Mario Kart DS features eight characters plus extras with five different game types: Grand Prix, Time Trials, Versus, Battle, and Missions. Grand Prix is simple racing at its finest, with Time Trials and Versus as the names imply. Battle mode has racers popping balloons attached to each cart via items and collisions. Players must use the DS's mic to "blow" up their balloons once deflated. The downside to this mechanic is that your player must be stationary while inflating a balloon. While we would have liked to perform mic inflation on the fly, it works well and doesn't feel gimmicky. Mission mode lets you accomplish specific goals in an effort to win points. Best pick here? Grand Prix all the way. Competitive racing is the reason why Mario Kart exists, and Nintendo nails it.
The game features 16 new courses and 16 retro ones from previous games with smooth animation and a well-blended sound to match. The graphics are surprisingly crisp and do an excellent job of updating the look of retro tracks from the SNES, N64, and GBA games. In the case of the GameCube tracks, the DS does a good job of duplicating the overall look and feel of the hardware superior Cube. The sound never distracts from play, but stands out especially on the title screens. They really get you ready to start racing.
Game presentation is your standard Nintendo which is always top of its class. Menus are easy to navigate and will have you racing in under half a minute from system power on. As expected with Nintendo games, there are zero loading times except when waiting for other online racers. We did notice a slight delay in starting an online race as well but no longer than a few seconds at most. From a software standpoint, the game plays as it should, with no noticeable glitches whatsoever.
Ready, Set, Go!
You'll have three ways to race in single player, multi-player (WAN), and four player online play. All three modes are based on the premise of competing against other racers while using items to hinder other players. Single player is very addictive in that it is simple racing with item power-ups. A lot of racing games just don't seem to capitalize on singe player modes, usually adding more value to the game only when others are playing against one another. Mario Kart DS has none of that. If anything, single player mode in itself is just as fun and enjoyable as racing against an online opponent via the wi-fi connection or WAN.
Multi-player mode is an added bonus for those wanting to race in a WAN but don't own the DS cartridge. In this mode, Cartridge-less players can connect up with cart owners and play up to eight players. They will, however, only be able to race as Shy Guy while cart owners have the full selection of playable characters.
The wi-fi connection lets you play in regional, worldwide, or friend tournaments that are the best of four race rankings. I had a difficult time connecting with regional users, presumably due to the lack of Mario Kart DS owners or larger selection pool of worldwide races. In worldwide mode, you play against global game owners. It takes about 2-3 minutes to start up a race, and a little longer at night simply because many "kiddies" are in bed. Friend mode is where the game has it's limits. You can't select which three other friends you prefer to race against. Rather, you enter their friend code prior to racing and Nintendo selects which friends you are pitted against. You can however "lock" or "unlock" a friend to increase the chances of playing him or her, much to the same as having Apple's iTunes select your preferred songs without actually selecting them.
Once you select your settings, Mario Kart immediately starts off on a high note. You'll be power sliding, dropping bombs, and road raging in very little time. The controls are easy to learn but scalable enough to tweak your performance later on. If you connect through the wi-fi, be prepared to play some expert racers. What is great about online play is that Nintendo added it to an already great single or local player game, much to the same way multiplayer in itself should rarely be the sole premise of a game's appeal.
Mario Kart DS oozes with Nintendo charisma as you get passed up by other opponents. For example, when Mario passes you on any given course he shout's out "Oh yeah" in that famed Mario accent of his. Let's face it. The game is Nintendo cute. The competitive balance is great as well. The AI allows for users in last place to get the most destructive items, so it's easy to catch up if you fall too far behind. In short, any amateur racer can take first place with a little help of the item system.
With exception to the wi-fi and multiplayer modes, Mario Kart DS does get docked points in the innovation department, simply because it adds little to the existing series. That's not necessarily a bad thing though because the game reverberates the fun of its previous editions. Mario Kart DS applies the "less is more" theory very well to a video game. Pick any of the three modes, and you'll get the same great gameplay, be it a live person or the always competitive AI.
Nintendo's newest cart rendition might not be for everyone, especially for gamers looking for more complex game modes. But it is a racer after all, so the genre itself is limited. So if you are looking for a quick and easy online setup with lots of replay value, this could be the title for you. It's built on proven gameplay, i.e. the four high ranking iterations before it that rarely seem to lose their allure or lasting playability. If the several other stellar DS games released this fourth quarter haven't made you buy the dual screen portable, this one should probably do it.
Overal Rating: 9.0 / 10.0
Holding first place for the entire last two laps to win the 150cc class, only to have that harlot Princess beat me at the line on a photo finish.
See also: Joystiq Reviews