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Mario Kart DS Review for Nintendo DS
Posted on Tuesday, January 03, 2006 @ 04:14:03 am E.S.T

Since the days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the Mario Kart series has become firmly fixed in the minds of all Nintendo console owners with an incarnation on every machine since then. Each new instalment always brings something new to the format and that of the Nintendo DS is no different, as Mario Kart becomes Nintendo’s flagship online title and opens the floodgates for an entire world of challengers.

First things first though. Whilst multiplayer might be touted as the overall ‘point’ of Mario Kart, Nintendo have always understood that it’s not always possible to be around that many people, so single player modes have always been implemented. In Mario Kart DS the tried and tested format has been transferred flawlessly and dare I say it, better than ever.

Quite impressively, there are 32 tracks to choose from (Spanning the usual 50, 100 and 150cc modes), as well as mirrored versions of those tracks, pushing the total (technically) up to 64. However, half of those original 32 tracks are remakes or ports from previous incarnations of the series, although that’s not as much of a cop out as you’d think it would be.

The beauty of it is that just because these tracks are redone versions of classics from the SNES, reworks of those on the GBA, or direct ports from the N64 and Gamecube doesn’t mean that they’re bad tracks. Nintendo have brought across a few instantly memorable gems such as Baby Park from Double Dash and Frappe Snowland from MK64. The wide range of familiarity this type of setup offers can create an almost nostalgic feel alongside the brand new tracks, although the many people who have never played all the instalments in the series will still find something fresh and inviting amongst the Retro cup.

However, Nintendo’s dedication to their single player consumer base doesn’t end there. There’s the standard Time Trial mode which pits you up against the ruthless staff ghosts and also the new ‘Mission’ mode, where you need to muster up all your driving skill to complete 42 missions like driving through gates in numerical order, or hitting crabs with bob-oms. Unfortunately this mode feels somewhat tacked on, as if an afterthought during the latter stages of the game’s development, especially considering the complete lack of rewards for its completion. Finally, to round off the new features (something which technically isn’t a ‘gameplay’ feature, but all the same…) is the option to have your own custom ‘decal’ or logo displayed on the side or front of your cart. This is visible to players in all wi-fi modes including online and, oddly enough, really gives you the capacity to be creative, saving it from becoming an afterthought and instead branding it as a nice touch.

There’s also the usual motley crew of playable characters, although this time the number of cars has been bumped up too. With a varied number of statistics per car, each races according to its own strengths and weaknesses. This creates a certain level of strategy and certainly favouritism as you feel yourself drawn towards a particular cart that caters to your own individual racing style.

Ah yes; the items, the path to arguably the most satisfying portion of Mario Kart. New weapons have been added including the all-powerful ‘Bullet Bill’ which transforms you into, well, Bullet Bill and rockets you along the course without you having to do a thing. Naturally, you only get this new weapon when you’re very, very far back, but in a four player online match (Which I’m getting to) it can make all the difference. Then there’s the charm of the lightning bolt, which never fails to amuse when you use the map on the bottom screen and watch an opponent go careering off the edge of a stage.

Of course, these items would be completely useless if you weren’t able to utilise them due to awkward controls. Fortunately, Nintendo have got that covered and the carts are generally responsive (Obviously, they’ll be affected by the ‘Handling’ stat of the relevant Kart) and comfortable to drive, meaning if you fall off the track it’s your own fault. It’s also worth noting that the R button once more takes on the role of ‘hop’, a welcome return to the series, great for finishing a race in style (As well as initiating the obligatory ‘power slide’ move).

Other notable gameplay mechanics include things like the always popular turbo start and a new skill: ‘drafting’, whereby you drive very closely behind another player, slowly gathering speed until ultimately you zoom ahead with an impromptu turbo boost, but watch out for banana skins.

These standard gameplay elements are all well and good but are of little use if you can’t really see what you’re doing. Thankfully the graphical capabilities of the Nintendo DS are called forward to bring colour, vibrancy and most importantly clarity to tracks and characters in scenarios that can get ludicrously hectic at times. This is particularly impressive when you consider that the game has no loading times of which to speak, and suffers no slowdown even during the most action-packed situation.

All is accompanied by a jingly collection of fine background music which touches upon classic tunes from the series’ past and also brings in fresh backing for the new tracks. The carts also perform well audibly with sufficient engine noises and the tried and tested cartoon sound effects for careering from the path. The characters too get their own phrases and exclamations, utilised in situations where your weapon successfully collides with another racer.

So once you’ve squeezed all you can out of the game’s single player modes, stared appreciatively at its quite impressive visual display and got all nostalgic and a little misty eyed over the remastered soundtracks from all the old courses (As well as nodded along to the catchy new ones), it’s time to get some friends round and get serious.

The multiplayer modes are always the most talked about aspect of any new Mario Kart game and Mario Kart DS is no exception. The Vs Race modes let up to 8 people race wirelessly off a single cart via download play (Although through this option you’re limited in track and cart choices), or on multi-cart with the full range of tracks and characters available. This is automatic fun, since the previously mentioned item-based scenarios occur frequently and are elevated by the fact that you can swear in person at whoever just blue shelled you off the side of Rainbow Road.

Then there’s Battle mode in which you get to pound each other mercilessly with items until only one person’s left with any balloons. For those of you not in the know, the object of Battle Mode is to alleviate your opponent of the three balloons attached to the back of their cart using both weapons and fantastic driving skill (Balloons are lost with either a direct hit from an item or falling from a stage) whilst trying to retain your own. A nice new touch even for veterans here is the option to physically blow on the microphone of your DS to inflate lost balloons. It shows off more of Nintendo’s ingenuity with the handheld as a whole and adds a new element of strategy to Battle Mode. If you find yourself being particularly bad at this, you can now play the Battle mode on your own against AI controlled bots, although unfortunately their AI is severely lacking and there’s no real challenge there, so the only thing you can really train is your aim. Still, it’s a nice touch.

But obviously, the biggest focal point of this release is the online capabilities. Nintendo have put a lot into this system, and I’m pleased to report that on the whole, they’ve got it right. Connecting is mostly painless, either by router, wi-fi access point, or specific usb Nintendo dongle (My method of choice since it really eliminates any user error) although in the first few days the servers were blighted with unreadiness and a few disconnections here and there are still occurring. All in all though, I’ve found online to be very reliable with my setup and have no real complaints insofar as that goes. What I WOULD recommend however, is that you check beforehand that your router is compatible via Nintendo’s Wi-Fi dedicated website.

When you get online via the WFC (Wi-Fi Connection) initially things look somewhat limited. Twenty of the 32 tracks are playable online, battle mode has been completely omitted, and only four players are allowed in each race (That’s if you’re lucky enough to find four). Even then this number can deplete rapidly due to disconnecting racers, occasionally through no fault of their own but usually with intent to disrupt. At the time of writing, Nintendo are looking into the problem of people who disconnect on purpose with an overhaul of the online service to come in the coming months.

Still, these are only minor niggles, and fade away when you get into a series of really enjoyable races. The ‘Rivals’ pairing system (pitting you against people with a similar win/loss ratio which is all recorded under your ‘Records’) actually works quite well, although occasionally due to sheer lack of opponents you might end up severely mismatched. Playing a full set of really challenging, hard fought races whilst sitting comfortably in your bedroom is a pretty unique experience, especially when you consider Nintendo’s anti-online standpoint up till now and this new adoption of a well-executed online system pushes Mario Kart DS well into the realms of must own.

Because of the various rankings to achieve on Grand Prix and Mission Mode, times to beat on Time Trial and the limitless replayability of multiplayer mode, be it in person or online, Mario Kart DS is a game that will keep you consistently entertained for a long time. This is a game that few will end up trading in.

Overall, Mario Kart DS is the definitive entry in the series, bringing together the best of all the previous incarnations in a game that fits perfectly with the platform. Despite minor reliability issues now and then, Nintendo have successfully integrated online mode, at the very least paving the way for things to come and at best, showcasing a tight killer app for its handheld and a true modern classic.

Review By: Zayne Finch - 202 Reads

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