Mario Kart DS
For me, it’s the little things that make life so great. Watching the snow fall during the week before Christmas, hugging my girlfriend close and feeling the affection returned, munching Cheez-Its while watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? – and of course, playing Mario Kart. Ever since Nintendo threw together the seemingly ridiculous mix of Mario, go-karts, and heat-seeking red shells and released it as Super Mario Kart on the SNES, I’ve been a diehard fan of the series. Some games I’ve had to let go of as I’ve grown older – bye bye Pokemon, I’ll miss you! – in order to maintain some semblance of masculinity and maturity, but I’ll be damned if societal pressures will keep me from screaming like a ten-year old girl as I bump and battle for position in Nintendo’s fabulous Mario Kart DS.
I’ll just come out and say it, Super Mario Kart for the SNES is still the best Mario Kart game ever. But you must realize that I place the original on an extremely lofty pedestal; in fact, it’s one of my top ten favorite videogames of all time. That said, Mario Kart DS is easily the second best Mario Kart game ever, and is nipping at the heels of the SNES classic like a pesky, out-of-control Chain Chomp. There isn’t anything truly innovative about the DS iteration of the series (well, except for the online play, but meh… I’ll get to that later), but everything is just so clean, polished and balanced that you can’t help but be amazed at what Nintendo has managed to pull off.
Wario and the Monty Moles bust out a mid-race musical number
So what changes has Nintendo made in this, their second handheld version of Mario Kart? Well, gone are the two-seated carts and mid race character swapping of Double Dash!! Also removed are that game’s character specific power-ups. Although those elements worked well on the Cube, it is questionable that they would have worked on the DS due to the handheld’s inherent limitations. These omissions are more than made up for by the return of the jump button (huzzah!) and “item dragging,” and the inclusion of drifting – a Mario Kart first (just slide in behind the racer in front of you, gain a boost while cruising in their slipstream, and zip around them for the lead). Also new is a Mission mode that has you rushing to complete all sorts of goals (smash all the crates, drive through the numbered gates in order, that sort of thing) within a predetermined time limit. On top of all that, you have the classic Battle mode with all new maps and oodles of unlockable goodies (don’t forget about those staff ghosts!). This mix of old and new combines to make a very fresh-feeling game, but one that is rooted firmly in the gameplay traditions of earlier Mario Kart titles.
Old school Mario Kart fans will be happy to know that Nintendo included four whole circuits (featuring four tracks each) dedicated totally to courses from old games in the series. Blasting through classics like Moo Moo Farm (N64), Koopa Beach 2 (SNES), and Yoshi Circuit (Cube) is a truly nostalgic experience, but I do wish that even more had been included. On a side note, for some reason Nintendo slightly altered a few of the classic tracks; for example, on Mushroom Bridge (Cube), they removed the pipe warp and the ability to zoom up the side of the bridge for a “hidden” boost pad. Some of the all-new tracks (of which there are sixteen), however, are epic. Though I truly love them all, a few of my favorites are Airship Fortress (a blistering race across one of the airships from Super Mario 3), Waluigi Pinball (takes place inside a pinball machine, complete with massive flippers and giant, careening pinballs), and Tick-Tock Clock (a track that takes you into what appears to be the interior of Big Ben as envisioned by Salvador Dali).
How does Bowser fit into his kart? Crisco – and lots of it
Obviously, the DS is no PSP when it comes to rendering impressive polygonal worlds, but Mario Kart DS still manages to look fantastic. On one hand, racers and karts do have a very N64-esque angularity to them, and textures are simple, but the masterful layout of the tracks, colorful palette, and blazing framerate all impress. Unlike many sprite-based DS titles, Mario Kart DS is heavily polygonal, but it’s pulled off with a skillfulness that has me even more excited for Metroid Prime Hunters – another Nintendo published, 3D-heavy DS game.
As you would expect from a Mario Kart game, the music is upbeat, a little fruity, but always addicting. Overall, the soundtrack is a definite step up from Double Dash!!, which had some real stinkers and far too much whistling for my taste. Especially impressive is how the music matches the environments more so than ever before; for example, on the Tick-Tock Clock track you hear a staccato, clockwork-sounding tune, while Peach Gardens features an airy, playful jig. But these songs aren’t as over-the-top as those found in previous Mario Kart games; there’s a certain subtlety being employed that I very much appreciate. I’d go as far to say that the music here is some of the best I’ve heard from a Nintendo composer (I wouldn’t be surprised if Koji Kondo had a hand in the soundtrack) and certainly the best featured in a DS title.
As every Hippie knows, mushrooms help you win
One huge selling point for Mario Kart DS, in eyes of many gamers anyway, is the inclusion of online play. For me, however, I see a flawed online interface, a confounding system for establishing a connection to a wireless hotspot, and a poor choice by Nintendo in selecting their “official” public hotspot locations (can you say, Mickey D’s?). Also problematic is that only twenty of the 32 tracks can be played online, you can’t drag items behind to block incoming projectiles (I’d like to hear one good reason why this was cut for online play), and only four players can play at a time. There are certainly some issues (ok, there are a lot of issues), but admittedly, when you play your first online game, there is an overpowering feeling of, “holy ****, I’m actually playing Mario Kart online!” Personally, I spend almost all of my time with local wireless multiplayer, which is fully featured, and can be done with up to eight players.
Super Mario Kart is still the best Mario Kart ever, but Mario Kart DS is remarkably close to edging past the original in almost every way. If Nintendo had cleaned up the online issues and fixed a few other nitpicks here and there (those blue shells have to go, and the “jump into an obstacle and retain your speed” gameplay element from Super Mario Kart needs to be re-implemented), Mario Kart DS would have certainly overtaken the SNES classic. Regardless, it’s a fantastic game – the best on the DS – and worth purchasing Nintendo’s duel-screened handheld for this holiday season.