Games 4/30/08: Mario Kart Wii, NBA Ballers: Chosen One

Mario Kart Wii
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

It’s beginning to look a lot like a Gamecube on the Wii, where the control possibilities have expanded but the lineup of big-name Nintendo titles remains largely the same. The latest throwback to resurface is “Mario Kart Wii,” which, outside of one major addition and one arguably gimmicky one, feels a lot like (and, debatably, a step backward from) Nintendo’s last big-screen “Mario Kart” game.

Certainly, the plastic wheel that comes packed inside bears mentioning. “MKW” allows traditionalists to play like they always have, supporting every device dating back to and including the Gamecube controller. Those with a taste for something different, though, can snap the Wiimote into the wheel shell and play “MKW” simply by steering the wheel to drive and pressing the buttons to gas, brake, drift and use special items.

Serious gamers almost certainly will revert to traditional methods, particularly because “MKW” features no means of adjusting turn sensitivity or enabling vibration-based resistance, which would have done wonders for immersion. Still, the wheel is fun for what it is, and as a gateway gimmick for less savvy players, it has legitimate merit.

The hardcore instead will appreciate “MKW’s” other headliner: online play.

Nintendo is learning on its feet how to create a captivating online experience, and this easily is its smartest venture yet. The lobby is elegant and simple, using players’ geographical locations and Mii characters to compose the interface. Friend codes return, but they don’t pose much hassle when it comes to setting up friend-only races. Stat tracking, leaderboards and ghost download capabilities also are included.

Most importantly, the game runs smoothly online, even during intercontinental races.

Want more? Sorry. “MKW” features some imaginative new tracks and lets you ride as your Mii character, but the single-player experience runs no deeper that it did on the Gamecube.

Worse, the innovations the previous game brought forth — including character-specific special items and two-character karts that injected a shot of strategy into the insanity — aren’t even an option here. The addition of motorbikes on top of karts is okay, but it doesn’t really bring anything substantial to the gameplay. The roster and item selection also have seen little to no expansion, which is hard to swallow after six games of the same old standards. Anyone hoping for the demise of cheap blue shell — which specifically, cheaply and unfairly takes out whichever defenseless rider is in the lead — will have to keep on hoping.

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NBA Ballers: Chosen One
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Hey Lassie, get help! A decent street basketball game just came out, but it’s trapped inside a well of bad design decisions and can’t find its way out.

Too bad, too, because “NBA Ballers: Chosen One” shines in bits and pieces. It’s not an incredible beauty, but the vibrant color palette and affinity for close camera angles and large characters definitely sets it apart from EA Sports’ streetball game. “Ballers” moves fluidly, features diverse courts, allows for some decent character customization, and wraps a rather rote single-player component inside a very stylish presentational package.

Unfortunately, all that’s good submits to all that goes wrong. Your created character is such a horrifically bad shooter that you’re better off just dunking ad nauseam until his attributes improve. Even layups are a trial, and forget about jumpers. You’re more likely to score two points by tricking the opposing player into committing a goaltending violation. That begs another question: What is goaltending, along with fouls and free throws, doing in a streetball game?

The on-court sloppiness continues with a passing and trick system that’s so hit-and-miss, you’re tempted — again — to just run the court and dunk rather than risk what feels like a completely arbitrary turnover. Building up your trick meter leads to special moves that stop the action in favor of an unskippable cutscene, which is fun to watch once but intolerable after a while.

But “Ballers” hits rock bottom when it tries to get creative with convention. One-on-one-on-one is a neat idea on paper, but it’s a mess in practice. And games in which checking or clearing the ball isn’t required result in three-player trainwrecks in which you’ll need to be more lucky than good. Grabbing possession of the ball under the basket feels as arbitrary here as passing does elsewhere.

For all your trouble in enduring modes such as this, you’re rewarded with additional gear and special moves for your created player. That’s fine, but the player editor is far too pokey to encourage frequent return visits.

This mountain of head-scratchers, capped by the ability to play only one-on-one games online, ensures that whatever potential “Ballers” had remains forever trapped. That’s frustrating with any game, but it’s all the more so here, because with a little more gas in the tank and some better ideas on the drawing board, “Ballers” easily could be a respectable follow-up to Midway’s arcade NBA games of yesteryear. Maybe next time.