Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
Nintendo really is amazing. With the game industry chock full of bestsellers featuring ultra violence, sexual exploitation and shallow gameplay veiled behind gaudy graphics, it would be easy for Miyamoto and company to travel down the same road with their software. They could dramatically lower their lofty quality standards in order to pump out games much more frequently, and even tie in trendy licenses for the sole purpose of boosting sales. What’s really remarkable is they don’t do any of these things, but stay true to their main goal of creating wonderfully playing games that are superior in quality and fun factor than 99.9% of everything else out there. Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Nintendo’s flagship GameCube title for the holidays, is not only a shining testament to this steadfast commitment to excellence, but much, much more due to its ridiculously addictive multiplayer appeal.
Only those select few who have completely ignored Nintendo’s past two consoles need to be debriefed on the basics of Mario Kart, but for the sake of completeness I’ll provide a quick summary. Characters made famous from their appearances in previous Mario games, like Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, etc, use souped-up go-karts to race around tracks set in assorted locations in and around the Mushroom Kingdom. Game modes are split up into four distinct categories: Grand Prix Race (series of races where 8 people vie for a trophy), Time Trail (you versus the clock), Versus (race against friends) and Battle (item combat against friends). During races and battles, item boxes can be driven over in order to acquire offensive and defensive “weapons” that can be used to take out rival drivers. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (henceforth – Double Dash) takes these excellent fundamental gameplay elements that made previous games in the series so fun, and improves on them to create one of the most addictive racers ever.
The much ballyhooed new gameplay addition in Double Dash is the capability for two characters to ride in one kart at the same time, allowing one to do the driving and the other to handle the item usage. This adds depth to the classic Mario Kart gameplay for multiple reasons. First off, now you can carry two separate items at once – one for the character in the back and another for the driver. The trick is, only the character in the back can pick up items, so you must use the Z button to have the characters switch places in order to snatch up more than one. Now imagine switching places and managing items while power sliding around hairpin corners in the final lap of a heated Grand Prix race with green shells ricocheting all around you. Yeah, it gets very intense, and it’s a dang good thing that Nintendo flawlessly integrated the character swapping into the already tight racing mechanics.
On top of adding depth to item management, having two characters per kart allows for another of Double Dash’s most addictive features: playing cooperatively on the same vehicle. This mode could have been thrown in as an added bonus with little to no effort to make it fun for the “gunner” as well as the driver, but Nintendo did an incredible job making it enjoyable for both. The player behind the wheel does get to do all the driving, but the player in the back is the only one who can pull off the all important power slide boost. This means the gunner must manage items and be prepared to flick the control stick back and forth to boost during every power slide initiated by the driver. The player in the back also has the ability to use the L and R triggers to reach out and steal items from rival racers. If both players get tired of their current roles and want to switch, a quick simultaneous press of the Z button will allow them to swap places. Playing cooperatively on the same kart is a totally different experience from the traditional every-racer-for-themselves method and adds a great deal to the game’s already huge multiplayer appeal.
There are many other tweaks to the Mario Kart formula that help make Double Dash feel fresh when compared to its predecessors. For instance, karts can now be selected separately from drivers, with choices being limited depending on the size of the characters picked (i.e. – Bowser and Donkey Kong cannot ride in the tiny baby carriage karts). This means that the weight, acceleration, handling and top speed attributes are no longer fixed to individual characters, but rather their karts. This is good because each character now has a unique special item that only they can use, so you have the option of mixing and matching different specials with various karts until you find what works for you. The specials in the game are very well balanced and consist of specific items like huge bananas that break into three smaller ones when hit (Donkey and Diddy Kong), explosive Bob-ombs (Wario and Waluigi) and a massive spiky shell that careens across the track like an out of control dump truck (Bowser and Bowser Jr.).
With all these great new gameplay additions it would be a shame if Nintendo didn’t address that dirty, rotten, and just plain cheap AI that plagued Mario Kart 64. Well, thankfully they did. No longer will you see CPU controlled drivers pull items out of thin air with no item boxes in sight. Nor will you ever find yourself driving flawlessly with the fastest kart in the game, only to have someone with a low top speed pass you on a straightaway. You do still get increasingly better items the further back in the pack you fall, but this is a Mario Kart tradition that helps keep things interesting and works for everyone equally. Item boxes can even be completely removed during the Versus mode, allowing races against friends to be determined solely on driving skill.
Speaking of racing with friends, that’s the area where Double Dash excels over all other racing games in the market today. After initially purchasing Double Dash, I played co-op with a buddy in the Grand Prix mode for over six straight hours. During that time I experienced a tumultuous roller coaster of emotions that ranged from near ecstasy (for a miraculous comeback from six points down in the last race of the circuit) to acute bloodlust (on multiple occasions for Wario and his damned purple Cadillac on 150cc), but my overall feeling at the end of the session was one of complete satisfaction – I just had so much fun. The only game in recent memory that comes even close to providing such a fantastically pleasurable co-op experience is Halo for the Xbox. And, like Halo, the adversarial modes, Versus and Battle, are equally marvelous. Many have criticized the arenas in Battle mode for being too simplistic, but I disagree. They are just big enough to allow you the freedom to maneuver away from opponent attacks, but small enough to keep you constantly on your toes. It would have been nice to see more than six Battle levels, but the selection available is quite varied.
All of the multiplayer modes in Double Dash play like a dream in split screen, but Nintendo went above and beyond by adding the option to link multiple GameCubes up over LAN. It’s annoying to have to buy broadband adapters on top of the already difficult task of gathering multiple TVs, Cubes, hub and cables, but a well setup LAN party will definitely make it all seem worthwhile. Official online play would have been awesome, but with warppipe you can play Double Dash over the internet using your computer (check out www.warppipe.com for more info). If you don’t have a broadband connection or friends to play with, don’t worry, this game will still provide hours of entertainment with its multiple secret characters, karts, tracks and game modes to unlock. Also, playing against your own ghosts in Time Trail (and unlocking staff ghosts) can provide nearly infinite single player replay value.
Visually, Double Dash is an all out assault on the retinas. Every course is bursting at the seams with vibrant trackside details like swaying trees, flashing lights, lumbering dinos and applauding spectators that vie fervently for your attention. The texture resolution for the tracks is not very sharp, but the silky smooth framerate, impressive texture variety and deep draw distance keep everything looking fantastic. The actual course designs are superb, with races taking places on a wide variety of classic Mushroom Kingdom locations like a precipitous landslide-plagued volcano, tilting cruise liner (the item boxes even roll back and forth as the ship tips), dinosaur-filled jungle and dried up wasteland featuring a nasty swirling sandpit and several hazardous tornados. Most of these track locations have been visited before in previous Mario Kart games, but Nintendo did an outstanding job spicing them up for the current generation.
The characters in Double Dash are also modeled with that famous Nintendo attention to detail. Little touches like the slick reflective texturing on Yoshi, Bowser and Birdo’s skin, grimaces made when a character is struck by an item and the manner in which Peach and Daisy’s hair whips back and forth all inject a huge amount of personality into the game. The characters’ interaction with the karts is also very impressive. Drivers actually turn the wheel according to how far over the analog stick is pressed and lean their bodies into power slides. Other animations like driving with one hand while holding an item in the other, dragging from the back of the kart after nearly getting knocked off and performing a driver/gunner switch are incredibly fluid, with only a few rare instances of polygonal clipping to be found.
Double Dash’s soundtrack is very similar to what was found in previous Mario Kart offerings, which is to say generally up beat and bouncy during races and laid back during menu navigation. Most of the course tunes uphold the track themes quite well, such as the jungle rhythm that plays on DK Mountain and the Caribbean theme for Peach Beach, but it’s a shame that some of the courses have the same songs (Dino Dino Jungle has the same tune as DK mountain, etc). Also, some of the tunes in the game have whistling portions that can be annoying at first, but will eventually have you whistling emphatically along despite yourself. Character voices are all typical Nintendo; Bowser roars, Mario busts out his timeless one-liners and Yoshi, well, does his Yoshi noise. Overall, the aural presentation in Double Dash is top notch, just don’t ever lose a race with Bowser Jr., because his seven second long temper tantrum is offensive to the ears.
Project Gotham Racing 2. Gran Turismo 3. Colin McRae Rally 3. All great racers, but none of them offer the same kind of unadulterated fun that can be had from a rousing game of Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. For two long years Xbox owners have been touting Halo as the definitive multiplayer experience and all Cube loyalists could do was grudgingly except it. But now the GameCube finally has a blockbuster multiplayer title of its own. A game that will drive gamers to lug heavy TVs around, buy broadband adapters and call up hordes of friends just to experience a few fun-filled hours of Mario Karting bliss. It many not be as “mature” or “cool” as blowing people away with shotguns and sniper rifles, but hey, assassinating someone with a green or red shell can be damn rewarding too.