Nintendo reps showed off a new playable version of Mario Kart DS, the upcoming DS kart game based on the classic Nintendo kart-racing franchise, at an event in Seattle earlier today. The highly anticipated game will break new ground for the portable system when it hits in a few short weeks. It will be the first title to take advantage of Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection service, letting players compete against each other from hotspots around the globe. Given the company's reticence to throw its "M"-emblazoned red hat into the online ring, we've been curious to see if the game will be able to pull off Nintendo's claims. After seeing the demo and playing a new work-in-progress version of the game, we're pleased to report that all signs point to Nintendo's online debut being a powersliding, power-up-collecting success.
The presentation on the game, led by a member of Nintendo's Tree House crew named Nate Bildorf, was the most comprehensive look we've had at the game to date. The game will feature the same core modes we've seen in the previous entries in the series--single- and multiplayer--along with a new NWFC or "Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection" option. The single-player mode was the first mode to be shown. The mode will once again feature a grand prix, which will initially feature three engine classes and a fourth that you'll have to unlock. You'll pick a racer from an assortment of familiar faces from the Mario universe; our version had Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Bowser. As always this selection of characters is just the tip of the iceberg, the game will contain a handful of unlockable character as well a ton of unlockable karts.
A new addition to the experience will be found in the racer stats, which you'll want to take into account when choosing a racer. In addition to the traditional speed, acceleration, weight, handling, and drift attributes, you'll now have an "items" stat that will determine the quality of items you get. As in previous incarnations, the game will cough up better items for fourth-placers as opposed to first--so this stat will actually let you get better-than-normal items when you're in first or second place when you'd typically get. The other tweak to the experience is that you'll now have a selection of karts to choose from, as seen in Mario Kart: Double Dash on the GameCube.
After you finish picking tracks, you'll find a nitro grand prix that contains the typical selection of three cups with four tracks each: mushroom, flower, and star, along with a fourth, unlockable special cup. In addition, you'll find a retro grand prix that has the same structure for cups: shell, banana, and leaf, with a special lightning cup to unlock. The tracks in the retro cups will, as previously mentioned, be recognizable from previous Mario Kart games as seen on the SNES, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Advance, and GameCube.
Veteran Mario Kart players will notice some new additions to the array of power ups in the game. The first that we saw is the "blooper" power up, which obstructs an opponent's top screen with what looks like ink. While this can be devastating, you can mitigate the damage by using the lower touch screen to navigate. The camera will offer two levels of zoom: When zoomed in you'll get detailed view of the track, and when you zoom out you'll be able to get a feel for your position relative to all your opponents. Another new power up will transform you into a Bullet Bill, and offers a mighty speed boost that mows down anything in your path. The nice perk of this is that, unlike the star power up, you'll be rolling on cruise control for the duration of the power up ensuring you get the most out of it.
Finally we also the game's drafting mechanic, which you'll use by tucking up behind an opponent and staying on their tail for a set amount of time before being awarded a speed burst. You'll also get speed bursts from the power drifts. as in the Nintendo 64 and GameCube versions, by power sliding and quickly tapping left and right on the D pad, causing different colored sparks to kick up. If you manage to sustain your drift while pumping the D pad left and right, your sparks will cycle from blue to red which will yield the best speed burst.
The time trials mode will offer two levels of challenge. As always, you'll have the option to try your hand at getting the best time on all the available tracks. If you manage to kick butt, a ghost of your stellar karting will be saved. These tie in to the other element of the mode, ghost data. You'll be able to send and receive data among your friends--which should offer a good level of challenge, provided your friends are good. However, the game also features a brutal reality check in the form of staff ghosts you can unlock and compete against. Think you're good? Try to beat one of the team ghosts and you'll realize you're like a leaf in the wind. A useful, subtle touch to the time trial mode is the way the touch screen map tracks your progress in the track with a colored trail; a yellow trail denotes if you're drifting, and a red trail denotes boosting.
The versus mode will let you race against up to seven other CPU or human racers for eight-player racing via local Wi-Fi. You'll be able to customize your race by adjusting settings for engine class, the CPU level of your kart, which course you'll be racing on, the rules for racing conditions, and even team settings, which can help you get a leg up on stiff competition. The battle mode offers two games, balloon battle and shine runners, to try against the CPU or friends.
Balloon battle is almost the same experience as before, but there are some fun new additions that keep things fresh. You'll find six tracks total in the game: four new, and two classic--block fort and pipe plaza. When in the game, you'll have to manage your balloons--surprise--but the game puts a new twist on the mechanic. You'll start out with one meager inflated balloon, and will have to inflate your balloon stock manually, for a total of three fully inflated balloons at any given time. The nice thing is that you can have a stock of five balloons. Inflation is the going to be a new conundrum for players to multitask. You'll be able to manually inflate your balloons by stopping and pressing the select button (provided you can find a safe haven), which gets the job done, albeit slowly. If you're in a bind, you can throw dignity to the wind and opt for the faster inflation method: blowing into your DS microphone like a madman--or a dork, depending on your preferred exhalation method.
Shine runners offers a variation on the shine-thief game seen in Double Dash. Rather than try to steal shines from your opponent, you are basically forced to collect randomly appearing shines. As you do this, a timer counts down; when it reaches zero, whoever is unlucky enough to have the least amount of shines is booted. In this mode you'll rely pretty heavily on your lower screen, which offers a broad top-down look on the field, so you can keep track of where the shines and your opponents are. To make competition even fiercer, icons hover over players with shines--essentially bull's-eyes. To add still more stress to the experience, if you're hit you'll lose the shines currently in your possession, which makes for good times and much profanity.
Finally, the mission mode is a collection of objective-based competitions--smartly designed challenges that will wind up making you a better racer, provided you don't suck at them. The missions will break down into six challenge levels that feature eight missions each. As you finish them, you'll earn ratings ranging from triple star--obviously the best--to much lower, pedestrian letter grades such as C. We were treated to four demos that showed off the range in the modes. The first demo challenged Mario to destroy five item boxes. The catch was that the boxes were in motion, and required a chase through the level.
The next demo required you to guide Donkey Kong through numbered rings on the classic course. The last two boss-battle challenges focused on traditional boss fights. The first fight was a duel between Big Bully, the Viking-esque bob-omb, and Yoshi. The goal was to collect mushroom power-ups and shove Big Bully off the platform with speed dashes. The second boss battle featured Mario versus Eyerok, the pair of hands with stone eyeballs. The goal, obviously, was to collect green shells and fire them at Eyerok's eyes.
Now, while all of the above appears to live up to Nintendo's claims that the game is the most robust Mario Kart to date, the big showstopper for the DS game is its multiplayer modes. The stand-alone multiplayer will let you host or join games. The demo we saw showed off a slick new twist to the typical DS experience: simple and normal play. Simple play is the standard DS multiplayer option, wherein you'll be able to play with friends who don't have the game. Though the download offers limited functionality, there's actually quite a bit to it. Players who download the multiplayer game will be limited to eight courses, and you have to play as a shy guy of assorted coloring if there's a bunch of non-game-owning players. The other way to play is normal play, wherein all players have the game and can access all of the game's content. The really smart aspect of these game modes is that you can mix simple and normal games, which will allow broader access to the multiplayer experience. As with the normal game taping, the touch screen will toggle between two views that help you keep track of the competition.
Of course, the most interesting twist to the DS game's multiplayer options is its ability to connect to Nintendo's proprietary Wi-Fi Connection service for online play. The core game setup is similar to the local multiplayer games, but there are several unique elements. After you hit the Nintendo WFC option, you'll go into a menu that gives you three setting choices: Nintendo WFC match, friend code, and Nintendo WFC. A Nintendo WFC Match will let you pop in to an online match. You'll be able to search for a match via four search types: Friends will let you seek them out by their unique friend code (more on that in a second); rivals will seek out opponents based on skill level, according to your performance in the game as determined by tracked stats; regional lets you look for local matches; and finally, worldwide is the big gun, letting you take on competitors from around the world.
The friend code system is a smart and flexible system that lets you keep track of friends. You'll be assigned a friend code when you first fire up the game, which binds the game and DS together as a "set." As a result, the code will let friends who haven't played you yet enter the code--a 12-digit number you'll find in the game settings on your DS--and find you. Now, this doesn't mean you'll always have to use the same DS cartridge pairing; you can mix and match. You'll just have to update your settings--though this can also mean you'll wind up with a new code. After you've got your friend issues sorted, you'll be able to hop in to a game. The Wi-Fi mode of the game limits the action to simple racing for four players using the SNES Mario Kart rules, so you won't be dragging items and won't have access to the full 32 tracks in the game.
When you start a race, you'll search for competitors, and the game will attempt to fill all four slots after a set amount of search time. If it isn't able to fill the slots, then it will check to make sure everyone is cool with the game starting without a full complement of players. Once inside the race, you'll see both nicknames and emblems, made by players to post above their karts, or flags, showing off the region they're playing from. The demo brought together players from Germany, Canada, and Seattle, which ranks as the most cosmopolitan collection of portable gamers to date. The demo hit a few hitches due to the requisite EM pulse generated by the assembled journalists' laptops, cell phones, and assorted portable devices. However, connection and lag issues aside, the game appeared to run well and deliver the Mario Kart experience fans will want.
As far as the game's presentation goes, Mario Kart DS continues to impress us with its clean visuals, high frame rate and strong audio. The game is a most-excellent showcase for the DS's underappreciated graphical and audio muscle. Obviously, the game's performance fluctuated a bit during Wi-Fi play due to network conditions, but regardless, the game is looking razor sharp.
We also had the chance to get some brief hands-on time with the game, which proved to live up to our lofty expectations for a Mario Kart game. The action is fast and fun, and offers a good mix of familiar and new elements. The Wi-Fi play wasn't without its quirks, but it performed well, network issues notwithstanding. The ability to play globally, and the host of modes available to players, gives the title a winning charm and depth that impressed us. Mario Kart DS is currently slated to ship on November 14, in tandem with the kickoff of Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection service. A special Mario Kart-branded DS bundle will also be available around the same time. Look for more impressions of the game soon.