When I was younger, I liked going to certain people’s houses just so I could play “that car game,” which I now know was called Super Mario Kart. That game was pure magic. Mario Kart 64 was pure magic. Mario Kart: Double Dash was okay magic. The point is, this series kicks butt, and seeing a new version for the Nintendo DS is the kind of good that can only come around Thanksgiving time.
Mario Kart DS is cartoon racing bliss. It fixes what Double Dash did wrong, brings back what Mario Kart 64 did right, and adds a few new notches to the gameplay. The two-character seating has gone back to one. The ability to jump has returned. The weapon system is balanced with a few new items and the ability to drag shells and bananas behind you again. The character roster isn’t as big as Double Dash, but each has several special karts unique to them, making it possible for players to be the same character! Mario Kart DS also adds a feature I have been anxiously awaiting: the ability to push opponents around! Past Mario Karts have not really let you bully your opponents. In this DS version, it’s possible to slam into other players and even throw them off a cliff, and there are plenty of cliffs for said opportunity.
The levels don’t get too wild, however. Rainbow Road is the wackiest it’s ever been with actual loops and corkscrews, but others are just really tame (not lame… tame). No matter, because there are 32 tracks in the game. I’m going to repeat that: there are 32 tracks in the game! That’s twice any other Mario Kart. Half of these are completely new to the series while the other half are hand-picked from the SNES, GBA, N64, and GCN games. I question some of the levels that made it in over others, but it’s still very fun to see these recreated. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t smile when the original Mario Circuit loaded up.
If there was any doubt about Mario Kart DS, it was that the D-pad wouldn’t be able to replace the analog stick. Need I remind you, however, that Mario Kart started out with a D-pad, so this “fallback” isn’t so serious. In fact, the D-pad still allows for precise driving just as the analog stick would. The only problem is that powersliding (by rubbing back and forth on the D-pad) can start to hurt the thumb.
Every Mario Kart offers more to do than the last. Double Dash had a great idea with the All-Cup tournament. That, unfortunately, doesn’t make it into Mario Kart DS, but this game jumps way ahead of the rest with eight different cups and four classes and several single-player missions and a working battle mode! While I still think Super Mario Kart had (and has) the best battle mode, Mario Kart DS puts up a good fight and corrects the disappointment that was Double Dash. The classic balloon battle has returned with a few changes. You start out with one balloon instead of three, but by blowing into the microphone, you can fill up more. It sounds crazy. It’s hilarious. What really “makes” the battle mode is the inclusion of AI-controlled bots. The AI isn’t very smart and just seems to drive around and fire randomly, but having them there is wonderful. It really extends the single-player value.
Mario Kart isn’t about playing alone, however. Mario Kart has always been a multiplayer trap, and this DS version goes all out. The ability to connect eight local DS systems together is sweet. Not everyone needs a copy of the game, either, but seriously… if somebody has a DS, they have no reason not to buy this. What’s really made Mario Kart DS such a hot topic of discussion is its ability to go online. After driving all over town to find a participating McDonald’s (ugh), I was finally able to try this mode out. I wasn’t too impressed, to be honest. Online matches are severely limited. Only a handful of levels are open, and you can’t tow items behind you. There also isn’t a general lobby where you can pick and choose who you play. The network tries to find three people for you but doesn’t always fill those slots and sometimes starts the game with only two in. It’s annoying to get stuck in a one-on-one match. It’s also annoying when people are sore losers and drop out in the middle of a race. There’s no penalty for doing so, and naturally, people take advantage of that.
It’s too bad Nintendo decided to focus only on the racing mode. Battles would be perfect for online play. That is where personality really comes through. I think I’d rather have an online battle mode than an online racing mode. Regardless, there is some enjoyment to be had knowing that the person you just screwed over is on the other side of the world, cursing at his/her DS. The real fun in Mario Kart, however, rests on its local gameplay.
Mario Kart DS looks a lot like Mario Kart 64 but runs at a much smoother framerate (though not as smooth as Double Dash). While the characters are noticeably low-polygon and some objects noticeably flat, seeing this game in motion is a lot of fun. It’s 3D Mario Kart on a handheld, for heaven’s sake! It runs really well, too, with no notable slowdown. During online matches, opponents tend to jump around sporadically when the game starts to lag. The pacing remains constant, though.
Mario Kart’s use of the second screen isn’t revolutionary, but it’s definitely handy. An overhead map may seem like a cheap way to use the DS, but it’s a helpful addition. Thanks to the map, you can keep track of approaching opponents or even bananas and shells. One item squirts ink all over everyone else’s screen, so navigating by the map becomes almost essential.
The cast has always been quite chatty, but Nintendo has thankfully toned them down a little bit for this game. You’ll still hear plenty of grunting and yelling, but it isn’t annoying like it was in Double Dash. The music retains a familiar air: light, cartoony themes which are easily forgettable but fit each level all the same. It’s a bummer the microphone couldn’t have been used for online play. Online matches are fairly quiet, and you feel like you’re missing out when you can’t hear your opponents whine. But I’m not even sure that is a possibility with the DS, so I have no room to complain.
Each version of Mario Kart has a uniqueness that I like more than the others. Super Mario Kart’s battle mode still remains the best while Double Dash is great simply because it’s so smooth and fast. If there can only be one Mario Kart, however, I’d take this one. Mario Kart DS reverts back to the classic Mario Kart formula, cleans up a few key areas, adds a whole bunch of goodies, and tosses in one of the best handheld multiplayer experiences ever. Don’t be a fool. Get this game.