One may wonder why Nintendo would add motorcycles and dirt bikes to the game series that popularised, if not invented, the genre of weapons-based go-kart racing. If you're one of the fans who balked at the inclusion of two-wheeled vehicles, a mid-air stunt system, and motion controls, rest assured that despite these changes, Mario Kart Wii is still very much the game that you have come to love over the years. But even if you haven't been on the receiving end of a blue shell before, the extensive multiplayer options, deeply integrated online functionality, multitude of controller schemes available, and simple gameplay make this latest Mario Kart great fun and quite possibly the most accessible one ever.
The main event of Mario Kart is the Grand Prix mode, which in this version pits you against 11 other computer-controlled competitors in a race to the finish on a four-course cup event. Grand Prix lets you select from three different engine sizes/difficulty settings, with initially four cups available, and an additional four more that are unlockable by conquering their predecessors. This makes for a total of 32 different courses, of which half are brand-new for the Wii and the rest remastered versions of classic stages from previous games. This combination of both new and old provides a solid mix of novelty and nostalgia, but overall, the stylistic differences highlight two of the game's greatest flaws.
One of the major new features is the mid-air stunt system that is activated by flicking the Wii Remote at the very moment you leave the ground from a ramp-assisted jump, making your racer perform an extreme-sports-style trick, such as a 360-degree spin, which upon landing rewards you with a considerable speed boost. To facilitate this new mechanic, most new tracks include huge half-pipes, rampant ramps, a multitude of moguls, and a plethora of pits, all of which are deliberately placed to encourage extensive stunt work. While this new system itself isn't flawed and in fact injects a great deal of fun and new strategy into the gameplay, its influence on course design has made certain items even deadlier, as you're that much more likely to be blasted uncontrollably into lava or other hazards due to how much time you spend in the air.
The second major track-related issue is that the classic courses, while they've never looked better, are much less engaging than their counterparts. While the newer tracks are wild, crazy, and may even change dynamically as Grumble Volcano or Dry Dry Ruins do, the older courses are their polar opposite and are with few exceptions flat, empty, wide-open, and pit-free. Though you may find the occasional ramp or half-pipe haphazardly bolted on to make it play a teeny bit better with the stunt system, it generally seems like Nintendo deliberately decided to make you choose which was more important: stunts or a slightly better item balance. This dichotomy of level design creates a tenuous balance of play styles and is inelegant at best.
Mario Kart Wii includes the standard batch of items that players have come to expect, including mushrooms, starmen, fake item boxes, shells, and more. New items include the thunder cloud, which will automatically shrink you after several seconds unless you ram someone to pass it off onto them; the POW block, which temporarily stuns everyone ahead of you and makes them drop their items; and the mega mushroom, which makes you grow super large for a time to flatten other racers beneath your tyres. While it's pretty much a guarantee of the Mario Kart experience that no one can stay in first forever, some of the more powerful items such as the blue shell, lightning bolt, and POW block appear absurdly often. It's not uncommon to be hit by several of them in a row or even simultaneously if you're in first place.
Much like Super Smash Bros. Brawl before it, Mario Kart Wii includes support for every possible controller configuration under the sun. The game comes packaged with a steering wheel controller shell that allows you to take full advantage of the Wii's motion-sensing abilities for what is perhaps the best purely tilt-driven control scheme available on the market. Though it does take quite a bit of time to get used to, the steering wheel feels quite natural and is very responsive. However, if you're not exactly up to the task or prefer the touch of an analog stick, the Wii Remote with Nunchuk, Classic Controller, or GameCube Controller schemes work just as well, with the directional pads on the more traditional controllers nicely substituting for remote-waggling.
Though the fundamental Mario Kart experience has remained generally the same, there are several changes that can greatly impact gameplay. Drifting mechanics in particular have changed dramatically, both to make it easier to perform for beginners and as a countermeasure against the controversial technique known as snaking (continuously mini-turbo boosting on a straight away). Mini-turbo boosts are no longer performed by wiggling the analog stick. They are instead determined by the amount of time spent in a drift, and in fact can't be done at all in automatic mode. The type of vehicle you select also affects how drifting works, as go-karts have the ability to super mini-turbo boost by drifting around a turn a bit longer than normal. Motorcycles can't do this, but they can pop wheelies for extra speed on straight aways at the cost of impaired turning and increased susceptibility to ramming attacks. It is worth mentioning that while snaking is still possible to perform — especially on wide and open avenues — it is no longer as viable or even as helpful as it once was.