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With each new iteration of Mario Kart, Nintendo faces an uphill struggle. The original was one of the best-loved games of the 16-bit era. Easy to pick up, satisfyingly deep and sporting a fiercely competitive two-player mode, it defined the kart racing style that a hundred other games would rip off. The problem is that Mario Kart was so definitive that Nintendo itself has never quite managed to make a follow-up that could satisfy the game's most ardent fans. Mario Kart 64 gave us 3D courses and four-player action, but the fans grumbled about the handling and the track design. Despite being a perfectly fine Kart racer, Mario Kart: Double Dash! on the GameCube fared even worse, mainly because the fans objected to the game's two riders per kart dynamic, the wider tracks and the merciless behaviour of the AI competition.
Oddly, only the handheld versions have escaped derision. Of all the Mario Kart sequels - Mario Kart Super Circuit on the GBA played closest to the SNES original. Meanwhile, Mario Kart DS offered a superb combination of all the previous Mario Kart styles and threw in an excellent online game as well.
With Mario Kart Wii, you can see Nintendo trying to keep two camps of people happy. On the one hand, the new Wii Wheel, the integration of the Wii's user-created Mii characters and an initially generous difficulty level are clearly designed to bring the more casual audience that has adopted the Wii on board. Judging by the game's huge sales and the fact that, at the time of writing, it's practically impossible to buy it shows that this has been a success. On the other hand, this is a game that desperately wants to please the old Mario Kart fanbase. It's packed with tracks from previous Mario Karts, has all the familiar faces (arranged as always into three different weight classes) and allows you to use the Nunchuk controller or a GameCube joypad if you would rather have a more traditional Mario Kart feel. On these terms, however, it's only a partial success. A lot of people are disappointed or annoyed by Mario Kart Wii, and their reasons aren't totally ridiculous.
The divisions appear straight out of the box. Considering the fact that it's really only a circular lump of moulded plastic that encloses a Wii remote, the Wii Wheel is a lovely bit of kit, instantly making the Mario Kart experience that little bit more accessible and that little bit more fun. Yet at the same time there's no doubt that the motion sensitive controls aren't as tight or as immediately responsive as the analogue sticks used to be. Nintendo has got around this in two ways. First, the tracks - even those adapted from previous Mario Karts - are wider and the corners slightly more forgiving than they used to be. Secondly, you can just switch to one of the controllers mentioned before, in which case it feels much like it did in the good old days. However, you're still sitting on the same, wider tracks.