It's not often that a series installment can stray so little from its past and still make a mark, but "Mario Kart Wii" waves the checkered flag with a 12-player online racing mode that makes the best use of the Wii's Wi-Fi capabilities to date.
Sure, "Mario Kart Wii" (Nintendo, $49.99) introduces a steering wheel controller shell, two-wheel motorcycles and new racetracks and attack items, but it's this slick online interface that makes the whole experience more human.
The online lobby provides a place to hook up with friends, but it's more fun jumping into a worldwide match with random opponents.
Just knowing that each introduced "Mii" character is powered by a good old human brain instead of artificial intelligence is enough to rev your engine.
You'll be hard-pressed to leave this online world, but some single-player action is a must to unlock additional characters, tracks and vehicles.
The tried-and-true "Mario Kart" formula hasn't changed much since the series' 1992 debut on the Super NES, with Mario, Luigi and their friends racing vehicles around elaborately decorated tracks.
Players can also choose battle mode, in which teams complete to pop the most balloons or gather the most coins.
The Grand Prix racing mode offers the standard classes. An excruciatingly slow 50 cc is for go-carts only, while 100 cc showcases the new bikes. Carts and bikes can be used in the more challenging 150 cc class.
The newly introduced two-wheelers handle much differently than the carts. It's easier to negotiate sharp curves, but the motorcycles are understandably more susceptible to bumps from the cart drivers sharing — or hogging — the road.
Bikers can also pop wheelies for quick speed boosts by tilting the Wii Wheel, but that trick is best reserved for straightaways.
Whether you're using a cart or bike, you'll want to try the Wii Wheel that comes bundled with the game. The Wii remote plugs into the simple-yet-comfortable shell, allowing players to simply steer while using one button to accelerate and another to attack fellow drivers.
Players can also use a Wii remote and Nunchuk combination, the system's Classic Controller or old GameCube controllers.
Up to four players can compete locally via split screen, although the graphics degrade quickly when shrunk to a quarter of the TV.
As with previous "Mario Kart" titles, the trick to moving up the leaderboard is driving through question mark-adorned blocks to add a random item to your attack arsenal.
The usual banana peels, shells, mushroom speed boosts and invincibility stars are back, and the latest installment adds a few new items.
Bullet Bill can shoot a vehicle from the back of the field into contention, giving the lucky recipient an almost unfair advantage. The new Lightning Cloud floats above a single player, who must then pass it like a hot potato to another driver before it zaps.
"Mario Kart Wii" offers 16 tracks out of the box with the ability to unlock 16 more. Some are remade versions of tracks from previous "Mario Kart" titles, while others are new creations.
Coconut Mall is a hoot, letting racers speed up and down the escalators of a shopping mall while your console's Mii characters cheer from the sidelines. Those same Miis pop up again in the parking garage as they pull their cars out in front of racers, who must then come to screeching halts.
The wintery DK Summit track is great to look at, but carts and bikes are too frequently slowed by sections of heavy snow spread throughout the speedy halfpipe.
The series' traditional final track is back, and Rainbow Road looks better than ever on the Wii. The brightly colored twisty turns through space look like something out of the new "Speed Racer" movie, and the wow factor makes it hard to keep your eyes on the road.
Fans of the series may nitpick about various aspects of "Mario Kart Wii" that differ from previous versions, but this installment clearly offers the best online experience yet seen for the Nintendo Wii, which makes it a must-have.
Three-and-a-half out of four stars.