On the third article on the history of the Mario Kart franchise, we see Mario and his friends make an incursion on the online realm on Mario Kart DS, and look back on how Mario Kart Wii delivered the biggest and most complete game of the series up to now.
Mario Kart DS
As the first installment of the franchise to appear on a system with online capabilities, it is only natural that one of the finest additions Mario Kart DS brought to the series was the introduction of an online mode. Although its features were stripped down, with a maximum of four players competing simultaneously, the absence of some courses that were a little bit too heavy to be processed online, and a simple scoring system, it was still a considerable step forward back in 2005. It added endless hours to the experience, and it made the title highly replayable and competitive.
Unfortunately, the fun did not last long. As Nintendo's premier on that kind of gameplay, the system was flawed. The community was quickly infected by hackers and players that disconnected whenever they were losing. To make matters worse, due to the game's unique implementation of the power slide, online competitions were soon filled with racers that used “snaking” in order to gain an edge. The technique allowed the drifting turbo to be used all over the track, on both straightaways and corners, hence turning online matches into a boring and endless series of power slides along the courses.
However, though its online mode fell apart, the game featured what is, until now, the franchise's best single-player experience. For starters, it arguably has the best set of original tracks, with racing masterpieces like the dark Luigi's Mansion, the tight streets of Delfino Square, the traffic-ridden Shroom Ridge, the steep hills of DK Pass, the mad traps of Waluigi Pinball, the wacky clockwork on Tick Tock Clock, the nostalgically epic Airship Fortress, and the beautiful stroll on Peach Gardens.
Additionally, the game inherited some key features from its predecessors and enhanced them greatly. The retro tracks introduced on Super Circuit gained their current format on Mario Kart DS, as it assembled four cups with tracks coming from each of the four Mario Kart games that preceded it. Meanwhile, the uniquely designed vehicles of Double Dash became even more varied here. There were 36 of them to choose from, and they could be customized through the addition of user-created stickers.
The game also introduced extra stats, as aside from the traditional Speed and Acceleration, the vehicle and character match-ups players selected had unique values in terms of Weight, Handling, Drift and Items, turning Mario Kart DS into a highly customizable title from a character-selection standpoint.
The best new feature of Mario Kart DS, though, is one that – inexplicably – has never been reproduced by any other game that followed it. Mission Mode was packed with a bundle of timed missions on which players had to complete goals like racing through gates, collecting coins, defeating bosses in many ways, performing power slides, and even driving backwards. It was fun, unpredictable, varied and, with over 60 challenging missions, it was a major landmark and a very unique gameplay element.
In spite of its online stumbles, which are somehow understandable given that the entry represented Nintendo's first major venture into that unknown world, Mario Kart DS was a nearly flawless racing experience, building up on the legacies left behind by its predecessors and adding incredible tweaks of its own. It is just a shame that Mario Kart titles that followed it have failed to pick up its best contribution to the franchise: its amazing missions.
Mario Kart Wii
Mario Kart Wii set out to fix the online woes that plagued its predecessor, and – for the most part – it did so quite well. The drifting system was patched up so that performing power slides on straights was no longer a viable option, and the internet features were fully fleshed out. The Wi-Fi sported a nice simple interface, and both online and offline matches supported up to twelve racers. Moreover, the traditional Time Trials mode received quite a boost with cleverly designed leaderboards that allowed players, in a quick glance, to discover how their time stacked up against the world and their friends, and easy-to-download ghost data.
When it comes to gameplay itself, it is hard to find an entry that made as many changes. First of all, bikes were added in order to work as a counterpoint to the good old karts. While the latter group had drifts that were far easier to control and offered much more efficient boosts, bikes could perform wheelies at will in order to gain extra speed momentarily.
Sadly, though, the two-wheeled vehicles turned out to be far more efficient than the karts. Such discrepancy created an unbalanced multiplayer experience on which those who selected bikes had a distinct advantage over karts. That flaw becomes clear due to the fact online competitions and leaderboards were utterly dominated by those who used bikes. As a consequence, although it offers a spectacular online experience, Mario Kart Wii – like its DS counterpart – failed to deliver a fully even competitive environment.
Another considerable addition was that characters could now perform tricks once airborne in order to gain boosts when coming back down. That tweak added an extra dash of skill into the fray, and designers took advantage of it to craft new tracks, and update old ones, as to fill them with ramps and jumps that, if correctly explored by players, could give them a competitive edge. Therefore, differently from its stuck-to-the-ground predecessors, Mario Kart Wii heavily rewarded those who went looking for some air-time action.
That focus on tricks and elements that allow characters to take off joined by the simple fact the Wii's hardware power was quite big when compared to that of other systems that received games of the franchise meant that the sixteen tracks selected as retro courses gained extreme makeovers. Not only did most of them receive considerable aesthetic upgrades, but the layout of the tracks was also slightly altered, hence making that group of old-school courses feel relatively fresh.
The game's biggest novelty, however, was the motion controls. The Wiimote worked flawlessly as a steering wheel, and although many veterans settled for the traditional button-based scheme they were already comfortable with, the truth is mastering the wheel made up for a far bigger and rewarding challenge that deeply changed the way people interact with Mario Kart. It made the driving far more captivating and immersive than it had ever been, and it turned Mario Kart Wii into the franchise's most pleasant game to play.
More than that, such setup validated Nintendo's bet that motion controls could greatly alter the way on which people interact with games, making the whole experience far more accessible and alluring. In a way, in spite of its almost imperceptible shortcomings, Mario Kart Wii was the ultimate family-friendly software to hit the console and, in turn, it transformed itself into one multiplayer juggernaut loaded with content, characters, and hours of silly fun.