We recently got ahold of the US version of Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, the third installment in Nintendo's kart racing franchise that began on the Super Nintendo. The game updates the classic Mario Kart formula with a visual overhaul and several new gameplay elements. After having a few opportunities to try out the game at E3 and Nintendo Gamer's, we've finally gotten our hands on the final version of the US game. After investing a good chunk of time in the game, we're pleased by what Nintendo has cooked up. Mario Kart: Double Dash!!'s mix of clean visuals, pick-up-and-play gameplay, and multiplayer options is an addictive combination that appears to present a better overall experience than the flawed Nintendo 64 entry in the franchise.
When you first fire up the game you'll find a modest offering of modes and selectable characters. The single-player game offers the standard racing grand prix and time trial modes at the 50, 100, and 150cc speed levels. Each speed level in the grand prix mode initially offers three cups--mushroom, star, and special--to clear. You'll find four tracks to clear in each cup. The multiplayer game offers grand prix, versus, and battle modes, supporting up to four players on one GameCube. The grand prix and versus modes let you compete with three other friends, or you can pair up and face off in teams of two. The battle mode features three games--balloon battle, shine thief, and bob-omb blast--set in one of four initially selectable areas.
You'll find 16 characters to choose from the first time you fire up the game. Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Princess Daisy, Yoshi, Birdo, Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, Koopa, Paratroopa, Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Bowser, Baby Bowser, Wario, and Waluigi are all initially selectable. The characters break up into eight pairs, based on their relationships, and each pair features its own kart with unique attributes. The pairs are also separated by size and weight, which affects which kart they'll be able to use. Small karts are only available to characters like the babies and koopas. Medium karts allow small and medium characters, while large karts support all character sizes.
The size and weight factors play a large part in Mario Kart: DoubleDash!!. Whereas previous versions of the game assigned attributes like acceleration, speed, and handling to the drivers, Double Dash!! assigns them to the karts instead. The driver and rider don't have a huge impact on a kart's performance. That's not to say the driver has no effect on a kart's handling. You will notice slight performance improvements when using racers and their native karts. For example, using Baby Mario as a driver for the blue baby buggy with his initial on it will yield slightly better performance than if Baby Luigi was at the wheel. While the performance differences may seem to be a negligible element of gameplay at first, you'll find that you'll need every bit of help you can get when aiming to get the best race times.
While the driver and rider don't have as much of an impact on a kart's performance, the combination of characters can significantly impact your race due to their unique special abilities. Each pair of characters has unique special abilities that come in very handy during a race and can often help get you into first place. The abilities appear randomly with the pickups you'll find as you race. When one of your characters collects one, you'll see "special" appear in his or her pickup window. While you'll probably just pick the ready-made pairs when you first start playing the game, you'll find that it's more efficient to pick different characters. For example, our current favorite combo is Baby Mario and Paratroopa. Baby Mario's special, a large chomp that appears and drags the kart ahead at high speeds, is great for getting the very light kart through clumps of racers. Paratroopa's special sends out three homing shells that are perfect for hacking away at a foe's lead. These special abilities, paired with the baby buggy's high acceleration, ensure that you can zip through the competition. As for what the other characters bring to the table... Mario and Luigi's special lets them launch a fireball that splits off into several smaller projectiles that can take out chunks of the opposition when timed properly. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong can chuck an enormous banana that not only causes whoever hits it to spin out of control, but it also splits off into three smaller bananas. Daisy and Peach's special is a very cool heart shield that not only protects them from any items used against them, but it gives them that item to use. Yoshi and Birdo fire an enormous egg that homes in on an opponent and drops three items when it connects. Bowser and Baby Bowser fire off an enormous spiked shell that zips around the track causing total mayhem. Finally, Wario and Waluigi throw a massive bob-omb, whose explosion can take out several cars.
As far as the tracks go, you'll find 12 initially selectable tracks in grand prix mode and four arenas in battle mode. The 12 tracks are a good mix of courses that ramp up in difficulty as you take them at higher speeds. You'll find a fair share of environmental obstacles, like drops, holes in the track, and water that will ruin your day. At the same time, you'll find some shortcuts, although not enough of them to discourage you from fine-tuning your driving skills. In some cases the shortcuts require more work to get to, although they do help shave some time off your race.
The game mechanics dress up the core Mario Kart gameplay with some new elements and also manage to throw in some nice subtle tweaks as well. The two-character mechanic folds into the mix nicely and adds some strategy, as deciding on which character mix works best for you requires some trial and error. The tweaked powerslide mechanic that lets you build up a speed charge when you're in a turn keeps you on your toes and helps keep the game fresh. In addition, you'll notice some nice subtle elements, like the ability to get a turbo boost when Lakitu is depositing you back on the track after a spill.
Items still play a large part of your racing experience, and you'll find a streamlined assortment of goodies to use against your opponents this time out. However, they do work well. The three varieties of shells are back. Green shells are standard projectiles, red shells home in on enemies, and the spiny blue shells seek out and hinder the character in the lead. Stars grant temporary invincibility. Bananas cause foes to spin out of control. Single and triple mushrooms grant temporary speed boosts. The fake item looks like a normal item box when dropped on the track, although, if you look carefully, you'll notice a red tinge to it that belies its explosive nature. Finally, the lightning bolt hits all your opponents on the track, causing them to spin out, drop their items, shrink to pygmy size, and reduce their maximum speeds. As with every Mario Kart game, you'll love the blue shell and lightning bolt when you're in last place, and you'll be spouting expletives like there's no tomorrow when you're hit with them while in first place.
The final piece of the Mario Kart puzzle lies in its unlockables, which, next to its multiplayer features, are one of the big draws. You'll notice we have "initially" peppered throughout our descriptions of what you'll find in the game. While we don't want to spoil what's to discover in the game for anyone, suffice it to say that if you've played previous Mario Karts, you'll know what other modes to expect. In addition, you'll be unlocking characters, karts, and tracks. The catch to it all is that, of course, you'll have to be a whiz at the intricacies of racing to pull down the gold trophies and gain access to everything.
However, while unlocking everything is well and good for single-player, the Mario Kart franchise has long been viewed as one of the best multiplayer experiences. In addition to being able to play the three games mentioned on one GameCube, you'll also be able to play with multiple GameCubes using the GameCube broadband adapter and network cables. A total of 16 players can play on a LAN by allowing up to eight GameCubes, with two human players on each, to be linked together. This translates into a total of eight karts in one game, with two human players on each kart. The odd twist to LAN play is that it appears that you'll only be able to select the engine size and number of laps.
As far as the game's graphics go, Mario Kart: DoubleDash!! looks good and moves well, but it doesn't set new visual standards on the GameCube. The characters are nicely detailed and feature some nice bits of animation. The environments sport the cartoony-style that the Mario games are known for, and they do a fine job of fleshing out the art in 3D. The frame rate stays solid despite the onscreen madness and regardless of the different speeds.
From what we've played so far, Mario Kart: DoubleDash!! has come together pretty well overall. The game appears to offer a solid single-player option, and the various multiplayer options should go a long way toward extending the game's life--once you've unlocked everything. While the graphics won't blow you away, they're solid and offer a good sense of speed. Mario Kart Double Dash!! is currently slated to ship next week for the GameCube. Look for a review soon.