not easy. Please do not go buying one just for the sake of this article; it is by no means an essential transaction Amazon or others need to be focusing their resources on. But if you have MKWii, and maybe haven’t played it in many years, now would be a great time to get back into it.