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Racing Down Memory Lane

I often think that you should never go backwards through a series. Whilst you may have fond memories of a supposed classic, a creep of features and evolving controls can often make you wonder whether the prescription on your rose tinted glasses needs updating. Never was that more evident than last week as I took my Super Nintendo into work and hooked up the original Mario Kart for an office competition.

The theory behind our choice of game was that even though there were pockets of 3DS Mario racers and still some hardcore Wii Karters, the original entry in the series had not been seen on the premises in nearly a decade. Hopefully this extended absence would mean there were no hard-core fanatics ready to bust out a well-practiced hot lap. More so than that, the name alone promotes an accessible and familiar series that we hoped would coax as wider a range of people in as possible.

The theory was sound, but as I wired up the system, plugged in the cartridge, and sat on the starting grid for the first time in years, my fond memories were on the cusp of disappearing in a belch of exhaust fumes.

Our modern expectations of the number one racing series for plumbers is characterised by elaborate backgrounds, wide circuits and easy to control karts. There’s a lushness to each stop on the grand prix circuit that has grown over time, yet Mario Circuit 1 is anything but. As neat as the Mode 7 graphics are, that initial track is strangely bland. The mind’s eye paints in a lot but the misshapen doughnut road sits upon a dull dirt plateau, the only thing tying it into the Mario series being the iconic green hills sliding by in the distance.

Of course when you’re racing you barely notice anything but the pipes dotted about the track; you focus on the race and your character so the lack of franchise padding is of little interest. What is noticeable however is the incredibly unforgiving handling.

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There was a time that I mocked my younger sister for her uncanny ability to fish tail all the way down a straight. She seemed unable to point the cart in a straight line, always overcompensating, turning out to the other side of the track, forcing another correction and the cycle to begin again.

I now take everything back. A combination of sensitive digital controls and a large amount of over-steer saw me lurch back and forth, fighting to keep Luigi in his kart and out of the dirt. I daren’t even attempt power-slide as it was a sure fire recipe for ending up with Lakita flagging me down and kindly informing me that I was pointing in the wrong direction. It was a desperate return to a classic I had played for hours and hours as a teenager.

As I staggered over the line, my driver green in more ways than one, my high scores of 16 years past flashed up on screen. My younger self had somehow managed a 1:07.86, an embarrassing amount quicker than my stumbling return. My only thought was that over the years I had gotten soft with analogue controls and countless driver assists turned on. A culture of rubber banding and a need for instant success has caused me to forget how you had to work at games in generations gone by. And just before I popped my flat cap on and started moaning about the youth of today I vowed there and then that by the end of the week I would get back to at least the standard I had set to myself when I was 16.

If this were a film this would be the point where some enthusiastic 80s music would kick in and you’d see a montage of me honing my skills. A furrowed brow of concentration, the wringing of the pad at a misjudged turn, and a few choicely bleeped phrases, I can see it now.

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Over the next week early starters would come into the office and find me already tucked in front of the SNES, stealing some solid time on the track before the masses arrived and took their turn. And I needed a continual block as the odd lap here and there did nothing for me. From the narrow window for boost starts to judging the slide round a corner, I was slowly relearning the basics and only a series of consecutive races could help me settle back into the flow.

Second by second my lap time eked down but with that came all the memories of the subtle magic that Nintendo crafted into this very first Mario Kart. On a basic level you can easily pick a racer like Mario or Toad and zoom round the course, posting a respectable time and progressing in any Grand Prix you may be in, but there are glorious layers. The powerslide for one, which not only allows you to keep speed round bends but can be as tight as required, falls into the classic category of being easy to pull off but incredibly hard to master. Seeing some of our top racers hug the corners so tight there was a danger of asphyxiation whilst travelling sideways in a controlled skid was incredible.

Very rarely do you step back into the past and find that it still is as good as you remember but Mario Kart still stands up remarkably well. Though there is an initial learning curve as your privileged hands have to relearn digital controls, it is a welcoming and warming experience. If anything the stripping away of the presentation frills benefits the focus on racing and means the giant cheep-cheep that floats over you on the podium means so much more.

What meant the most to me however was my time at the end of the week: 1:07.66. I’m a whole fifth of a second better than my teenage self. Take that, young James!

Stating the bleedin’ obvious

Did you happen to catch Nintendo’s conference this week? In an online presentation to the world they proudly announced that the sky is blue, that snow is cold, and baby bunnies are one of the cutest things on earth.

In an additional round of stating the bleedin’ obvious, they revealed that they were developing Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart and Smash Bros. games for the Wii U. Who would have believed it?

Sarcasm aside, whilst this news is going to surprise no one, their need to tell us seems only to point to desperation. With no footage on show of any of those four titles, it served more as a reassurance to Nintendo die-hards that their needs will be serviced in time rather than a proud unveiling of upcoming products. Perhaps worried about the ever-rumoured next gen offerings from its rivals it felt the need to seed its E3 offering earlier than ever. Although with next to no details behind any of them they appear just to be courting headlines.

The disappointing aspect of this for me was that these rather vacuous announcements hid far more exciting titbits. Nothing to do with a Wind Waker remake, fresh looks at Wonderful 101, teasers for Bayonetta 2 and a proper reveal in the form of a new Yoshi game all piqued my interest. Plus offerings from Monolithsoft and other developers close to Nintendo.

Wonderful 101 (formerly Project P-100) appeared full of pizazz, seemingly mixing Pikmin, Earth Defence Force and Saturday morning cartoons; Bayonetta, though not showing any in-game footage, showed sass that is much needed on the platform; whilst Yoshi returns for his first home console outing for 15-years. And coming from the director of Yoshi’s Island and the team that brought us Kirby’s Epic Yarn it makes me smile at the very thought of what they’ll dream up. The snippet on show looked like they’d used a woollen Yoshi and stop-frame animation and looked gorgeous.

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Of course, if you watch the whole presentation the Marios and Zeldas received very little air time, and yet merely dropping them in there seemed to do a disservice to games that did have footage or interviews. News such as this was obviously going to trump anything else but with no clips or release dates anywhere near them they seemed a cheap shot.

Half way through Iwata actually apologised for the lack of releases. Anyone with any previous experience of launches knows that developers work ridiculously hard to make a launch window, and if there’s any chance of doing so will burn the midnight oil to get their games out for that crucial period. As such, the next few months tend to be slightly barren, with those failing to make it out in time instead choosing to relax slightly and make their wares as polished and refined as possible.

Gamers expect that and what they should be shown are games available in the next few months, not years. In a barren period reassurance is what is needed that they’ve made the right choice. Whilst I in no way regret my Wii U, this Nintendo Direct does dent my confidence about it being a force in the short to medium term.

Mario Kart 7

In an age of cloud saves, drop-in-drop-out co-op, Xbox Live and Steam, to be amazed that a game simply handles online match-ups competently is definitely an oddity. Ever since I first hit Quick Match eight years ago on Moto GP II on the original Xbox I have been used to an online experience that doesn’t require me to juggle IP addresses to get online. In this always-on era, a button is the only thing separating you from a world of opponents.

Usually, anyway. Nintendo have always been the exception with a mixture of per-game friend codes and DS dongles that has painted a picture of a company that refused to move with the times. Every step in the right direction feels more a begrudging need to tick a box than give their patient customers what they’ve been waiting for.

The less-than-catchy Mario Kart 7, however, could be the turning point. Sign in to the Nintendo Network and a literal world of challenge and competition await you in a way I previously thought could never exist on a Nintendo platform. There’s support for friends and recently met players, options to create your own clans, and even hoppers catering for some much specialised race parameters.

All are laid out simply and pretend to be yet another game mode, breaking down any preconceptions or barriers that could linger about facing others online. Get through to your preferred race option and there you sit on a starting grid with a septet of racers from around the globe. As a further pleasing touch, should you join mid-race there’s no static menu screen waiting for the current race to run its course; you’re provided with a track side seat to watch the current race and see just who you’re up against.

And it is as such a spectator that I pinned down just why I felt so strongly for this multiplayer update: these are real people you’re racing against. You’ve no predetermined rival selected at random by the AI, each racer has their talents and foibles that will make each outing unique and usually lead to a far harder fought contest. Each cc level has its place, but taking on a series of programming routines is no replacement for taking down your fellow man.

Underpinning the experience is still the classic Mario Kart styling that has prevailed ever since the SNES. Eight racers boost and slide their way round a variety of Mario-inspired race courses, firing off power-ups at each other with gay abandon. The traditional roster of projectile shells, boosting mushrooms and invisibility-granting stars have been topped up with a trio of new additions: the Tanooki suit, Fire Flower and the mysterious Lucky Seven.

As with the recent Super Mario 3D Land, the Tanooki suit pops a racoon tail onto your racer. Sadly, unlike the plumber’s platforming outing, no flight powers are granted here; rather the tail whips around the kart deflecting incoming items and upturning other racers. The Fire Flower is more straightforward, allowing a stream of flaming balls to be hurled, whereas Lucky Seven simply hands you a bag of seven power-ups. Needless to say, the latter is usually only seen when lurking around the back of the grid given the armoury it suddenly deposits. The three fit well into the existing collection of power-ups, adding some extra restrained variety whilst not feeling overpowered.

The 16 brand new tracks also feel right at home, too. Some riff off of known environments, such as Bowser’s castle, Mario Circuit and DK’s jungle, but all are well put together with sweeping curves that will endear themselves to long-standing karters. The more surprising inclusion is that of Wuhu Island, the location for both Wii Sports Resort and the 3DS’ Pilot Wings. Almost becoming a Nintendo icon in its own right, the island foregoes laps and instead hands two very compelling point-to-point races that takes you up, round and through its heartlands.

The original tracks are all very strong and 7’s repertoire is reinforced by a further 16 classic tracks pulled from all six previous releases. From Mario Circuit 2 on the SNES through to the more recent Koopa Cape on the Wii, all of Mario’s racing history is on show here. There are very few duds on the roster; still, your feelings for each will no doubt be as based on nostalgia as much as anything else. I’ve been a stickler for the SNES and handheld Mario Karts, considering recent console releases to not reach the high standards previously set, and so always frown when a GameCube course appears.

These are no straight imports, either. Each has track has been given a large amount of spit and polish and brought up to modern standards. For the early SNES levels this includes real jumps, proper 3D and, in the case of Rainbow Road, shock waves from the impacting Thwomps. All updates successfully keep their nostalgic value intact, whilst also feeling part of the modern whole. So much so that even the new glider and submariner features of your kart fit seamlessly.

Rather than plonk into the sea when taking too wide a line on Koopa Beach, underwater you’ll go, a propeller emerging from the back of your ride as forcing you on through the water. Similarly take a jump that throws you high into the sky and a glider or parachute will pop out from the chassis and allow you control over your decent. Especially with the glider, the extra dimension that this can hand to racing is splendid. Launch yourself into the blue and its all about how skilfully you can control your flight, whether you should for go a long, steady glide to cut a series of s-bends or plant yourself quickly back on terra firma and pocket the speed boost that your rapid descent will bring. Even more remarkable however is that it seamlessly fits into the racing experience, at once becoming a part of the Mario Kart framework. Seeing a host of racers take to the skies and start bustling for position or launching shell mid-air is a lovely sight, and the verticality granted to the new tracks is a great addition.

At the end of it all, however, I return online. I plundered the single-player experience to unlock as many tracks and drivers as I could but now, should time allow, I leave the CPU controlled automatons to one side and head to where I know everyone who beats me is a real person and not a preset rubber-banding drone. Even online you can still collect coins to unlock further vehicle upgrades so you’re still progressing personally, my only wish is that you could have done the same with the tracks too.

With communities set up for friends with specific race conditions, or the prospect of a crazy bomb-only race with randoms, Nintendo has finally relented and allowed players the freedom and ease to experience one of the finest racing games online. Some may say that it’s about time, although I would hasten to add that some things are worth waiting for.

Yes, I karted

Four days on and I’ve now got a fair appreciation of Mario Kart under my belt. I’ve blasted through all the cups unlocking as many tracks as possible, dabbled in some local player and have only been stopped from going online by the fracious relationship between my Wii and my router.

First thing’s first, the wheel that comes packed in with the game. Basically, you clip your Wii-mote in a giant plastic disc and act as though you were driving a car.

Vrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

This wheel, however, can only get you so far. True, it’s not bad, but with less precision, heavy under-steer and requiring an ungainly shake every time you want to do a trick it is not good, either. I tried for an hour with the wheel and whilst it was alright and generally fun I found I had far better results and accuracy when plugging in my faithful Wavebird.

Control issues aside, although they should always be noted on the Wii, it is a good solid game. Single player as ever is a means to an ends when it comes to unlockable drivers and tracks, and it is the multiplayer where things take off as you battle back and forth, exchanging red shells with the evil cackles that only friends can let forth.

There’s a nice selection of tracks, a variety of karts but I really must say it’s lacking a certain spark. The trick system is a nice addition, the bikes are alright and the game as a whole may be hovering around the 8/10 mark in my head – and so well worth picking up – but it is almost like GTA to me: I expect it to be “good” but when it turns out it’s not to be “great” I feel slightly deflated.

Mario Kart for the Wii still has a lot of play time left for me to squeeze out of it, but come the checkered flag it is the SNES version that still places first for me.

Did you just kart?

So today is the day. Mario Kart is out in the UK and as soon as I finishing typing this post I’m off to purchase what maybe the penultimate hope (the final one being Smash Brothers Brawl) that my Wii will not just become a dedicated BBCi player.

Come on Luigi, run him off the road!

I sense once again I have started this out as a Wii-bashing post but I’m only harsh on it because I want what’s best for they system. I really loved the SNES and DS versions of the same game and I am hoping beyond hope that it is going to spark my waggle sticks back into action.

My brother has already got his hands on it thanks to a friendly source, and seems to be enjoying it even if it still frustrates every living being with its range of powerups that keep causing the standings to be somewhat of a lottery.

I’ll let you know how it goes.