While David Coates and his friends were no stranger to local multiplayer gaming, it took over 20 years and countless consoles to find the game that truly defined their sporting rivalry: Mario Kart Wii.
Video games and friends: finding the right combination of these can lead to truly memorable occasions that will live long in the memory of all those involved.
Nowadays, in the age of online multiplayer, it’s easy to forget just how great it can be to beat your real-life friends while they’re sitting in the same room as you. So here we are, talking about the perfect game for the experience which inspired this piece: Mario Kart Wii. When it was released in 2008, I didn’t have a Nintendo Wii, but that was soon rectified as I just had to have the latest Mario Kart offering. Although it had an online multiplayer, I never really played it; the four-player split-screen action was the only thing my mates and I needed.
Before I go on about the great battles, sledging and general madness that this game brought us over the years, it’s best to explain how we got to this point – it certainly wasn’t the first game that gave us the competition we wanted.
The path to gaming royalty
I started middle school in the early 80s, and this is when I met my lifelong friends Graham and his younger brother Keith. I hadn’t really played any games up to this point, but I soon had plenty of sessions playing on their Commodore 64 and Atari 2600, which were great fun, with early favourites including Super Off Road, Microprose Soccer and Indy 500. I soon became hooked and eventually earned my title as the “console king” among us, asking for every console I could for Christmas as a kid, or buying them myself as I got older.
We must have played hundreds of games throughout the years, spending countless evenings battling each other across all sorts of genres. As there were only three of us, we often did winner stays on with games like Road Rash, Tekken, and Bust a Move. International Track & Field, GoldenEye and Mario Kart 64 were other favourites as we could play these in three-player, but alas, we still didn’t have our fourth person to complete the experience. We met up regularly as we got older, but less often – the usual things in life got in the way, like work and families.
Yet around the time that Mario Kart Wii was released, we were still having semi-regular meetups. However, things were about to change massively: we finally got our fourth player.
Player four has entered the game
I met my future brother-in-law, Tim, in 2006. As I gradually got to know him, I found out that he was a bit of a gamer – not anywhere near as devoted to it as I was, but he still did himself justice by owning a Wii, PS2 and an Amiga. He’d also bought Mario Kart Wii, so it seemed only right to ask him to join us for one of our gaming sessions at my house. I was always the host because I had all the consoles, which proved to be a masterstroke in friendship building, as it made it easier for him to come along and feel at ease. Soon, Tim became a mainstay.
The Xbox 360 was an early favourite among us as I’d amassed four controllers due to five consoles packing up with the dreaded red ring of death. Two-on-two on EA’s NHL and FIFA were taken seriously, alongside races on Forza and some brutal rounds of Fight Night and Mortal Kombat.
One night, Mario Kart Wii found its way into the session, and things were about to turn ultra-competitive. Graham also had the console and Mario Kart Wii, so he’d bring extra Wiimotes to make it possible. Early on, it would be quite a normal four-player game with a bit of banter and ribbing as we did a couple of cups and then moved on and played something else. Things would soon change.
Taking it to the next level
One subsequent gaming night, we stumbled across a setting we hadn’t noticed. This involved a custom 32-race setup, where you could race every track in a random order as one big, long cup. We decided to go for it, and so we chose our characters and karts then dived in. Immediately, it had stepped up a notch from the usual banter and joking. Everyone was quieter, taking it a lot more seriously and wanting to win more than usual. From this point on Graham would always be Diddy Kong, Tim would usually plump for Luigi, I’d always go for Yoshi or Toad, while Keith varied from one character to another – the true wildcard of our group.
After about an hour and a half in our first-ever ultimate challenge, we’d finished and Graham was the winner; me and Tim came in joint second – incredible considering there were 32 races to earn points – while Keith brought up the rear. I honestly can’t remember who suggested it, but we decided to write down the point tallies. I scrambled to find a piece of paper, scribbled them down then folded the paper up and placed it in the box on top of the manual. I thought no more of it but at this point, no one knew this would be the start of a long-running tradition that would become the centrepiece of our gaming sessions.
The next time we fired it up we did the same – 32 back-to-back races to see who would come out on top. This time, Graham won again by an even bigger margin, but in doing so he started to become a target for the rest of us. All red shells seemed to have his name on them, and tricks like slowing down and then blue-shelling him would become common. We were the same characters, and Graham’s Diddy Kong was getting all the heat.
The fact that three of us owned the game, with Keith being the exception (although he owned Mario Kart 64, so he was far from a novice), meant we all thought we should be winning. This only intensified as the battle became a regular thing every time we met up. Loads of food, a few skirmishes on some other games, and then the real serious stuff would begin as soon as the Nintendo logo flashed up on the screen.
The ribbing, banter and general sledging would step up a notch and total concentration would be etched on all of our faces as we raced through each of Mario Kart Wii’s circuits. There would be laughter from one as they launched a red shell to win in the final moments, while the next race would cause someone else to turn the air as blue as the shell that had cost them victory right at the finish line. The noise we sometimes made must have been heard halfway down my street! The scores had become very important now, written down on the same crumpled piece of A4 paper I’d scrambled to find a few years before. It would then be tucked back into the box for safe keeping – and gloating, of course!
Over time, and even now, certain tracks have become favoured, or loathed, by different people in our group. Tim hates Bowser’s Castle – a passion that stands to this day. I didn’t like Coconut Mall for a long time, but luckily, it’s grown on me over time – though Mushroom Gorge remains a struggle. The collective groans are, without a doubt, reserved for Rainbow Road and Moonview Highway.
Still, Mario Kart Wii’s retro tracks are great fun, especially Mario Raceway – which takes me back to the days of playing it on the N64 – as it’s always carnage right from the start. It’s not all fun and games, though; if Graham gets out in front on throwback tracks like Toad’s Factory, it’s hard to catch him if he gets away.
However, the closest battles – and as a result, shared favourite tracks among the group – are still on Moo Moo Meadows, Yoshi Falls and Luigi Circuit. These tend to be all-out speed scraps, with one of us nicking the win at the death, while someone else curses their luck after being knobbled right at the line. Due to the nature of the way we race, this still happens a lot, and combined with weapon-based rubber-banding, Mario Kart Wii would sometimes leave you feeling robbed. Almost always, though, it made up for it later by giving you the satisfaction of a win right at the line, wiping away the disappointment of the prior last-gasp shell catastrophe.
Even now, Graham has only been beaten once, when Tim took the honours. This was a momentous occasion which has not been repeated, and brought about weeks of friendly reminders to Graham that he’d lost his crown.
A WhatsApp group started and we started sending messages, barbs and gifs in the weeks before each meetup. These mostly accused Graham of cheating, or secretly being a programmer on the game because he kept winning. No offence was taken, of course; these were simple mind games ahead of the racing.
Mario Kart Wii became the game we took more seriously than any other while still being damn good fun. No other game has really come close to it for fun and competitiveness.
This is part of its beauty. Mario Kart Wii is a game that anyone of any age can play and enjoy, but still bring out the true competitor in them. Who would have thought that back in the days of the SNES, a game involving dinosaurs, princesses, plumbers and apes racing in karts would lead to a franchise that has sold millions of copies across so many console generations?
But the simple fact of it is that while I loved its predecessors, Mario Kart Wii is far and away my absolute favourite, simply because of the sheer fun it has brought me and my mates over the ten years since it was released. We still play it now when we can and the scores are still written down, only more neatly on a fresh piece of paper!
Recently, a new twist has emerged: we now play it at each other’s houses, and it’s been christened the “International Series”. Maybe I might do better away from home turf as Graham has still only lost once and I haven’t won yet. I will, eventually… I’m sure of it. After all, there’ll be plenty more chances to get that elusive win as we continue to play what we all think is one of the greatest multiplayer games ever made.
- Multiplayer perfection, especially with great friends
- Easy to play, but hard to master
- Loads of tracks and content
- Single player is perfect for honing skills
- Can be ridiculously unfair
- Motion controls aren’t great
Mario Kart Wii is a great game – an underrated one for the series as a whole – and the multiplayer is an essential experience for any fan of the series. If you own a Wii, and you somehow haven’t experienced this game, you’re missing out on a classic. If you’ve not got a Wii, consider buying one just for this!