Beautiful Game: A Love Letter to “Mario Kart Wii”

On multiple separate occasions, the Twitter algorithm has shown me tweets summarizing Mario Kart Wii’s position in the franchise as “the Melee of Mario Kart.” I’ve seen it so often that it’s not interesting to read anymore, but I’m at least heartened that so many people now have some awareness of high-level Mario Kart Wii. Only a few years ago, that phrase would be so unintelligible even to most Nintendo fans that few would think of it. I attribute Mario Kart Wii’s recent resurgence mostly to YouTube, where videos by SummoningSalt and Akshon Esports in the past year, among others, have finally begun to tell its story. The comparison between Mario Kart Wii and Melee isn’t wrong in any way either — both are Nintendo games with an unusually large amount of advanced techniques, which facilitate rewarding competition. The secrets of both games continue to be discovered, learned, and optimized in an ongoing process. Thanks to its newfound publicity, the “Melee of Mario Kart” claim seems true to plenty of people without taking a deep dive into MKW as a player. Even if you don’t know the fundamentals, try any of the tech you hear about, or even own a Wii anymore, you watch SummoningSalt’s captivating narration of the Peach Beach tree clip and instantly know that you’re watching something impressive and precise.

In his 2015 video “Super Smash Bros. as Spectator Sport” (another favorite of the algorithm), YouTuber “Innuendo Studios” explains that the oversights in Melee’s engine make it uniquely “creative” among fighting games. It accomplishes a sense of freedom completely on accident: developers didn’t add wavedashing to the game on purpose, but everyone does it anyway because it was found that the engine can’t prevent it. Video games are defined by the limitations they place on the player: you can’t do anything that you’re not programmed to do. In a game like Mario Kart Wii or Smash Bros. Melee, the engine has had so many holes poked in it that this fundamental aspect of video games is weakened. There are still rules, but you can do so many things that the developers never intended to be possible or even thought of. How do I love thee, Mario Kart Wii? Let me count the ways.

1. Bikes

“this is MARIO KART WII not FUNKY MOTOCROSS !!”

— Unknown Mariokartwii.com User (used to be in my forum signature)

In the past fifteen or so years, most Mario Kart games have tried to set themselves apart from their predecessors by introducing gimmicks. I’d say that this trend started on the GameCube, where Double Dash put two characters in one kart and added co-op play and character-specific items to go with it. Mario Kart 7 introduced glider sections, underwater driving, and the now-standard kart/wheels/glider customization interface; Mario Kart 8 one-upped it with antigravity driving. Mario Kart Wii’s contribution was the introduction of motorcycles. To set them apart from karts, all bikes were given the ability to pop a wheelie for a small speed boost. Some bikes even got a new drifting style — called “inside drift” by fans — that allowed them to hug turns extremely tightly.

From a game balance perspective, indrift bikes ruined everything by being so unbelievably good. Being able to spam wheelies for speed boosts on straightaways and take turns extremely tightly is just so overpoweringly fast. Nintendo was ostensibly aware of this imbalance in development at some level, since they gave karts the longer Super Mini-Turbo (the orange one) to compensate, but it didn’t matter. 47 of the 48 time trial records (32 tracks; half of them separated into Shortcut and Non-Shortcut categories) recognized by mkwrs.com are held by indrift bikes; in a high-VR Worldwide, it is safe to assume every player will using one.

The “top tiers” of Mario Kart Wii are two specific bikes: the Mach Bike and the Flame Runner. Most people prefer the Flame Runner for its heavier weight and higher top speed, but some prefer the Mach Bike’s smaller frame, tighter drifts, and longer Mini-Turbos. If “only two viable vehicles” sounds unfun to you, I encourage you to abandon any leftover MOBA, FPS, or fighting-game conceptions of character interactions. Winning a “matchup” between asymmetric characters is not the fun part of a racing game. Your goal is to get first place, which is accomplished through item play, knowledge of the racetrack, and maneuvering around everyone else — in other words, going fast. As long as your vehicle is fun to drive, who cares how many other people are using it?

Indeed, mastering Mario Kart Wii’s top-tier bikes is some of the most fun you can have in the whole franchise, “diversity” be damned. I attribute this enjoyment in large part to the Mach Bike and Flame Runner’s inside drift. In any other Mario Kart game, and even on karts and outdrift bikes in this game, drifting is counterintuitive in a sense. If I want to go around a turn with outside drift, the entirety of my kart doesn’t hug it, because drifting necessarily involves sliding on your back wheels. Only the front is going to the right; the back has to swing away from the wall. Even when inside drifting returned in Mario Kart 8, it shared this problem, and the drift was much less responsive to sharp inputs on the analog stick.

the outside drifting Shooting Star is shown on the left; the inside-drifting Flame Runner is on the right.

Indrift bikes in Mario Kart Wii are special because they don’t feel limited at all. If I want to drift to the right, the entire vehicle leans to the right, cutting as close to the edge as it can, and any subtle adjustment of the controller has a noticeable effect. The way you want to go is the way your bike actually goes — the physics, the restrictions of real life, don’t get to restrict you at all. It feels almost like cheating; it’s the same high you get from activating noclip or your Action Replay.

MKW’s inside drift is also a major source of the advanced techniques that you’d expect from the franchise’s Melee-analogue. The slipdrift or chain drift allows a time save on successive drifts thanks to a quirk in the engine: for whatever reason, if an inside drift is performed four frames (.067 seconds) after the previous one is released, its hop will have less airtime. Extremely quick players can add an additional timesave by sticking a wheelie in that four-frame window, too, and edge out opponents or time trial records. The spindrift (whose name predates the seltzer company) breaks the game in its own way, taking advantage of a strange alignment that occurs when the analog stick is instantaneously clicked back and forth during a drift hop. On certain tracks, spindrifting is crucial: it allows you to cut the last corner on N64 Bowser’s Castle without crashing into a wall, and provides enough airtime for an optimal Mushroom Gorge gap jump. Spindrifts facilitate creativity in general, too — they’re often the fastest way to drift around an obstacle or fix your alignment. In both cases, we can credit MKW’s inside drift for advanced techniques bordering on the impossible, repurposing game mechanics in ways never intended by Nintendo.

I mentioned this briefly earlier, but all bikes in MKW can perform wheelies, in which you pop your front wheel up and get a little speed boost. In a wheelie, you can input directions to slightly modify your alignment, but doing so cuts the speed so much that it’s almost never worthwhile — the rule of thumb is to wheelie in a straight line. The problem with this, however, is that wheelies also need to be performed right after a drift and mini-turbo for them to even get you to max speed in the first place. This makes finishing a drift, especially in Time Trials where every millisecond counts, an enduring challenge — the exact frame at which you start your wheelie, and how sharp you just drifted around the turn, will impact the alignment of your wheelie afterwards. If your alignment is poor, you’ll have to interrupt your wheelie early to fix it, losing time. The sequence of drift → mini-turbo → immediate wheelie is extremely common in MKW, since it’ll basically occur every time you have a turn followed by a straightaway, and yet every turn on the track will have its own timing. As you play more and more, your sense of wheelie timing becomes instinctual; it is an integral part of a Mario Kart Wii player’s “gamesense.”

2. Mindgames

In all major esports, types of mindgames layer additional depth atop mechanical skill. The rock-paper-scissors of block, attack, and grab facilitate the punishes and reads of fighting games; pro Overwatch main tanks master the art of baiting the opposing Reinhardt into wasting Earthshatter. Mindgames are such an interesting idea in competitive games because they seem as random as rock-paper-scissors at first glance, but good players will nonetheless win them more reliably than bad ones through a mastery of their opponent’s habits.

In Mario Kart Wii, mindgames develop when multiple racers compete for a limited resource on the track. Item boxes don’t immediately respawn after they’re taken, which means that not everyone in a big “pack” will get one. When item boxes come in a row (as they often do), racers have to play a mindgame over who takes which box. To swerve or not to swerve: will the person in front of me go wide to get that one because the person in front of them will get the tight item box? Should I try and bump into them to take it for myself? How wide are they willing to go? Even this exists on top of a more fundamental tension between the time loss of realignment and the potential reward of getting an item — in some situations, it might be good or inconsequential to miss an item box entirely. Item box collection is a multilayered test of risk management, tempered by the geometry of the track (how big are the off-road shortcuts on this course? How far out of my way are these item boxes?) and the pool of potential items for each position (what if I get a Fake Item Box, which doesn’t protect me from red shells?), among other factors.

The mindgame around obtaining items is detailed in its own right, but the mindgame around using them is worth discussing too. In the “clan war” format between prearranged teams, for instance, it’s common for one player from each clan to be the designated “bagger,” which means they intentionally drive backwards in search of the Shock (lightning bolt item). The clan that gets the shock wants to use it while their teammates can avoid it in Bullet Bills and Stars; the counterplay for the team that doesn’t have it (only one can be in play at a time) is to predict it. Teams with good track knowledge will know the places where teams like to “target shock,” and can use their own dodge items when crossing them to try and make a read. The other team can of course predict the prediction and choose somewhere else, and so on. This interaction is predicated on an entirely different guessing game, too, since there’s no way of knowing for sure that the other clan even got the shock. You can’t see the other players’ items anywhere, so teams must use communication from their bagger, close watching of the minimap, and the item RNG of the bottom two places to arrive at an educated guess about the enemy clan having the shock or not. Even the two baggers themselves are involved in a mindgame as they drive, because one can try to make the other lose their item by hitting them with a star. It’s been 12 years since its release, and I keep coming back because Mario Kart Wii requires this diverse skillset. Even if I just want to play a Worldwide, I can try to improve in so many different areas of my gameplay.

3. CTGP Revolution, Wiimmfi, and Slippi

As many of you are likely aware, the outbreak of COVID-19 posed a new challenge to competitive Smash. The scene exists almost entirely through real-life tournaments, i.e. large public social gatherings. After stay-at-home orders were rolled out, what were Melee players to do? Existing netplay apps were a temporary solution — and what they did for online play previously — but everyone knew that it just wasn’t the same. After all, the netcode used by netplay apps at this point was the same one used by internet friends to play on the same Mario Party board. Surely tournaments with pot bonuses on the line deserve better, right? On June 22nd of this year, this issue was solved by an update to Project Slippi, build of Dolphin already popular for streamlining the netplay process. With the June update, Slippi was given many quality-of-life updates, most notably the addition of “rollback” netcode, which was a game-changer. For the first time. online Melee didn’t feel like the characters were fighting underwater or knee-deep in honey. Essentially, rollback netcode feels less laggy and frustrating because it uses a different methodology for handling lag spikes and player inputs. As for its success, any Melee pro’s twitter profile will do the talking, with regular highlights and updates from their adventures on the Slippi matchmaker.

Mario Kart Wii’s own crisis came in 2014, in which Nintendo was officially scheduled to end their support for Wii and Nintendo DS game servers by May 20. Fortunately for it, just as anyone can emulate Melee on their computer, anyone with a 2GB SD card can hack a Wii. Not long after the termination date was made public, a prolific Mario Kart modder known as “Wiimm” worked on creating his own replacement servers, which could be patched into your copy of MKW using the Homebrew Channel. The download for Wiimmfi went public over a week before Nintendo actually pulled the plug, and even now they remain the best way to play Wii games online. In fact, like many fanmade mods for Nintendo titles, Wiimmfi servers are now better than the “real”alternatives ever were. The improved moderation was the biggest upgrade — Wiimmfi mods ban hackers more diligently than Nintendo ever did. They’ve also implemented a bunch of amazing server-side protections like the disabling of ultra shortcuts in Worldwides (finally making Grumble Volcano playable again) and automatic bans for hacked VR and location data.

A sample of bans from the Wiimmfi webpage.

In my opinion, the other major problem that confronted Mario Kart Wii in its lifetime was the latent issue of track variety. There are only 32 courses in the game, and of those, some are short and mostly featureless (SNES Ghost Valley 2, Luigi Circuit, DS Yoshi Falls, etc.) and others are notoriously unpopular for their low traction and top speed (N64 Sherbet Land and GBA Shy Guy Beach). It’s hard to definitively tell if this harmed the game’s popularity, but it personally made me burn out a lot faster. As I mentioned, the fun of the game lies in “player vs. track” just as much as “player vs. player,” so it follows logically that a small selection of tracks would make the game get tiresome. When the Coconut Mall and Mario Circuit ultra shortcuts were discovered in the summer of 2011, I spent so many hours attempting them because they were the closest thing I had to new content — completing laps by driving the wrong way or clipping into out-of-bounds rooms was the closest thing I had to DLC.

If this starvation for new content was Mario Kart Wii’s other major problem, a modpack known as CTGP Revolution was the solution. Once the hacking scene for the game really took off, players eventually figured out how to 3D model and code their own tracks from scratch and add them to the game. “Custom tracks” as they’re called quickly began to accumulate and improve in quality, and soon the scene was filled with custom track distributions, with CTGP standing out immediately as one of the best. In November of 2011, modders finished work on the Custom Tracks Worldwide (“CTWW”) patch, which finally allowed people to race online with other custom track players using random matchmaking instead of friend rooms. CTWWs were so clever because they actually used Nintendo’s matchmaker as a foundation — all they did was put a bunch of players in an unused game region and then use Nintendo’s built-in “Regional” option for racing. CTGP users would match with each other without having to worry about vanilla players in their lobbies, because they were playing Regionals for a region only accessible by modding the game. CTGP’s existing popularity kept its CTWWs active, so its playerbase quickly began to snowball — this cemented it as the best Mario Kart Wii mod, and it seems unlikely that it’ll ever be dethroned.

CTGP is still updated regularly, and it’s become a massive asset to the game. It still offers 216 custom tracks, of course, but it also now boots from its own dedicated channel on the Wii Menu, and improves the game in even more ways. Among other things, it now offers dedicated online leaderboards for custom tracks and Nintendo tracks, the option to mute game music without lowering sound effects, the option to display each player’s Mii, not their character, on the minimap (useful for a game where most races are majority-Funky Kong), viewing or racing against multiple Time Trial ghosts at once, and a 200cc engine class like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

In recent years, as I’ve discovered more games and received more schoolwork, I’ve only really been playing Mario Kart Wii in the summers. This has left me rusty and my skills on the Nintendo tracks obsolete, so I have little interest in just playing those. I still love the way the game feels, though, so I’ve come to appreciate CTGP as the perfect alternative — the metagame is less advanced, so hard shortcuts are less necessary, and every time I return from a personal hiatus there will be new tracks that I’ve never even played before. CTGP did everything a great game mod does, from revitalizing the community to fixing myriad oversights and quality-of-life issues in the base game.

4. Conclusion

I think a lot of people had that one game from elementary and/or middle school that they sunk an obscene amount of time into. You have the free time of a grade-schooler and that childish unwillingness to try new things — what else are you supposed to do? My “one game” ended up being Mario Kart Wii, which was kind of unusual. More popular choices like Minecraft at least got a constant stream of updates from fans and the developers alike, but MKW didn’t have that luxury.

Indeed, none of this was supposed to happen: Nintendo doesn’t seem to have wanted indrift bikes to be metagame-centralizing, and definitely didn’t give them advanced techniques on purpose. Almost all ultra shortcuts are predicated on an oversight in the checkpoint system. For years, the game’s days seemed numbered by its lack of content and Nintendo’s eventual decision to shut down the servers. Like Smash, the game design seems to suggest that the mere idea of high-level competition was an afterthought. Instead of taking any of this sitting down, the community ensured that this game they loved could be fiercely competitive and played for years to come, and, 12 years out, this seems to have worked.

Mario Kart Wii has recently started to come off of the periphery: CTGP is regularly being updated with new tracks, more and more people create content for the game, Wiimmfi is active all hours of the day, and James Charles has finally acknowledged his childhood Mario Kart Wii YouTube channel. I was in kindergarten when Mario Kart Wii came out; now, graduated from high school, I plan to bring my Wii with me to college, because my roommate mentioned offhand that he liked speedrunning and I found out that he loved the SummoningSalt video too. I’m reminded of a warning message given by the Wii Menu: “Everything not saved will be lost.”

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Nick Speranza

best gamer/writer/auxiliary percussionist in the Delaware River Valley