Unfortunately, the newest entry I had an opportunity to seize last night wasn't the much anticipated "Mario Kart Wii." It was a version that most people will never actually get to bring home: "Mario Kart Arcade GP 2."
Haven't heard of it? It is the second in a series of Namco produced full-on, sit-down style "Mario Kart" arcade cabinets. When I heard about the original "Mario Kart Arcade GP," I was convinced that a "Mario Kart" arcade game would never make it stateside. However, on Wednesday, upon wandering into my local Dave & Busters in Times Square, there it was, like a Japanese beacon from the gods, calling out to me to come and play. My time had come for me to spend my hard earned money on some arcade style "Mario Kart"ing. Having never even seen the first in it's full electronic glory, I was pretty shocked to find this fairly rare machine, and I was already to go.
I only had time for a handful of races, but it was long enough to see that the game was simply amazing, and I can only hope that the forth coming Wii version takes note of some of this version's nuances and ends up at least as enjoyable.
As you would expect, the gameplay is the same as all the other "Mario Kart"s, except that you use steering wheel and gas pedal controls, as you would with similar sit-down arcade driving games. The goal is still to win the race any way you can, and a new batch of items helps make that happen. The courses are your standard fare, offering settings (but not actual courses) from prior games, like Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road. It also includes some new settings like Wario's Diamond City, and Pac-Land. The few courses that I played looked gorgeous, and would be right at home in the Wii version when it is released.
I never had an opportunity to play the first "Mario Kart Arcade GP," which means that I never had the chance to play with my favorite character addition to the series - Pac-Man. I've been a solid Toad fan since day one, and I've never really felt a need to use another character. Then I found out about Pac-Man being in a "Mario Kart" game. Since "GP 2" was developed by Namco, the game's creators have dropped some of their own characters into the series, namely Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Blinky and Tamagotchi Mametchi. That roster helps break down the wall of Nintendo-only characters, opening the field of speculation for the Wii title, and putting Namco characters at the front of that line.
As you might expect, the characters all grouped into similar classes in terms of controls. Pac-Man fell into the balanced characters category (think Mario and Luigi), Blinky was in the slightly heavy category (Yoshi and Princess Peach) and Ms. Pac-Man and the Tamagotchi were in the light and small group (along with Toad). Pac-Man was fun to control, however he was a bit too balanced for me, and I actually fell in love (all over again) with Ms. Pac-Man since she was the closest in controls to Toad.
Easily one of the most noticeable differences in "Arcade GP 2" was the two player head-to-head. This particular Dave & Busters only had one full console, which meant that there were only two seats. The game had the option to have up to four people playing simultaneously, but it didn’t come to fruition at this particular arcade. It was a really great experience to have a full screen entirely to myself while racing. "Mario Kart DS" did do this, but that really doesn’t compare. Now, taking these kinds of matches online, with up to eight people, that's a whole different story.
One of the other really unique differences between the arcade version and any of the other versions was the inclusion of the Nam Cam, which allows you to take a picture of yourself and see it in the game above each contestant's car as you pass them on the track. There are even weapons in the game that cause your image to appear all over your opponents' screen, obstructing their view. It's a nice little addition that helps you make what is normally a fairly difficult connection with an arcade machine - it's a step above just entering your initials. While it may seem obvious that Nintendo won't be including this in "Mario Kart Wii" I think this might be the best example of something they could really learn from the arcade game. We can barely communicate at all via the Wii, would it be so wrong to be able to see who we are racing. Perhaps this could be a great place for a little Mii integration. Nintendo - the ball's in your court.
Overall, the game just really got my hopes up for what's possible in the Wii version of the game. After playing with a legitimate arcade steering wheel, my interested has finally been sparked for potential of the Wii Wheel, and I hope it is more than just another piece of plastic. The wheel offered a huge amount of vibration and, in certain cases, really made you endure the damage you took by hitting an item. It make the game more believable (if that's even possible). I also really hope that Nintendo will offer as robust of a character lineup for "Mario Kart Wii" as they are for "Smash Bros. Brawl," because it really ups the enjoyment factor.
So for the 37,000 plus people that were still playing "Mario Kart DS" online on Wednesday, (but not the mysterious 1,444 people that were actually playing "Mario Kart Wii") you're obviously fans of the franchise, but you aren't playing the most recent iteration of the game. Come to NYC, or try your local arcade, and maybe you'll be able to find "Mario Kart Arcade GP 2," and if not, then you'll just have to wait (hopefully only) a few months for "Mario Kart Wii."