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Game Review

If I close my eyes, scrunch up my face and try real hard, I can almost remember how much fun it was to grab a plastic steering wheel, twist and turn it, and pretend I was driving the family car—way back when Dad and Mom were still chauffeuring me around town and I was a tiny tyke steering from the backseat.

All right, I'll admit, that memory is probably more a case of my overactive imagination than anything else. But the gang at Nintendo want to help us all remember our knee-high-to-an-Andretti days with the aid of a different (animated) racing Mario in their new video game, Mario Kart Wii. Players simply snap a wireless Wii remote into the supplied plastic steering wheel shell and they're ready to hit the track and recapture a sense of backseat motoring joy.

Karting Through the Years
Sixteen years ago, Mario and Co. first stomped on the gas pedal in an SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) game called Super Mario Kart. New editions of the go-kart battle game—each version delivering subtle differences but maintaining the classic template—have been created for every Nintendo console since. And fans just keep cheering and coming back for more.

If your life so far has been Kart-free, the formula is unfussy. Rev up 24 characters from old Mario games—including Peach, Donkey Kong, Koopa Troopa and Luigi—and let them hotfoot it around a bunch of highly imaginative (read: outlandish) courses. Mario Kart Wii's 32 racetracks include 16 favorites from previous games and feature lots of colorful twisty-turns, cartoonish slip-sliding and pitfall-littered terrains.

A Few New Twists and Flips
This time around, though, motorcycles and dirt bikes are added to the ranks of buggies and go-karts. Each vehicle has its own strengths and weaknesses in such areas as speed, weight, acceleration and handling. Picking the right chariot on each track makes a world of difference. Half-pipes and ramps are another new game feature, encouraging lots of speed-boosting jumps and—with a little wiggle/waggle of your movement-sensitive remote—some fun mid-air character tricks.

Besides the racing and jumping, there's a lot of tactical battling that goes into these free-for-alls as well. As players drive through mystery boxes on the track, they pick up hidden items such as banana peels, ink bloopers and turtle shells that can be used to bounce opponents about, blot their windscreens or send them spinning. New items include a lightning strike (that shrinks a player to mini-Mii size and steals his speed) and a mega-mushroom (that makes a lucky racer grow super-sized so he can flatten other racers beneath his wheels).

Bowsers From Around the World
Jumping in and playing is as easy as picking up a controller and pushing one button, but Grand Prix Cup events and several team battle modes keep things interesting for much longer than that kind of simplicity could. And all those competitions can be played online as well, against friends from anywhere in the world. Using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, you can play online matches with up to 12 total players.

This online play is especially fun since each new competitor you meet pops up from his or her approximate spot on the globe, represented by a self-selected Mii character face. Even cooler, you can download ghost replays of some of the fastest laps of other players and try to beat their times. Or you can upload yours and dare friends to try to match your kartabulous skill.

As we hit the checkered flag, then, it's plain to see that Mario Kart Wii is a far friendlier game than so much of the dark and tangled fare out there. Some on-track bumping and shoving, comical crashes and a little na-na-na-na-na taunting is the worst of the game's content. For those wanting to challenge some friends—online or off—to a few rollicking, half-pipe jumping, mogul bouncing, banana-peel chucking races, this is your pit stop. Just grab a plastic steering wheel and lay down some rubber. (You may never want to sit up front again.)

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