In Depth Review: Mario Kart DS [NDS]
I suppose I've cut to the chase already by practically insisting that you really aren't a DS owner until you've bought, played, and online-enabled Mario Kart DS. So there's your recommendation. But if you want more in-depth details of why it works, that's what the review is for. Read on.
Have you ever played Mario Kart? If so, skip this paragraph. If not... wow. But anyway, Mario Kart is a racing game that's not all about the racing. It involves weaponry obtained from item boxes scattered throughout the course, though of course in this case it's light-hearted fare. Items from the Mario universe make it into each racer's arsenal - green and red shells, mushrooms for speed boosts, star powerups and - new to the series - the power to morph into Bullet Bill. Being in first place on the third lap never guarantees victory in Mario Kart due to the weapon balance - the sucker in last place has the best chance of landing a game-changing weapon, such as the dreaded blue spiked shell which seeks out the first-place racer and ends with a powerful blue explosion. Likewise, the first place racer is likely to grab only banana peels or the underpowered green shell.
For this iteration, Nintendo did away with the two-racer karts that were the core of the Gamecube's Mario Kart: Double Dash and instead went back to the old-school route of including one racer per kart. Nintendo kept multiple karts per racer though, so you've still got more than one choice to make when selecting who to race as. New for this game is the Item rating, which basically dictates the chance of you getting a heavier-hitting weapon relative to your position in the race. This makes things more balanced than they already were, as the kart that has the highest acceleration, speed and drift ability may have a woefully low item ranking. Meaning, of course, look to collect a lot of semi-useless items if you choose that kart.
You start out with eight characters from the Mario universe, with more unlockable as you progress. One thing I was disappointed in is that there are no character-specific special items such as the ones seen in Mario Kart: Double Dash. As such, the motivation to choose different drivers is basically the same as previous non-cube Kart games.
There are a couple of new items in Mario Kart DS, as mentioned above. The Blooper item sends off the squiggly squid to literally squirt ink on the screen of every racer in front of you. Though you can race by looking at the bottom screen's map, it's still a bit annoying and seems to affect the CPU opponents more than you'd think. Bullet Bill turns you into Bullet Bill himself. You're basically on autopilot for a short while, and every racer in your path gets gleefully mowed down. The Golden Mushroom acts just like a normal mushroom, except that once you activated, it's still available for a limited and thus giving you infinite boosts for the while that it remains in your item box.
The new items thankfully don't disrupt the balance, because as expected Bullet Bill and the Golden Mushroom are really very, very rare and are given to only the most loserish racers. The Blooper powerup is something that you end up learning to deal with. Further, for the duration of the effects of Bullet Bill and the Golden Mushroom, you can't pick up any items from item boxes.
Making its return to the Kart series this time is the little hop that you use to initialize powerslides. This is a welcome return for me, as I never quite got the same definitive feel in Double Dash, which had no hopping. Powerslides are great, but Nintendo kept in the blue-spark red-spark system from Double Dash, adding more strategy and skill to the mix. Just like in Double Dash, pressing left and right on the d-pad when in powerslide mode generates sparks that give you a speed boost when you release the hop button. You can also gain speed boosts by drafting behind opponents. So while at its surface Mario Kart is still mostly about mashing on the gas and throwing shells, the added tactics from past entries like sparks and drifting keep the driving from being totally tactless. In fact, in the IGN Mailbag I saw a question about "snaking" online and whether or not it was "okay" - snaking being the act of creating red sparks anytime you can, even when you're on a straightaway and not rounding a corner. It's a tactic, folks; learn to use it, offline and on.
And online play, of course, is the biggest difference in Mario Kart and probably one of the main reasons you'd be interested in the DS iteration in the first place. Though late to the game, as I feel Double Dash should have been supported online, Mario Kart DS finally lets four racers square off at your friendly neighborhood intertron-web hotspot. Nintendo game plus internet? No way. Yes way! But it doesn't come without flaws.
Mario Kart is truly easy to get up and running online once you have the proper network settings down. It's quite literally, "Connect to the Wi Fi service? Ok, how do you want to match up? Ok, searching for matchups. Have fun." Once you're connected to the Wi-Fi network, you're presented with four ways of finding challenges: those in your region (Regional), anyone in the world (Worldwide), anyone who has a similar win-loss percentage to you (Rivals), or those whose "friend codes" you've collected into your Friends list (Friends).
Yes it's simple, but to a fault. There is no lobby. You can't see who's online, and pick-and-choose who to play first. I couldn't, say, mix-and-match a four-player game with my friend and two random people, for instance. You can't see peoples' records before you play, and you certainly can't see any sort of reputation ranking - because there is none. There are no scoreboards or leaderboards for lap times and win/loss records, though you can see a smattering of online activity on NintendoWiFi.com.
The simplicity of the online presentation trickles down into actual gameplay. The ONLY mode available is four-player racing, and it's always in 3-lap, 4-race sets. There is no Battle or Shine mode, the two multiplayer modes available in local Wi-Fi and single player. There are only 16, instead of 32, tracks to choose from. You can't drag items to shield yourself online either. What's worse is when a sore loser drops off in the middle of a race. Sure, they get 0 points for that race, but it doesn't matter because it won't affect their online reputation - since, again, there IS no reputation meter. The game also doesn't replace the dropped player with AI opponents to even things out. So once again, it's literally, "Do you want to play online? Cool - against what kind of people? Ok, here you go. Enjoy." That's it.
The only real big gripe about this that I have is that there's no stinking battle mode. The limitation on who you get to play with doesn't bother me so much, and the available tracks are great enough to play on. But man - can you imagine the frenetic Battle mode online? Isn't this what we've all waited for? Instead, all we get is four player racing. It's still tons of fun though, and works very well. Lag is kept to a minimum, even when playing against worldwide players. I'd see some karts zipping around the track, but it's never gotten in the way of gameplay to the point where races are won unjustly.
Multiplayer by yourself is an option due to the usage of Bots. The multiplayer modes are up to expectations on local wi-fi, with traditional balloon Battle mode and a new Shine Runners mode which is basically "last man standing" with Shine sprites. Basically a few shines are scattered about as a timer goes down. When it reaches zero, the racer with the least shines gets knocked out, and the timer resets; this continues until there is only one left. Although I do miss the Bob-omb Battles, Shine Runners is basically as fun as Shine Thief and I'd rather have races online than the Bob-Omb battles.
Along with single player bots, Online and Shine runners, another addition is the Mission mode. Here, you can hone your skills as a Mario Kart player by completing several tasks such as performing power slides, collecting item boxes, completing laps in a certain time, et cetera. There are several of these little missions and they're great for making you a better competitive player so that come online time, you're ready to compete. I really like this mode because of the practice, but also because it gives me even more reason to turn on Mario Kart DS when I'm done with all the Grand Prix mode. The value here is just fantastic, and don't forget about the Mirror Cups that put you through tracks in reverse that gets unlocked late in the game.
Aesthetically, there's nothing realy new here. The graphics are mostly reminiscent of the N64 version without texture filtering (gee, doesn't that sound familiar for a DS game...) but move at a totally unwavering 60 frames per second. The team did a great job of translating the Gamecube racetracks to the DS version. The sound, too, is your typical fare. The music is your general cheery Mario fare, as are the sound effects. Nothing has really changed here; everything about the audiovisual experience screams "Mario".
The bottom line with Mario Kart DS is this - it's accessible to everyone, playable by everyone, and now, you can compete with everyone - across the world. It's got the best tracks of the four existing versions (Cube, N64, GBA and SNES). It's got great new track designs, like Waluigi Pinball, and tons of replay value due to the assorted multiplayer and single player options. It's Mario Kart, and it's online. While the internet play is limited, it's a start, and there's so much to do offline too. In my opinion, there are a few DS games that I genuinely like more than Mario Kart DS; hell, there are always games that will be better than Mario Kart on any given Nintendo system. But I'd be hard pressed to ever say that I don't need Kart in those systems' lineups. Karting is just a necessary experience, and the Nintendo DS version is no exception.