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Nintendo Wii Mario Kart Bundle (Spring 2011) review: Nintendo Wii Mario Kart Bundle (Spring 2011)

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As of November 2011, the Nintendo Wii will be five years old. That's a long time in game years: in fact, it's nearly a console generation. To no great surprise, then, Nintendo has already announced the Wii's successor, the Wii U, a new type of revolutionary device with a likely 2012 release. Until then, the Wii still survives, but as a lame-duck console. That doesn't mean it should be overlooked. Nintendo's latest Wii console bundle--the fourth since the Wii's debut--is the lowest-priced ever, at $150, although the components have changed since last year's $200 bundle.

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Nintendo Wii Mario Kart Bundle (Spring 2011)

The Good

The <b>Nintendo Wii Hardware Bundle (with Mario Kart)</b> has a lot going for it: clean, accessible design; a great library of family-friendly games; a still-iconic controller design that can be used for motion games or more traditional button-based games; Virtual Console library and WiiWare games that offer a unique and affordable collection of classic titles; the Wii Remote Plus controller, updated with built-in MotionPlus; and Netflix streaming.

The Bad

Online connectivity is hampered by closed-garden design; graphics and video playback cap at 480p; other than Netflix, the Wii has no other video-streaming or entertainment offerings, and can't play CDs or DVDs; its graphics continue to look ever more outdated compared with rival consoles, and the unique qualities that motion gaming offered are now available in accessories from rival consoles; and, finally, the decision to replace both Wii Sports games with Mario Kart in this bundle may disappoint casual consumers.

The Bottom Line

For families and lovers of casual games, the even more affordable Wii still represents the best console bundle value in terms of dollars spent, but it's also the system that's first on deck to be outdated. With the announcement of the Wii U, the Wii is a declining console. Still, its sizable and often unique back library of games is still worth playing.

Gone is Wii Sports, the perennial Wii console pack-in. Gone, too, is Wii Sports Resort. Instead, the new Mario Kart bundle includes a Wii Remote Plus, a Nunchuk, a copy of Mario Kart Wii, and a Wii Steering Wheel plastic accessory. Mario Kart's a fun casual racer, but Nintendo's taken its most popular motion-control game out of the equation, forcing people to buy Wii Sports separately. It doesn't make much sense, especially considering the game's five years old. Those interested in multiplayer games will also have to buy an extra Wii Remote Plus and Nunchuk, at $40 and $20 respectively.

Europe has announced an even less expensive redesigned Wii bundle, but the $150 Mario Kart version remains the least expensive Wii console in the U.S. We'd love to see this system drop down to $99, but that's just wishful thinking for now. That said, it can be found for under $135 from such major retailers as Wal-Mart and Amazon.com.

So the question remains: at those prices--about half those of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360--is the Wii worth the investment for first-time buyers?

The answer, as usual, is, "It depends." We used to love the Wii for its clean, futuristic design and motion-control family games, but its thunder has since been stolen by motion-control alternatives like the Kinect and PlayStation Move, and by family-friendly gaming devices like the iPad. The Wii was an aging, fading star last fall, and today it's a console that's feeling decidedly last-gen: it still isn't HD, and its appeal beyond budget family entertainment and nostalgic gaming is dwindling fast.

That doesn't mean there aren't a ton of excellent, first-party Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games worth buying, and some interesting bargain-bin exclusives never seen on any other console that would be fun for grown-ups and families alike. The Wii was the cheapest gaming console before, and it remains the cheapest now. But, other than the impending release of Zelda: Skyward Sword, there isn't much to look forward to for the Wii.

At this stage in its life cycle, the Wii isn't really a console to invest in. Our advice is to consider the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 first, currently available for as low as $249 and $199, respectively. Buy the Wii only if you're looking for a kid-friendly gaming console with a solid library of older, affordable games. Just be prepared to invest another $70 to $100 if you need extra controllers and some must-have titles (such as Wii Sports).

With that caveat established--if you're still interested--let's take a look at the system in greater detail.

Hardware
The Wii is arguably the easiest to set up of the three game consoles: even the box comes in clearly labeled sections that resemble Apple's packaging. The console hasn't changed a bit since 2006, unlike both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, which have seen redesigns and performance improvements. The thin, small, minimalist box almost resembles a set-top device. The Wii now comes in black as well as white, and a limited-edition red version was briefly offered last fall for the holiday season to commemorate Mario's 25th anniversary. No matter the color, the clean, almost innocuous look makes the Wii one of the least imposing consoles of all time.

In addition to Nintendo's sizable library of Wii games, in a pleasant but odd tip of the hat, the Wii is backward-compatible with the GameCube, thanks to four GameCube controller ports and two memory card slots that lie tucked away behind a side door. Odds are slim that you'll tap into the GameCube library, unless you're a hard-core Nintendo system owner or a garage-sale shopper. To be honest, we'd rather have other features instead--we'd trade the GameCube jacks for an HDMI-out port without blinking. (That said, we've reviewed a viable alternative that will provide 480p HDMI-out for your Wii: the Neoya Wii2HDMI attachment.) Two rear USB ports work with plug-in peripherals such as microphones, but will otherwise rarely be used. In the front, below Power and Reset buttons, an SD card slot can read photos and video off cameras, or archive downloaded games and save files to expand the limited internal 512MB of storage space on the Wii. There's no Ethernet port for direct-wired Internet connectivity, although the Wii does have internal 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. A separate USB-to-Ethernet adapter is available.

While we appreciate the economical size of the Wii, its features are out-of-date and difficult to upgrade compared with the more PC-like Xbox 360 and PS3. The slot-loading disc player doesn't even play DVDs. Wii controllers connect wirelessly through Bluetooth and are powered by AA batteries, although we recommend one of the rechargeable packs that can be used instead. There are no physical controller ports on the Wii.

The Wii's system menu has a grid layout, with downloadable games and applike channels displayed on a series of pages that remarkably resemble Apple's iOS, although the concept predates Apple by a year. System software can be updated over the Internet relatively painlessly, but other online features are severely hobbled, aside from certain Internet-connected channels and the Wii Shop.

Wii Remote Plus
Since last fall, Nintendo Wii consoles have been packaged with the Wii Remote Plus, an enhanced version of the original Wii Remote incorporating MotionPlus technology in the same form. The gyroscopic technology combines with a built-in accelerometer and infrared sensors on the tip of the Wii Remote to offer more accurate position-based motion sensing than the original Wii Remote. Unfortunately, few games incorporate MotionPlus, so odds are you won't notice the difference unless you happen to be playing one of those games (Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of them, as is Wii Sports Resort).

The new remote's capabilities keep up with Microsoft's Kinect and the PlayStation Move, but both of those peripherals utilize a camera mounted near the TV, while Nintendo's system only requires an IR-beaming sensor bar attached above or below the TV set.

Other features on the Wii Remote remain the same: the clean button layout can be used in a remote-style or horizontal control-pad-like layout, and a variety of plug-in peripherals such as the included Nunchuk or a retro-compatible game controller give the Wii some flexibility for various games, though an increasing number of titles just use the Wii Remote on its own.

Set-top device that could have been
Before the iPhone redefined the idea of Apps, the Nintendo Wii offered up its own grid of Channels with a variety of Internet-connected information functions--in their own way, apps. The potential was huge, especially since Channels could be downloaded directly from an online Wii Shop, but only a few were ever made, and no significant ones in the past couple of years. A Web browser remains the most useful, but navigation gets awkward with the Wii Remote, not to mention some sites have difficulty showing up at all. Other Channels offering global weather, news, and quirky polls felt like gimmicks, and their novelty wore thin. Apps from the likes of Pandora, YouTube, Hulu, or ESPN would have been welcome, but of course they don't exist. Microsoft and Sony have been far more active in this regard, offering sports videos, Hulu Plus, Vudu movie streaming, MLB and NHL games, Last.fm, and many other functions.

The Wii does have a downloadable Netflix Channel, and it works wonderfully. While the app doesn't have HD streaming, navigation with the Wii Remote is effortless, and Netflix's streaming library offers the sort of entertainment that the DVD-free Wii couldn't previously provide. We'd like to see more channels like these, but at this point in the Wii's life cycle it's highly unlikely they'll ever arrive.

Where's my entertainment?
The biggest failing of the Wii, in that regard, is its awkwardness as a set-top box. Netflix aside, there aren't any useful channels or apps that make the Wii anything that anyone would want to use except to play games on. That's fine enough considering the Wii's a game console, but today's systems are transforming into multipurpose devices quite rapidly. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have multiple video-streaming applications, and can also act as media hubs to stream content from nearby PCs. The Wii stands on an island, its only source of content being the Wii Shop. At $150, many will forgive the Wii's lack of versatility, but the fact remains that the Wii just can't compete with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in this territory.

Online, and yet not
The Wii connects online for Wii Shop downloads and occasional online play in some games and Channels, but in most other regards the system is closed off compared with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. User profiles are shared with friends via complicated 12-digit "friend codes," a method designed to protect young gamers, but for others, the system is so arcane that it's likely never to be used. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have far more elegant methods for online messaging, game matchmaking, and community-building.

The Wii does have a capable Web browser that can even play Flash video, but navigation can be a challenge. We'd rather have Internet-connected channels that offered more compelling features than the handful that are currently available.

Digital failings
The Wii Shop has a large library of downloadable games for the Wii, both Wii-specific games (WiiWare) and classic emulated games from old systems including the Sega Genesis, Super NES, N64, and more via the Virtual Console. The library of games offered at this point is substantial, and fans of classic games are in for some treats in the Virtual Console.

However, Nintendo has no method for transferring or redownloading digital content once it's been purchased and stored on a Wii. Games can be stored on SD cards, but not transferred to another console. If you wanted or needed to buy a new Wii, there's no way to copy your digital library to another console, short of sending both Wiis in to Nintendo directly. It's not that you'd really find a need to transfer games, but both the Xbox 360 and PS3 handle digital content in a far friendlier manner.

Storage space on the Wii is also extremely limited: internal storage space fills quickly, and you'll find yourself saving and shuttling between SD cards after that. The lack of a hard drive is a big miss if you download more than 10 games, but you're not likely to run out of space if you just play disc-based games.

While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offer downloadable demos of upcoming titles, the Wii has yet to adopt such a preview system. Features allowing the user to try out a game before purchase have become increasingly popular. Nintendo has begun rolling out game demos for certain WiiWare titles, but we're not sure there will ever be such options for disc-based games.

The future, and the past
At E3 2011, Nintendo announced the successor to the Wii, called the Wii U. The price and release date for the Wii U are still unknown, but the next-gen Nintendo console signals the beginning of the end of the Wii console era. While some notable games will be released for the Wii this holiday season--Zelda: Skyward Sword being the biggest--the already-slow supply of Wii games has become a quiet trickle. The Wii's best days are clearly behind it.

Still, the Nintendo Wii is a kid-friendly, fun casual-games box and a shrine to Nintendo games for loyal fans. There are certainly plenty of great Wii, GameCube, and Virtual Console games to keep any Nintendo fetishist happy for years, and as a museum piece of Nintendo technology, the Wii succeeds greatly. Its variety of health-oriented games and peripherals such as Wii Fit and EA Sports Active could also be appealing to some. Leaving Wii Sports out removes what's arguably the Wii's most iconic must-have game from the box, forcing those who want it to shell out extra for the title or its sequel, but this $150 bundle is the cheapest the Wii's ever been. It's more gaming past than gaming future, but it's still a very good, if dated, product.

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Nintendo Wii Mario Kart Bundle (Spring 2011)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 7