While wannabe thugs were splitting skulls in "Grand Theft Auto IV" last week, less-bloodthirsty folks were hitting the road.

"Mario Kart Wii" was probably the second-most-anticipated game of the week, but that probably didn’t dampen the fun for fans of Nintendo’s string of cartoony racing games. They found plenty that’s familiar and much that’s improved from previous incarnations.

Mario, Bowser, Princess Peach and the rest of the crew return to compete in a series of four-race challenges. The tracks include a mix of new courses and some of the best tracks from "Mario Karts" of yore. Power-ups include the familiar exploding turtle shells, lightning bolts and slippery bananas, as well as new bullets that make you fast and invulnerable, blocks that shake opponents and mushrooms that increase your size.

However, the biggest change is the ability to guide your vehicle by twisting the Wii’s motion-sensitive remote like a steering wheel. In fact, the game even comes with a wheel-shaped holder for the remote. The game also offers the option of plugging in old-school controllers or using the Wii nunchuck in combination with the remote.

Of course everyone in my house was eager to drive using the remote like a steering wheel. But they quickly abandoned it after my wife creamed us by using the nunchuck-remote combo. While the "steering wheel" option worked well enough when everyone was using it, players using joysticks definitely had an edge. That’s because the controls are so much smoother and more precise than in previous versions of the game.

Players can race solo, against up to three friends or online using three different classes of cars and motorcycles. Completing a cup series against computer-controlled opponents in the solo mode unlocks a new set of tracks for each of the modes. The game offers two sets of four series — one containing new tracks and the other containing classic tracks.

The game also offers two battle modes. One involves ramming opponents to pop balloons tied to their vehicles and the other involves collecting coins by running over them.

Although the tracks and characters look better than they did on previous game systems, the graphics are still a bit disappointing when compared to what’s available in some other Wii games.

Overall, the abundance of options and challenges and the improved controls put the E-rated "Mario Kart" in the winner’s circle — especially for family gamers and those who would rather race cars than steal them.

'Mario Kart Wii'

Platform: Wii

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