Much like Voltron, the best parts of Mario Kart come together to form a giant super robot.
As a series, Mario Kart has been around since the original released on the SNES in 1992. It’s considered a classic, and while it may have not created the genre of the kart racer, it certainly brought it to the mainstream. Since then, we’ve seen three sequels follow it on the N64, GBA, and GameCube. The release of Mario Kart DS marks an important landmark in the history of Nintendo. It’s the first game they’ve ever developed that features online play, and it’s the “killer app” for their new WiFi Connection service, which allows players to race each other worldwide over a wireless internet connection. However, what’s most important about Mario Kart DS is that they got it right. Everything about the game comes together perfectly to form what is the best Mario Kart game ever.
The concept is simple enough. Mario and pals race around tracks, while firing weapons at each other, to determine who is the best racer. However, it’s been somewhat lacking in the past few Mario Kart games, most notably Mario Kart: Double Dash. Nintendo went back to the drawing board for the DS iteration, removing some of the more gimmicky aspects like two characters on a kart and character-specific items (which heavily unbalanced Double Dash). Mario Kart DS goes back to the roots of the series; even jumping has returned. The result is a more focused game, intense and more exciting to play than any of its predecessors. A deep single player experience keeps the game fresh, and the new online mode means there is always somebody ready for a challenge.
The core of Mario Kart’s single player mode has always been the grand prix. The goal is to have the overall best performance in a series of four races. Three engine classes separate the game into three difficulties (which would best be described as really easy, easy, and kind of hard). Mario Kart as a series has always featured “rubber-band” artificial intelligence. Racers in the back of the pack are typically given the best weapons, to give them a chance to climb back into first place. Also, the game will pick a few racers that will be on your back for the entire GP, to make sure you don’t totally smoke the competition in the points race. The combination of these features keeps the challenge at a decent level. However, most players are going to blow through the GPs relatively quickly.
That’s where the other modes come in. A time trial mode will see how fast you can race a specific track. VS mode is basically a free race mode against seven computer players. Battle mode puts you and seven computers in a large arena to see who can take out everybody else.
There’s also a brand new single player mode, missions. They include objectives such as “Take out all the Monty Moles” or “Collect all 20 coins.” The missions take place on sectioned off portions of the GP tracks, and are divided into six sets of nine, each harder than the last. After completing eight of the missions in a set, a boss mission is unlocked. The boss missions throw you into a battle with a villain from Mario’s past and ask you to take them out go-kart style. Mission mode is something that should have been added to Mario Kart ages ago. It takes the normal actions of the game and puts an entirely new twist on them. The challenge level and difficulty curve are excellent, and the boss battles are magnificent. Mario Kart has remained basically the same over the years, and it’s refreshing to see a totally new feature added to this version, especially since it is so well executed.
Multiplayer is even more expansive. GP and VS race are both there, and Battle mode has been expanded up to a total of eight players, making them even more chaotic. Battle mode has also been tweaked slightly. In the past, each player was given three balloons. Losing all three due to attack would put that player out. Now, players start with only one balloon, but a total stock of five. Up to three can be blown up at any given time. To blow them up there are two options. While not pressing the accelerator you can either hold down the Select button or blow into the DS microphone. Blowing into the mic will inflate the balloons much faster, so if you want to win, you’re going to have to make a fool of yourself in public. Between the balloon inflation and capacity for eight players, Battle mode has never been better. An alternate “Shine Runners” battle mode has players trying to collect the most shines while stealing them from each other.
The most important factor of a racing game is the tracks. If they’re not fun to race on then the entire game is boring. It’s one of the big reasons Mario Kart: Double Dash wasn’t fun. Thankfully, the tracks in Mario Kart DS are for the most part amazing. There are sixteen brand new tracks to race on, all but a few of which are superbly designed. Many of them feature elaborate moving objects, such as the race around Waluigi’s pinball table and the Mario 64-inspired Tick-Tock Clock track in which whole parts of the track move. The other sixteen tracks are pulled from prior Mario Kart games (four from each). Some of the all-time best Mario Kart tracks ever are back. The addition of these classic tracks really adds a lot to the game. The tracks from Super Mario Kart (SNES) are particularly exciting to race on. The karts go a lot faster than they did back on the SNES, and the SNES tracks are all really short. The end result is an incredibly cut-throat race where falling behind and charging back up to first is not an easy feat to accomplish.
Mario Kart DS features a ton of racers. At first there are eight, but four more are unlockable. Each character has a standard go-kart and two character-specific karts (one of which must be unlocked). The karts are all rated in various statistics, making each one slightly different from the rest. Some of the characters (including one particular unlockable one) are overpowered, which slightly unbalances the game, but at least this time players can select the same character to try and even things out.
The most important thing about Mario Kart DS is that it is the flagship title for Nintendo’s new Wi-Fi Connection online gaming service. As such, it’s important to talk about that service in this review. To play online you’ll need an existing wireless connection (either at home, work, a coffee shop, or one of Nintendo’s 6000 free hot spots at McDonald’s restaurants nation wide). If you don’t have one, but do have broadband internet, an optional adaptor for your computer will create a wireless connection just for your DS. The DS works with a wide range of routers (which are rated for compatibility on the Nintendo WiFi Connection website). Setting up the service was an absolute breeze (note: this reviewer has a router marked for full compatibility). The WiFi Connection software (which is built into each game that supports it) quickly found my router’s signal, and after I input the WEP key password, it connected perfectly. From there, playing online is as easy as selecting the “Nintendo WFC” menu option in the game. You’ll be prompted to connect and then be given a few options as to who you can to play. “Regional” and “Worldwide” let you play against people on your continent or anywhere in the world. “Rivals” will pit you against players of equal skill (as determined by the matching service) and “Friends” limits the search to those players on your friends list.
Speaking of friends, playing with them isn’t quite as easy as it should be. First off, you and your friend will have to exchange “Friend Codes.” These 12-digit numbers cannot be exchanged in the game, except throgh local (non-wifi) play. If you're not playing locally, you’ll have to get them to your friend via the Internet, telephone, or some other form of communication. After both of you have entered each others’ codes and connected to the service, you’ll officially be friends. However, there’s no way to pick which specific friend you want to play against. The “Friends” matching option will randomly match you with any of your friends that are online, which is a pain when you have a lot of friends and want to race against a specific one. The “Friends Roster” gives you the option of “locking” a friend's data, which prevents you from accidentally erasing it. However, if both players “lock” each others’ data it will increase the probability of them being matched together. Why things are done this way is entirely confusing. Why is the “lock” feature pulling double-duty? Why isn’t there some sort of “Best Friends” toggle to increase the chances of a match? Plus, the only way to even find out about the feature is in the manual, so most players aren’t even going to know it exists.
Even with these problems, playing online is a breeze. Getting a match together takes a few minutes. Up to four players can play online with each other. Next, players select their driver and kart, and then the game moves to a map selection screen. Twenty of the thirty-two maps are playable online (the rest are excluded due to the amount of moving objects and the latency they would create, which wouldn’t be very fun anyway). Each player picks a map to race on, and then the game randomly picks one of those four. Points are allotted according to the order in which players finish, and an overall winner is crowned after four races.
In all, the online mode is really fantastic, and proves that Nintendo really is serious about online gaming. If Mario Kart DS is any indication, the future looks bright for the fledgling services. Perhaps the features will become even more robust over time.
Mario Kart has been a favorite game of many people over the years, and it’s nice to see the series return to the core of what makes it fun. The best features of past Mario Kart games are back, and when combined with the new ones in Mario Kart DS, the end result is the most impressive game to ever hit the Nintendo DS and also the best game in the Mario Kart series.