9.3

Mario Kart DS is not simply a great DS game; it's one of the most fun and engaging racing games ever made.

Mario Kart has been around for over a decade, but it has seen the majority of its releases over the past few years, from the coin-collecting Mario Kart Super Circuit for GBA to the dual-driver gimmick of Double Dash!! on GC. With Mario Kart DS, Nintendo has made not only the penultimate evolution of the series' trademark gameplay, but has also coded a love letter to past entries of the franchise with tracks and elements from past titles.

After a somewhat disappointing track listing of only 16 courses in Double Dash!!, Nintendo has responded with not only 16 "Nitro" original levels, but also 16 "Retro" tracks from older games in the series, transporting four from each of the previous titles and bringing them to teh DS flawlessly. The courses from the first three games are roughly the same as their original incarnations, but the most impressive aspect of this addition is the Gamecube courses. While Nintendo did not take the four best (all Retro courses are hit or miss in comparison to the excluded levels from each game), those that are included are graphically competent and virtually unchanged. There isn't a rollercoaster tearing through Baby Park, and there's decidedly less traffic on Mushroom Bridge, but the track design is identical.

More important are the original tracks, and they do not disappoint. Boasting both high-quality visuals and inventive design, they are easily some of the best in kart racing. Tick-Tock Clock's gear-laden track and sharp turns are entertaining and totally original, and Peach Gardens is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the Mushroom Kingdom's most famous grounds.Even these tracks pale, however, compared to the crown jewels of Mario Kart DS. Airship Fortress is a truly inspired translation of the Super Mario Bros. 3 boss levels, complete with Bullet Bills and Rocky Wrenches. Waluigi Pinball is a fantastic ride througha pinball machine, from riding up the sides to spiralling down, dodging giant metal balls, all the way past bumpers and flippers, requiring path changes on the fly as the large obstacles change places or rotate. The entire complement of courses is excellent, providing a wide range of locales and difficulty curves, anda s a whole is an impressive 16-track set. That it is complimented with 16 courses from Mario Kart's past ices the cake.

None of this would matter if the handling wasn't spot-on, and Mario Kart DS handles like a dream. The D-Pad is not as responsive as a joystick, but after a few minutes it feels just as natural, and not long after, the player won't even notice they aren't using an analog stick. Mario Kart DS has also reduced the amount of work it takes for a powerslide boost to kick in, making the maneuver easier to perform with the small directional pad. The hop slide is also back after a short hiatus in Double Dash!!, so fans who sorely missed the element should be happy to see its return. In fact, the only problem one might have with Kart's controls is the DS itself; at first, the game can cause quite a bit of strain on the hands until the player finds the correct way to hold the DS while being able to access the shoulder buttons liberally for slides and item usage.

Each kart feels different from the others, not only in terms of handling and powersliding, but also by weight and acceleration. Even karts that one would think would handle similarly, such as Luigi's Streamliner and Daisy's Light Dancer, both middleweight vehicles by description and innate character, are completely different driving experiences. As the player unlocks more options during gameplay, the differences continue to widen until a player can pretty much tailor their perfect kart through options given. The surfaces the player drives on are also surprisingly deep, and kart weight factors into this as well, as heavier karts have better traction but move slower on rough or wet surfaces, while lighter karts have much less traction but are able to maintain higher speeds.

The cast of characters is large as well, with four unlockable characters in addition to the core starting lineup. It isn't quite as expansive as the cast on the Gamecube effort, but all of the important characters are present, and Nintendo has even included a couple characters taht are a real treat to finally get to kart around as. The kart design is very impressive as well, as each character has a standard kart and two very different ones, ranging from prop jets to tanks and construction vehicles to shooting stars. While a few of the alternate deisngs are ho-hum, there are sure to be a few that grab the player's own interest as particularly attractive racing options. That they also include their own special handling approach, as mentioned before, is even more impressive.

The weapon roster has been expanded for Mario Kart DS. In addition to the usual suspects such as mushrooms and shells, Nintendo has made bob-ombs readily available to all characters, and added the Bullet Bill, essentially an incredibly helpful variant on the Super Star, and the Blooper, which throws ink blots onto the player's top screen for a short while. The item balance is generally solid, but the mushrooms are actually quite a let-down. Even the Golden Mushroom and the Triple Mushroom items don't often help a player catch up during the heat of a race, and the courses are generally devoid of straightaways enough that they are often dangerous to use, and not really worth the risk for the meager reward. It's a puzzling imbalance issue, but the only blemish on the otherwise well-constructed item mechanic, which, as in past games, acts as the game's equalizer, giving characters in lower places progressively better items. Item duration is also affected by the new "item" category, another vairable to consider when choosing a kart.

The use of the DS' famous dual screens is both simplistic and ingenious. The top screen, which is the clearer of the two, is where all the racing takes place. On the bottom screen, there is not only a listing of the current race placing, but also a screen that can show either a full-course overheadview of the race's progress, or a closer view that will show any items that may be headed towards your kart or lying in wait ahead. It's actually very helpful to have this screen, as not only can players use it to gauge what moves to make strategically depending on what items opposing players have, but it is also possible to race using only the overhead view from the bottom screen (which comes in handy if a player is hit with the Blooper weapon during a particularly dicey stretch of road). The point of view can be changed with either a proper button press or a quick tap on the screen, and its use is a perfect example of how to employ the DS' dual screen capabilities without making it nothing more than a cheap gimmick.

The aesthetics are quite impressive for a handheld often maligned for graphical inferiority. Not only are the graphics beautiful to behold, but MKDS also firmly puts the flat courses of previous handheld racing generations in the past (or the Retro courses from Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart Super Circuit). There is visible hedging of course design by Nintendo, and though the characters occasionally reveal some simplistic construction (Donkey Kong in particular doesn't look all that great), the smooth framerate and beautiful environs challenge every naysayer of the DS' graphical capabilities. The music not only includes original tracks, but also the appropriate music from each of the old levels, giving the title a large variet of tunes to listen to. The character voices are none too varied, but they're got a sound for dismay and happiness that sounds perfect for each character, from Bowser's roars of excitement to the exclamations of Yoshi's own language.

Mario Kart DS also boasts more single-player enjoyment than previous games in the series. Not only are there eight four-track cups to pass over four difficulty levels (leading to 32 total cups to work through), but Nintendo has also included a Mission mode, which provides different challenges to players across six different levels (though each challenge within a level is entirely independent of other challenges and employ different courses). These challenges vary from boss fights to rival races to driving backwards, and it provides a nice diversion when palyers need a break from straight racing.

There are two battle modes as well. Shine Runners has players chucking items while trying to attain and keep Shine Sprites, witha timer cutting off last-place opponents at regular intervials, and Balloon Battle makes use of the DS' microphone by having players blow into it while at a standstill (or near one) to inflate balloons. Once a player runs out of balloons, they're done, and since a player can hold one to three at any given time, with the capability to steal balloons as well when using mushrooms, there is a certain amount of strategy involved in how many balloons should be up at once. Like other modes, these battle modes support computer foes, and though they aren't very fun to play against in and of themselves, they do round out multiplayer matches nicely.

The artificial intelligence in Mario Kart DS is pretty good overall, with lighter characters avoiding other karts generally and heavier bruisers relishing in making kart racing a contact sport, but the team A.I. is pretty poor, unfortunately. While most players won't spend a lot of time with the team racing mechanic, whereby the racers are split into two teams, red and blue, the computer A.I. does not take teammates into accounts, willingly sabotaging their own teammates in their pursuit to achieve first place. Much like with items, it's only a small shortcoming that doesn't stand in the face of overwhelming quality, but it is still something of an annoyance to lose races due to bone-headed A.I. that takes the player out just before the finish line, only to see the opposing team win as a result. Nintendo has done a great job, however, of making sure that other racers are playing by the same rules as human players, so during even the most difficult and heated matches later on in Grand Prix mode, players never feel like they are unfairly targeted or outraced by the computer-controller foes. There is more than a bit of luck involved in winning a Mario Kart race at higher levels of difficulty, but it is never unfair.

Perhaps Mario Kart DS' greatest achievement, however, is its dedication to a quality online experience. Supporting single-cartridge gameplay for up to eight players, as well as multi-cart gameplay, was expected (and surprisingly robust, both for those who have copies for everyone and those who do not), but the wi-fi connection gameplay is excellent. After a quick set-up that hooks up to compatible wi-fi connections in just a few moments, the player is ready to take the experience online for the first time in the history of Mario Kart. Not all courses are available, and the "dragging" item mechanic is missing, but the online play is smooth, finding a few opopnents (unfortunately, no more than three opponents can be played against at once) is a breeze, and it's great fun to take on strangers the world over. There are some issues, such as no way to tell if a friend is online unless they are already looking for a friend online, the friend code system is ungainly and needlessly complex, and players can drop with no penalty, but the gameplay is rock-solid, and most players will stick around as long as they can still win. Playing against friends is even better, and while there is no voice chat, there is still something intrinsically satisfying about dealing pain to one's friends in Mario Kart.

There is an overwhelming amount of content in Mario Kart DS, and the way in which the gameplay has grown since the original while maintaining the core principles of the genre is incredible. WIth a bevy of courses, lots of multiplayer madness, and a truckload of familiar and new karts and characters, Mario Kart DS is not simply a great DS game; it's one of the most fun and engaging racing games ever made. That players can take such an excellent game with them just about anywhere only adds to its greatness.

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