Review: Only a red shell from perfection.
Many game players cower in fear at the mere mention of a ?spin-off.? Game-related or not, spin-off products (that is, unrelated products based on a popular franchise) are usually mediocre and not even worth the time it takes to pronounce their names. Yet, before the game industry was soaked with these poor titles, Nintendo released a spin-off of their own: an arcade-style ?kart? racing game called ?Mario Kart.? Gamers played as their favorite characters from the Mario series and raced each other on tracks, shooting powerups and powersliding their way to victory. Well over a decade later, Mario Kart is one of the most successful racing franchises ever, and a Mario Kart title has appeared on every major Nintendo console since then.
Mario Kart DS is the culmination of everything that has made the Mario Kart series fun. It's as if the developers sat down, took a long look at the good and bad aspects of previous games, and created Mario Kart DS as a result. While Mario Kart DS doesn't bring any new mechanics to the table, the finely-tuned gameplay is enough to keep veterans and newbies alike glued to their DS for hours. Couple this with an absolute plethora of game modes and things to do, and you'll have the awesome experience that is Mario Kart DS.
Like it's predecessors, the mainstay of Mario Kart DS is the Grand Prix mode, a series of cups with four races each where you'll race against CPU controlled opponents for points. With a total of eight cups, Grand Prix mode isn't terribly time consuming. Fortunately, there is much to do outside of this mode. The Mission mode is perhaps the most innovative aspect of DS. It features a series of objectives that must be completed in order to unlock the next series, amounting to a total of six series. Each series culminates in a boss battle very reminiscent of those found in Super Mario 64. These are a nice break from the racing, and are useful between Wi-Fi binges.
"Wait a second, did he say 'Wi-Fi!?'? Indeed I did, and unless you've been dead for the past few months, you probably know that Mario Kart DS is the first DS title to feature the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection for online play. (Though it is not technically the first Mario Kart game to go online. Double Dash was compatible with an unofficial online mode.) Nintendo has always been concerned with the accessibility and utility of online play, claiming that it was alienating and inaccessible. However, in the wake of the wildly successful Xbox Live, Nintendo has changed their tune a bit and are now embracing online play with the DS. Wi-Fi connection was a snap to set up, featuring a proper balance between compatibility and simplicity. My DS had good reception with my router from up to 80 feet away, and there was no noticeable online lag.
So, how is the actual online play? Well, it's Mario Kart. Nothing more, nothing less. You connect with three other players randomly (or join a game started by someone on your friends list) and vote on a track to race. There is no communication between players, no chat rooms, no voice communication. Just racing. While this has a few upsides, most notably no more whining or profanity, it's generally a very negative thing. Without communication, it seems as if you're racing against very skilled bots with custom names. To make matters worse, it's very easy to ?snake? on most tracks, that is, consistently power slide down straightaways to give yourself a speed boost. While this is technically not cheating, it makes the race almost impossible to win without doing so yourself. And lastly, there is the dreaded ?drop.? Many players will leave the four-race series after placing third or fourth in the first race. This greatly sours the online experience and makes CPU players all the more inviting. It simply doesn't seem like the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection was ready to become a major aspect of Mario Kart.
Just because Nintendo wants you to play against real humans doesn't mean they slacked on the development of the AI, though. The CPU racers are just as challenging as ever, and will race and use the various power ups intelligently. They also feel perfectly at home on the game's 30 different tracks, adjusting their style based on the design of the track. Which is definitely needed, considering just how varied the different tracks are. There are 15 new tracks designed for Mario Kart DS (including an amusing DS-themed battle arena) and 15 retro tracks from every Mario Kart game before. The different styles mesh together brilliantly and help prevent the game from feeling as repetitive as past iterations.
Mario Kart DS controls tightly when compared to previous titles in the series. Your kart is more responsive, power-slides are easier to control, and there's less of an emphasis on kart-to-kart bumping. Of course, not every character will react the same way. Heavier racers like Bowser are much harder to keep hold of, whereas more nimble players like Yoshi will be a cinch. The control layout is exactly as you'd expect, too. A to accelerate, B to brake, R trigger to power-slide hop, and L trigger to use a power up, just as it has always been. It is also worth noting that the touch screen is not used for any sort of input, as doing so would greatly hinder your ability to race.
The touch screen is used, however, as an overhead view of a portion of the track, alerting you when obstacles or shells are heading your way and letting you know when someone is on your tail. At first, I had dismissed this as a way for Nintendo to fill up the bottom screen, but as I became more and more used to glancing at it, I became more and more dependent on using it. While using this map is not entirely vital to the race, truly great players will learn how to use it to gain an edge on less observant players.
Let's face it. The DS isn't a terribly capable piece of hardware, but that doesn't stop Mario Kart DS from looking absolutely brilliant on it. Despite some painfully low polygon counts, the visuals in DS are vibrant and colorful. The 15 new tracks and most of the retro tracks are filled with tiny details and very well designed, though the GBA and SNES derived courses leave much to be desired. Fully polygonal karts characters, and tracks along with a decent, cheery soundtrack and typical Mario themed sound effects round off the wholly positive presentation.