Anyone worried that Nintendo is abandoning classic gaming for new-fangled non-games can rest easy.
Mario Kart DS is exactly what everyone is expecting (and hoping) for.
First off, the bad news: In the demo, characters and the track are assigned randomly for multiplayer--but this is probably just for the demo, since levels are automatically selected for single player as well.
Honestly, though, the game handles VERY tightly. Mario Kart DS controls can best be described as Mario Kart 64's responsiveness with Double Dash's items. Unlike Mario Kart Double Dash or Mario Kart Super Circuit, every character I've played with handles crisply, though the differences in heavy and light characters are recognizable. Die-hard fans will appreciate the hop’s return and will make good use out of the power slide, both used with the R button.
All of the standard Mario Kart items are in the demo, as well as the Bob-omb, though the game has no special items specific to one or two characters. Shells and bananas can be dragged and thrown or plopped. At least against other gamers on the show-room floor, the eight-way competition was fierce, and I had my fair share of first-to-eight fall-outs.
The demo shows that DS visuals should be taken seriously, with its graphics rivaling Mario Kart Double Dash in polygonal detail. More importantly, it has a fantastic sense of speed and the frame rate never falters.
The demo shows a variety of tracks. I played faithful, 3D renditions of Mario Circuit 1 from the SNES (complete with pipes), the N64 game's Moo Moo Farm, and Double Dash's Luigi Circuit. The demo also includes a new circuit course and a Donut Plains-like track with cliffs and wooden bridges.
In addition to eight-way multiplayer, Nintendo is displaying Mario Kart DS running online, with three local DS systems and a remote DS manned by none other than Charles Martinet. The online experience is trouble-free, but with three of the four in the same spot, it is not a very solid test of the game's online stability. The drop to four players is also disappointing, though this could change before the game reaches retail. I was told the game will have a PictoChat-like text messaging system, but it currently has no microphone support.
The game doesn't push any boundaries, but it looks to be an excellent culmination of the entire series thanks to its sharp controls, great visuals, significant course variety and online play.