Mario Kart’s pedigree is long and on the whole entirely successful. The game has been on the SNES, the N64, the GBA, the Gamecube, and now the DS. While the fundamental gameplay hasn’t substantially changed, the purity of the design, the simplicity of the controls, and the personable nature of the game’s graphical presentation combine to make Mario Kart one of the most enjoyable racing titles videogaming has to offer.
Playing the game is almost unchanged from the experience in Gamecube’s Mario Kart Double Dash!!. While you aren’t able to ride with a gunner, as you could on that system’s Kart offering, Kart DS still offers up the opportunity to bring the blue sparks. Skidding around corners allows you to maintain your momentum, and quickly twitching the D-pad back and forth generates sparks which can give you a much needed boost. As you fly around the tracks, you’ll gain access to a bevy of items for use against your opponents. Ranging from a simple banana peel that can slip up foes behind you to a leader-seeking flying blue shell, the items keep the game extremely balanced and the ending always tight. The further back in the pack you find yourself, the more powerful the items you find on the track. Players relegated to the far end of the course may even find themselves transformed into a Bullet Bill, which can rocket down the racetrack at high speed and blast foes out of the way. Even if you’re lagging far behind you’re never more than an item away from rejoining the pack. The gameplay is designed to be simple to learn, with plenty of depth to unlock through repeated play. Unfrustrating and good-natured fun is the result, a title that can be picked up by novice and expert alike and played with equal enjoyment. In addition to Prix mode there are also 54 missions to try out, each of them more challenging than the last. The trials are designed to improve your racing skills, and range from simple ‘go through the numbered posts’ slalom-style events to some truly unique boss fights. Each boss requires a different strategy to defeat, and some trials are extremely tough to power through. These battles are well worth it though, and add just that much more replayablity to the title.
The field of battle in Mario Kart DS is the racetrack, and there are 32 tracks to compete in over the course of the single-player mode. There are three racing speeds, from 50cc engines for newcomers to 150cc engines for the more experienced player. Each speed rating has eight cup races, with each cup being made up of four racetracks. Tracks from every previous Kart title are offered here, going all the way back to the SNES version. There are also a number of original tracks available, and the simplicity of the older tracks is almost refreshing compared to the complexity of some of the newer environments. While older tracks are just ovals to navigate, newer tracks offer criss-crossing paths and stupendous leaps. Some of the racetracks have a higher fun factor than others, but the sheer variety of tracks means there is something to offer for every player. There’s also something to offer for every Nintendo fan, in the form of over a dozen selectable characters. While you initially start with eight, you unlock new Mario buddies and new carts for the characters as you complete cups. Each character has a definite racing style, and it’s refreshing that playing Toad is fundamentally different than driving as Bowser. Who you play is more than just an aesthetic statement: it affects your strategy as well.
* Aesthetics are a fine topic for this game, though, because Mario Kart looks just great on the DS. All of the characters are identifiable, and have a lot of personality to their models. Karts are imaginatively designed, and game items have the same quirky looks as their non-racing counterparts. The entire game runs smoothly as silk, with no graphical hiccups or even slowdowns that I could tell. The tracks themselves, besides their enjoyable design, bring the world of Mario to life as you whizz past. Some of the older tracks look a little blocky in comparison to the Gamecube or brand-new offerings, but overall the game is a slick and pleasant world to drive through.
As much fun and challenge as the single-player prix mode offers, the true joy of Kart racing is multiplayer mode. Mario Kart DS makes playing with your fellow gamers brilliantly simple. Locally, multiple DS units can be networked together to run races or engage in one of the entertaining mini-games. Fellow players don’t all need the cartridge, either, with one console running the game acting as a hub for up to seven other players. Hopping into this feature is intuitive and only requires a few button presses. Mario Kart DS has also launched as one of the premier titles utilizing Nintendo’s WiFi Connection. If you have access to a compatible WAP, or live near a McDonald’s, you can compete with fellow Kart players across the country and around the world. My WAP required no tweaking whatsoever to allow the DS to start looking for other players. Up to four players can race together competitively on a series of tracks. The full set of 32 are not available, but there are more than enough options to keep strangers enjoying each other’s company. The family-friendly side of Nintendo means that DS multiplayer is as pleasant to play as it is easy to set up. There’s no way to interact with other players besides racing, so comments about your mom won’t be drifting from your DS speakers. The network appears to be solid as well. Despite disparate geography and connection setups, I’ve never had even the slightest bit of lag while playing with other Kart racers. Some players do inevitably drop out of the race because of signal strength or petty annoyance, but the race moves forward without interruption. There are also vs. modes, which bring back the balloon-popping fighter and introduces shine runner, a challenge to collect the Mario series ever-present star-shaped rewards.
* There are a few minor quibbles I have with the setup. In order to play with specific individuals, you’ll need to trade Friend Codes. Friend Codes are unique identifiers pairing the DS and a cartridge, and are the only way you can seek out any one person online. You can’t trade Friend Codes online; they have to be traded via some other information channel. There’s no way, then, to block racers who constantly drop out if they’re in last place or befriend a good sport you bested on the Luigi’s Mansion track. Likewise, it can sometimes take a while to find opponents when you’re out searching on the Regional or Worldwide screens. If the game can’t find four players to put together it will often drop two or three players together into a race just to get them racing, and there are no options governing your preferences here.
Idiosyncrasies with the online setup aside, Mario Kart DS is a drop-dead gorgeous racer with a nearly limitless pot of fun on to boil. The gameplay is addictively fun. There are several options for single-player play, ensuring you’ll never get tired of playing by yourself. And, if you do, it’s a matter of minutes to be online and racing someone from anywhere in the world. It’s not often that I pause to reflect on the real changes that modern developments have made to gaming, but the ease and fluidity with which you can be racing other gamers from the comfort of your cozy WAP is enough to make even the most jaded technology aficionado pause. If you own a DS, there are very few reasons not to consider at least renting this game. It’s the latest and greatest in one of Nintendo’s most venerable franchises, packing graphical prowess and technical savvy into one impossible-to-put-down package. I highly recommend this game to anyone who likes having fun.