How's this for out of nowhere - Mario Kart Wii is out in three weeks, and here we are posting our first hands-on impressions with any version of the game, let alone the finished release.
With any Wii game, let alone one that comes with a big plastic controller, we're a bit worried of 'dumbing down' for the console's core casual audience. Upon booting up Mario Kart Wii this afternoon our fears are strengthened by a very 'life-style' intro movie and an abundance of Miis across the opening menus.
But thankfully our fears are dashed once we get into the game, which plays just as solidly as any series entry before it. But like any die-hard Kart fans (we're still playing it in the office almost daily) we've got our complaints, even if they are underpinned by our genuine excitement for a brand new Mario Kart outing.
Bring on the girls
From our brief hands-on, we're pleased to report that the controversial Wii Wheel is in fact a pretty pleasing peripheral to hold in your hands; it feels sturdy, not at all cheap and is really quite satisfying to use. The Wii Remote fits snugly inside the hard plastic shell, exposing the B button on the underside and making the face buttons easily accessible on top.
Playing Mario Kart with the wheel feels strange at first (especially when we finally worked out we'd set power sliding to "automatic") but once you get the hang of it, it's obvious that a lot of work has gone into fine-tuning the tilt mechanics to make the wheel feel great.
Unlike some feared, it doesn't feel "loose" or floaty, and any Mario Kart veteran can easily slide around a circuit with little difficulty. There's no obvious 'dead zone' in the middle either, so turning the wheel even slightly feels responsive.
Acceleration is dealt with using the 2 button, while power sliding is on B and items issued on the d-pad. One additional feature that wheel users get that GameCube pad players don't is the Wii Remote microphone, which beeps a warning when projectiles or even star-using racers are approaching from behind.
We tested it out in a two-player GameCube controller vs. Wii Wheel GP face-off on Koopa Cape, a gorgeous new track set on a waterfall-clad mountainside. Hopping, sliding and boosting across the mountain jumps and into the wicked underwater pipe system (complete with bullet bill submarines!) we finished first and second consecutively (out of 12), which pretty much proves that really, the Wheel doesn't hamper your game much.
As with any tilt device, you're probably going to get some extra response from the GameCube's analogue stick, but we were impressed by how well racing has been tailoured to the Wii Remote. Even if it does mean we'll be playing with more girls and grannies online.
Stretching the track
Compared to Double Dash!! the Wii instalment is a more traditional Mario Kart setup than before; handling feels tight and responsive thanks to the welcome return of the hop and a new, easier to use power sliding system.
Initially, the "automatic" power sliding in Mario Kart Wii feels like a real winner to us. Now, instead of having to wiggle the joystick back and forth as in Mario Kart 64, you simply hold onto the power slide button (R on the GameCube pad) for as long as possible for a stronger boost.
This not only allows for a more accessible power sliding system (there's still some people in the office who can't power slide properly in the 64 version) but it also allows for more judgement on the analogue stick, allowing you to slide for longer through tunnels and around gradual corners. We really like it.