The best version of Mario Kart yet proves the game still isn't quite perfect.
I would like to begin in saying I love Mario Kart. Mario Kart 64 with my buddies ranks up there with Goldeneye in "most enjoyable multiplayer experience on a game console". And, right out of the gate, I can honestly say that Mario Kart DS is probably the best in the Mario Kart franchise. It has beautiful, crisp graphics, running at a silky smooth framerate. The controls are perfect; tight and responsive. And, best of all, there's a ton of courses, karts, and drivers to choose from. Even better: Not only does this game introduce 16 new tracks, but it brings back 16 classic tracks from previous Mario Kart games, remastered for the Nintendo DS. As if that wasn't enough, the game also houses a Mission Mode and, perhaps the most impressive of all, it features online multiplayer - which is not just a first for Mario Kart, it was a first for the Nintendo DS as well, when this game launched. Quite simply put, this is the most varied, polished, content-packed Mario Kart game to date. And it would be great if I could end my review there. Unfortunately, despite being the best Mario Kart to date, there's a considerable amount that still needs work. Let's start with online. As what has become a theme in online-enabled Nintendo games, the online mode in Mario Kart DS is severely crippled. The bulk of the new multiplayer modes and options are available only in local wifi mode; when playing online, your options are limited to only the most basic, simplistic options. There is very little room for customization or variety. When you go online, all you can do is race; and you only can race against four other players. No battle mode, and no shine runners; not even any CPU racers to fill out the roster. The list of tracks available in the online mode is limited, too - certain tracks (usually ones with more complicated game mechanics, such as Waluigi Pinball) cannot be played online. As mentioned previously, this is a theme with most online-enabled Nintendo DS games - the bulk of the multiplayer options in Pokemon: Diamond and Pearl, for example, are only available through local wifi; the only online multiplayer options are straight up battle mode and trading. Even worse, once online you have to contend with the act of what has become known as "snaking". As of writing this review, over half of the races I played online contained people who used this exploit to win. For the uneducated, in Mario Kart DS, power sliding around corners correctly can give you a short, temporary boost of speed. "Snaking" occurs when a racer initiates the power slide boost even in straightaways (by power sliding side to side across the track, like a snake slithering) - effectively chaining together a never-ending string of power slide boosts. For a player who does not "snake", it is impossible to catch up and they fall so far behind that even most items become worthless in slowing down a "snaking" player. These races generally degenerate in to contests to see who can "snake" the most to win a race, rather than playing Mario Kart DS as it was originally intended. It's snake or be snaked. And then we come back to Nintendo's strategy to make their games more readily accessible to the casual gaming audience. Essentially what this boils down to in Mario Kart DS is punishing you for being in first place. The game contains more unavoidable super-items than any Mario Kart to come before it; while in the lead, expect to get hit by plenty of blue shells, lightning bolts, and more. Even worse, the game incorporates the ability to accidentally drop the item you are holding - should you get hit by a lightning bolt, blue shell, or simply bump in to a stage obstacle, you will drop whatever item you are currently holding. This becomes exceedingly more unforgiving as you work your way through to the harder difficulties of the game; though the drivers themselves don't really seem to get any more intelligent, the frequency of them acquiring an item that totally screws you over increases exponentially. By the final lap of a race in 150cc, expect to be hit by a constant stream of blue and red shells so large, it won't matter how far in the lead you were. This wouldn't be so bad, but defending first place can at times seem almost impossible. Ignoring the fact that there isn't a defense against Blue Shells or Lightning Bolts, even defending against something as simple as a Red Shell is tricky, as red shells have a habit of going around item you may be holding behind you as a defensive measure. All of this is only compounded by the fact that you can no longer stop the item roulette; it gives you a completely random item every single time it spins, meaning you have to make do with what it gives you - and in a game where one item can make the difference between winning and losing, this can be immensely frustrating.
Quite simply put, Mario Kart DS often favors unpredictable chaos over real skill. This might be fine against your 7 year old cousin who's tired of you kicking his butt in every other game, but there's only so many "lucky wins" you can take before it starts to get on your nerves; and the higher you set the difficulty, the more unpredictable and chaotic races become. I've actually reset my DS and started the cup over simply because the dice did not roll in my favor in a particular race. It wasn't anything to do with my skill, it just so happened that luck was not on my side and I lost due to factors I had no control over. Imagine coming around the final corner of a track - first, I get hit with a lightning bolt, and then directly afterwards, a blue shell nails me quickly followed by a red shell; none of which I had any defense against (any defense I did have was knocked out of my hands thanks to the lightning bolt). The minute I get my momentum back up, Donkey Kong boosts straight through me; his weight knocking me off the track where I am slowly forced to get back on the road. By the time I do this, I finish in 6th place. Upon quitting and restarting, I get first place in all races without even breaking a sweat. Similar situations like that come up for me in Mario Kart DS way more often than they should, all because of how heavily the game relies on luck (rather than skill) to balance things out. These are, however, minor complaints in the face of a game that is, overall, still a very good game and a very worthy addition to anybody's DS library. They never really ruin the game, they simply make it a little more frustrating, from time to time.