Is it me or is the new generation of handheld game systems the best thing to happen to the industry since the release of the PSone? Here I am away from my controller, away from my console, and nowhere near a TV screen and yet I am able to steal my friend's star and beat him to the finish line. He is nowhere in the room. There are no free power outlets (they're occupied by my PC), or any wires connecting our game experience.
That is the beauty of wireless, handheld gaming that's as powerful as the last generation of game consoles. With their new, N64-caliber system, Nintendo was able to realize the dream of putting a real Mario Kart game in the palm of our hands. They were also able to do something that was not possible before: take the game online.
Finally, after more than a decade of bringing joyful addiction to gamers' homes, Mario Kart could now be played at any time and at any location. Go somewhere with a WiFi connection (McDonald's is the most common, but other restaurants like Panera Bread offer WiFi as well) and you can play against gamers from all over the world. It's not like online gaming on a console where getting into a game is as easy as clicking an open race or starting your own. But it's a start, and it's got thousands of gamers hanging out at the Golden Arches – with or without the urge for a Big Mac.
Before going online, before entering your first race, know that above all else Mario Kart DS is a spectacular racing game. This isn't a rehash, or some compilation of Mario Kart's past. It hasn't forgotten where it came from – 16 of the series' most popular courses are back, marking the first time that tracks from the SNES, N64, Game Boy Advance and GameCube versions have appeared in the same game. Each of the returning courses have been re-designed for the Nintendo DS, adding 3D elements to the two-dimensional GBA and SNES tracks. Nintendo 64's courses look about the same, while GameCube's selections have been re-rendered and look fantastic on the small screen.
The other 16 courses are brand-new, Mushroom Kingdom-inspired worlds designed exclusively for Mario Kart DS. Luigi's Mansion wasn't the GameCube launch title we had hoped for, but its originality and everlasting charm made it hard to forget – thus the creation of a course based on that game. It's dark, filled with ghosts, and haunted by trees! The kind that move and will make you spin and spin. The horror, the horror!
Delfino Square should be instantly familiar to anyone who went searching for Shine in 2002. Waluigi Pinball is a quirky, eventful course where balls aren't the only thing that get bounced around. Shroom Ridge is what life must be like at the Mushroom Kingdom during rush hour. Those of you who grew up playing the NES Mario games, join me in shedding a few tears for Airship Fortress and Cheep Cheep Beach. Both tracks pay homage to Mario's earlier days, featuring 3D characters and environments that replicate the worlds and enemies Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3.
Yoshi, Wario, Peach, Bowser, Donkey Kong – no one was left out. Every major Mario Kart character has a world represents their existence in some way. Whether through inspired characters, environments or both, these courses were made for Nintendo fans.
Cheep Cheep Beach
Mario Circuit 1 (SNES)
Moo Moo Farm (N64)
Peach Circuit (GBA)
Luigi Circuit (GameCube)
Donut Plains 1 (SNES)
Frappe Snowland (N64)
Bowser Castle 2 (GBA)
Baby Park (GameCube)
Koopa Beach 2 (SNES)
Choco Mountain (N64)
Luigi Circuit (GBA)
Mushroom Ridge (GameCube)
Choco Island 2 (SNES)
Banshee Boardwalk (N64)
Sky Garden (GBA)
Yoshi Circuit (GameCube)
The dual-character controls are exclusive to Double Dash, but you still get 12 different characters to choose from, including Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad. Bowser and DK are back (it wouldn't be Mario Kart without 'em), as is Daisy, though I'm still confused as to why. Is she really more popular than Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, who do not appear to be in the racing lineup? If they're hidden they're hidden really well because I have yet to find them.
There are a few notable surprises; skip this paragraph if you'd prefer to discover them on your own. Dry Bones, the skeletal Koopa Troopa that made its debut in Super Mario World, is a playable character. He's got his own unique vehicle set, as do all of the characters. Toad drives a mushroom, Luigi controls a vacuum (called the Poltergust 4000. Get it?), Yoshi rides an egg, etc. Complete each cup with a gold trophy and you'll get to use every vehicle with every character, for a total of 12 characters and 36 rides.
New to the Mario Kart series is the Missions mode. Coin collection – been there! Hitting Cheep Cheeps with a star – I don't remember doing it in a racing game before, but I'm sure I have. On the other hand, I have no memory of throwing Bob-ombs at a Pokey, nor do I remember taking on a Big Bully with Yoshi's kart. The boss battles are the best part, letting players take on classic Mario bosses like the Eyerok hands from Mario 64. Some of the missions are tedious, and there's no getting around the chore of having a near-perfect performance if you want to unlock every mission. But at the end of the stress and frustration are memorable boss battles.
You’ll have to get a lot of gold trophies to acquire every playable character.
Mario Kart DS is the most connected handheld racer on the planet with eight-player close-range frequency and WiFi available. WiFi is awesome but a pain to set up, and if you don't have broadband and a wireless router, or broadband and Nintendo's USB adaptor you'll have to leave the house to take advantage of this feature. Standard multiplayer is wire-free but is restricted to a 30-feet (give or take a few dozen) area. It's instantly clear when you're getting too far away from your opponent(s) because the frame rate starts to drop.
Anyone with a DS can play thanks to the implementation of single-card multiplayer. Those playing without the game get a special treat -- they get to control Shy Guy. Courses are limited to about half of what's available. To access all 32 in multiplayer you'll just have to convince all your friends to get the game themselves.
For the first time ever the Time Trial mode keeps track of your progress. Think you've just had a really good race? Send the "ghost" image to another player with the game to see if he or she can top it.
hThere's a reason why Nintendo released a DS/Mario Kart bundle: this game is a system seller. Many of you already know the joy of this racer. Some of you, however, are still lurking in the shadows, watching us while we play, waiting for the moment when you can snatch a DS from our hands (I can see you in the screen, guys. Clear plastic is reflective). Stop being a DS-snatcher and give into your desire. I'm not saying this to sell more systems, I just want more challengers. And fewer people lurking in the shadows.
Review Scoring Details for Mario Kart DS
The long-awaited Mario Kart DS is everything you could want from a handheld racer: the controls are perfect (for a kart racer using a D-pad), the course design is brilliant and nostalgic, and the replay value is unbelievable. This is the first multiplayer DS game that I can’t put down. It’s to the point where I’m ignoring this review so I can have another race. I can’t say it’s better than Mario Kart: Double Dash!! only because I love that title and am still thrilled to play it. But if there ever was a time when being just as good as its predecessor meant something special, this is it.
Solidly designed vehicles and characters, but the environments aren’t always impressive. The new courses are beautiful and will take gamers, even younger players, back to the golden days of Mario. The GBA and SNES courses, while upgraded with 3D elements, really lack any form of visual depth. Seeing rows of colored blocks is anything but exciting, yet that’s what most of the GBA courses are comprised of.
The music is generally good, but the overabundance of sound effects are a bit much. I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the sound either. It pales in comparison to other top-tier DS releases.
Do the math: 8 cups, 12 playable characters, 32 courses (half classic, half new), 36 vehicles, and dozens of new missions (including easy, moderately challenging, and so-frustrating-you’ll-want-to-bang-your-head-against-a-shell). The WiFi setup could’ve been a lot better, but it still beats every Dreamcast, Xbox and PlayStation 2 game released when their online services began.
Who says you can’t buy happiness? I got mine for $34.99.
Mario Kart DS is so addictive you’ll attempt to play it single-handedly when life requires your immediate attention. “Oh no, a pipe! I should’ve seen that coming!” Next time life requires your immediate attention you’ll be thinking, “Uhh…umm… It can wait.” In other words, doctors, firemen, and police officers should not be allowed to have a DS in their possession. The old excuse, “But commander, I confiscated this from the drug dealer on fifth avenue!” will only work once.
Mario Kart DS lives up to its legacy of having inventive courses, stellar multiplayer, and more replay value than any other racer in its class. The controls, the speed, the familiar-yet-original environments – this is the kind of Mario Kart game I would have developed! It combines elements from every Mario adventure, including his kart exhibitions.