'Mario Kart Wii' is familiar — in a good way

Image: Mario Kart
"Mario Kart Wii" has all the usual Nintendo characters, the old familiar speed bursts and crazy power-ups. The most welcome addition is that it's playable online. Nintendo
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

There’s an old saying that goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and Nintendo definitely took that to heart when they made “Mario Kart Wii.”

That’s a good thing.

The E-rated “Mario Kart Wii” has all the things fans love about the family-friendly racing series: Players still slide through corners in order to gain speed bursts, and use crazy power-ups, like banana peels and turtle shells, to make their competitors spin out, but there are some new tricks to learn as well.

“Mario Kart Wii” features the usual Nintendo characters, but this time you can also race as your very own Mii (that’s your Wii avatar). And along with 16 new racetracks, there are 16 retro tracks ripped right out of previous “Mario Kart” titles.

Plus, for the first time ever in franchise history, you can ride motorbikes. Like the karts, bikes get power boosts when you slide them through corners, but bikes can also get a power boost by popping a wheelie. You have to be careful though, as you’re more susceptible to spin outs while your tire is in the air — not to mention it’s much harder to steer that way.

The most delightful part of "Mario Kart Wii" is that it's playable online via Nintendo's Wi-Fi connection, letting you race your friends either beside you in the room or halfway around the world — or even both at the same time. The game allows two people using the same Wii to play online simultaneously (though a second controller will be needed, natch).

The online aspect of the game actually outshines the single player mode. Not only does it allow for up to 12 people to race at once, it lessens the “rubberband” effect (the clumping together of karts by the game’s artificial intelligence) that the series has been faulted for in the past. Those pesky power-ups still keep the better players from really pulling away from the pack, but racing against real people instead of an A.I. definitely makes for an improved experience.

Furthermore, while these matches are being set up, you’ll be  shown each racer’s Mii and where on the globe they come from. It’s a charming little touch that reminds us just how small our world has become.

But the best part about playing online is that it’s all included in the game’s $49.99 price tag (though you do have to provide your own Internet service).

On the downside, to connect with your peeps online you have to enter a clunky 12-digit friend code. Even when you do hook up with them you can’t chat, as there’s no voice support. That is a real shame because “Mario Kart Wii” is a game ripe for bravado and friendly barbs.

So while Nintendo didn’t exactly try to — if you’ll pardon the pun — reinvent the wheel with the latest “Mario Kart” incarnation, they do include one when you purchase the game. It’s a small plastic steering wheel that fits into your Wii remote. As gimmicky as it may sound, it actually works pretty well. It’s much more comfortable to hold for long periods of time than the remote is by itself.

The wheel also extends the B button (the “trigger” on the bottom of the remote), which makes it easier to press while you’re racing. That’s good because that B button controls your brakes, something you’ll use a lot as you slide into corners and create those speed boosts.

Unfortunately, if you have multiple gamers in your household, buying a second wheel will set you back $14.99, and that’s on top of the $39.99 it costs for a second Wii remote.

On the bright side, “Mario Kart Wii” is designed to work with a bunch of different controllers: the Wii remote either by itself or with the nunchuk attached, the Wii classic controller, and the GameCube controller. Actually, veteran gamers may even prefer to use their old familiar controllers.

But no matter which controller you pick, no matter if you’re an old fan of the franchise or brand new to gaming, you can instantly pick up “Mario Kart Wii” and have a fun time.