We put our racing and shell-shooting skills to the test as we take Nintendo's latest Mario Kart game online.
Now little more than a week from release, Mario Kart DS is the first game to take advantage of the Nintendo DS handheld's Wi-Fi Connection service. We talked in some detail about the game's online features after attending a Nintendo press event in Seattle last week, and we also brought you our impressions of the finished game within just a few hours of getting our hands on a retail copy. It's only now, after getting our hands on a Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector, that we can talk about just how easy it is to get Mario Kart DS online...in addition to talking about how well it performs once the racing gets under way.
If you don't have access to one of the supported wireless network routers detailed on Nintendo's nintendowifi.com customer support page, then you'll need a Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector to get your Nintendo DS online. The connector comes with software that you'll need to install on your Windows XP-using, connected-to-the-Internet PC before plugging it in. It also ships with a USB extension lead in case your USB port is difficult to access or doesn't physically have room for the device because it's packed in tightly with other USB ports. We had no problems setting up the Wi-Fi USB Connector whatsoever, and within five minutes of ripping the box open we were using the connector's registration tool on our PC screen to grant access to the DS handheld we were using to play Mario Kart DS.
After starting up Mario Kart DS, getting online was as easy as selecting the "Nintendo WFC" option that appears on the main menu alongside the single-player and multiplayer options. The Nintendo WFC submenu includes Nintendo WFC match, friend code, and Nintendo WFC settings options, all of which warrant some explanation. The Nintendo WFC match option, as you might expect, is the one that you'll use when you're ready to play. You'll be connected to Nintendo WFC as soon as you select it and will then be able to search for opponents that fall into regional, worldwide, friends, or rivals categories. The friend code option displays the unique 12-digit string of numbers that you'll need to hand out to any friends wanting to add you to their lists, as there's no way to exchange friend codes while playing the game. And since Mario Kart DS limits you to a maximum of 36 friends, the thinking seems to be that this will be shared solely with players whom you know in real life. Worthy of note is the fact that you'll lose your friend code (and presumably your friends list along with it) if your copy of Mario Kart DS is used to play online on any Nintendo DS but your own. The WFC settings screen is where you'll search for and connect to wireless networks in your area, or it's where you'll opt to get online using the Wi-Fi USB Connector.
When you're ready to race and have opted to search for opponents who are friends (on your list), rivals (players of similar ability), regional (in the same country), or worldwide, you'll see a screen with three empty player slots waiting to be filled. Although Mario Kart DS isn't in stores yet, it typically took us only around three minutes to get a race started with one or two opponents, although we've yet to manage a full three. Online sessions are contested over a series of four races, and every player gets to vote for which circuit he or she would like to race on next before heading to the starting line. The circuit with the most votes wins, and in the event of a tie, one of the nominated tracks is chosen at random. Points are awarded for each race, and a trophy is awarded to the overall winner at the end of the four races. One problem that we've encountered a lot, which is somewhat surprising given that we're presumably racing against Nintendo employees and other people in the games industry at this point, is that our opponents have been disconnecting as soon as they realize that it's impossible for them to win. It's conceivable, of course, that network problems are to blame for all of our disconnected opponents, but given the predictable timing of said disconnections (after we win the third consecutive race of four, for example), it seems that poor sportsmanship is more likely the cause. Part of the problem is undoubtedly that Mario Kart DS isn't set up to punish players who disconnect regularly in any way, so when you check out your opponents' stats, you can see how many wins and losses he or she's notched up--but not how many times the person has quit out of a session he or she was losing.
Although contested between half as many players, online Mario Kart DS races play out in much the same way as those played offline, with the caveat that it's not possible to "prime" items by dragging them behind you until you want to use them. Depending on your tactics, gameplay can be altered quite dramatically, since you can no longer use bananas to defend yourself from shell attacks, and you can't collect a second weapon while still retaining your first one. It's also worth noting that only 20 of Mario Kart DS's 32 circuits can be used in online play, which is sure to be a little disappointing if your favorite isn't among them. One of the neatest features of online races is that you can see both the names and custom emblems of your opponents whenever they're onscreen. Our racer has a GameSpot "G" over his head and on the front of his kart, for example, while other players we've come across have decorated their rides with Transformers logos, smiley faces, and other such. Our only concern is that less-creative and mentally adept players might opt to use abusive language and/or images for their emblems. So here's hoping that Nintendo has a plan in place to punish offenders.
If you register with nintendowifi.com before playing Mario Kart DS online, you'll be able to see how your skills compare to those of other players from around the world on the Mario Kart DS gaming hub page. The information on the site isn't particularly easy to make sense of right now, but we're hoping that it might become clearer before the game actually arrives in stores. Expect a full review of Mario Kart DS next week.