If you've ever been the proud owner of a Nintendo system, or have at least befriended somebody with one, odds are you've encountered a Mario Kart game at some point. The popular racing series, which first appeared on the Super Nintendo in 1992, lets you race your favorite Nintendo characters against each other in karts that can be armed with such devastating weapons as banana peels, opponent-seeking red shells, and opponent-shrinking lightning bolts. The series has evolved steadily with each iteration, up to and including 2003's Mario Kart: Double Dash, which retained most of its predecessors' features while introducing a new team-based mechanic that saw each cart manned by both a driver and a gunner. Mario Kart DS, then, might seem like something of a step back for the series in that it more closely resembles the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 games than the GameCube version; but, as the first game in the series to boast integrated online play, it also represents a major step forward.
Like previous Mario Kart games, Mario Kart DS features a number of single-player grand prix competitions that comprise four races each. Mario Kart DS includes a total of eight grand prix competitions for a total of 32 different races, many of which aren't available until you beat those that you can select from the outset. Four of the grand prix (or 16 of the races, in other words) are all-new, while the remaining four are composed entirely of classic circuits taken from the SNES, N64, GameCube, and GBA iterations of Mario Kart. The tracks include everything from simplistic figure-eight circuits and beach courses to street races that task you with avoiding traffic and racing around a giant pinball table. Grand Prix competitions can be contested in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc classes, and as you progress through them you'll notice an increase not only in speed, but also in the aggression of your opponents.
Before you do any of that, of course, you'll have to decide which of your favorite Nintendo characters you want to race as. There are eight characters with two karts each available the first time you play, but as you progress you'll unlock lots more. When selecting your racer, there are a number of different factors that you'll want to take into consideration--the speed and acceleration of your kart are the most obvious, but you'll also want to bear in mind your weight, handling, and drift attributes, because the differences between the various karts are quite noticeable once you take them out on the circuit. The final attribute that you might want to take note of is "items," which has a significant bearing on the quality of the power-ups that you receive during the course of a race. If you choose a character with a very low items score, for example, you're very often unlikely to get your hands on a blue spiky shell (it never fails to take out the race leader) or the new Bullet Bill power-up (which temporarily transforms you into a Bullet Bill and flies you past opponents on autopilot).
The new Bullet Bill power-up is one of three new items in Mario Kart DS, all of which complement rather than detract from the existing arsenal that many of you, no doubt, know and love. So, in between dropping banana skins for opponents behind you and firing shells at opponents in front of you, you might now find yourself launching an exploding bob-omb, or releasing a blooper (one of those flying squids) that squirts ink onto the screens of every player in front of you. The effectiveness of the blooper varies depending on how the ink lands on the screen of your opponent, and also depends to a large extent on how well your opponents are able to drive while the DS's top screen is covered in black ink. Driving after being "blooped" is made much easier by the presence of a top-down view of the circuit on the lower screen, which is actually good enough that you could play the game using only that if you really wanted to. The map screen not only shows your location on the circuit, but also the locations of power-ups, traps, and opponents. A column down the left side of the screen also lets you check on the race positions and current armaments of your opponents, which often makes it well worth a look toward the latter stages of a race.
In addition to the aforementioned single-player grand prix mode, Mario Kart DS boasts an unusual mission mode that tasks you with performing a variety of objectives against time limits. A number of the game's 54 increasingly difficult missions require you to pass through numbered gates in the correct order or collect coins as you race, for example, while others force you to use the game's boosting mechanic on corners, or drive around circuits backward. The mission mode is arranged in six groups of nine missions each, and each group ends with a boss fight that needs to be beaten before you can progress to the next. The boss fights in Mario Kart DS are quite varied, and task you with things like beating a boss in a race, knocking a boss off a platform using turbo boosts, or hitting a boss's vulnerable points with green shells. The missions not only make for some enjoyable challenges, but also improve your racing techniques by forcing you to focus on different aspects of your game individually.
The forgiving handling of the carts makes Mario Kart DS is an incredibly easy game to pick up, but there are also plenty of advanced techniques that you can use to give yourself an edge. Drifting around corners, for example, lets you negotiate even the tightest of hairpins without decreasing your speed, and if you repeatedly move the D pad left and right while drifting, it's even possible to gain a boost of speed by inducing a miniturbo. Timing your start perfectly will also give you a high-speed advantage off the line, and you can also gain a significant boost by drafting (tucking up behind) opponents who are beating you.
The battle-mode games, balloon battle, and shine runners can also be played single-player, but, like just about everything that Mario Kart DS has to offer, they're even better when played against friends. Using just a single copy of Mario Kart DS, you can enjoy races and battles against up to seven of your friends. There are some restrictions on circuit and character choice when using only one copy of the game, of course, but there's still plenty to do. Get a bunch of friends together with their own copies of the game and you'll each be able to try out every circuit, character, and cart that you've unlocked against each other. The same is also true when you take Mario Kart DS online, except that only four players are supported in each race, and only 20 of the game's 32 tracks are available. The only other noticeable difference in online races is that it's not possible to "prime" weapons for use later on by dragging them behind your car--a popular tactic that Nintendo chose to omit from online play for reasons unknown (and most likely technical).
Depending on your PC and network setup at home, getting Mario Kart DS online can be the easiest thing in the world, or it can take a little while to figure out. If you're using one of the wireless routers supported by Nintendo (as listed on nintendowifi.com), getting online can be as easy as having your DS search for your network and then entering your security key using the touch screen. Firewalls and such can cause problems, however, even when you use Nintendo's recently released (and incredibly simple) Wi-Fi USB Connector. If you don't have a wireless network or a PC running Windows XP at home, then your only chance to sample Mario Kart DS's online features might be to visit one of your local hotspots. These can be located simply by entering your zip or postal code at nintendowifi.com, although you shouldn't be surprised if your list of local hotspots bears more than a passing resemblance to a list of your local McDonald's joints.
Once you get Mario Kart DS online, you'll be able to search for races against friends (you can have up to 36), rivals (players of similar ability), worldwide opponents (we've come up against players from as far as Italy and Japan), or regional opponents (same country as you). You'll invariably have to wait at least a couple of minutes to get a full field of four racers together, and if it takes too much longer you might find yourself forced into a race against just one or two opponents instead. Online competitions take the form of four-race grand prix, and you'll get to vote on which circuit you want next between races. Our online races to date have been lag-free and a whole lot of fun, although we've lost opponents through disconnections more frequently than we'd like. Whether these opponents were leaving voluntarily or because of network problems is anybody's guess, but it's equally irritating either way.
There's no option in Mario Kart DS that lets you avoid players who you think are habitually quitting out of races when they're losing, nor is it easy to add racers that you enjoy playing against to your friends list. When you're matched with opponents you'll get to see their username, their win and loss statistics, and any emblem that they've designed for themselves using the game's simple paint program. What you won't get to see, though, are their 12-digit friend codes, which is the only piece of information that you need to exchange in order to become friends. The friend code, then, is an adequate system for adding real-life friends to your Mario Kart DS friends list, but it doesn't facilitate the befriending of players you encounter online in any way. Not that you'll be making many friends on the circuit in Mario Kart DS, of course--in fact, you're more likely to lose them. The game's near-perfect weapon-based handicapping system invariably gives better power-ups to racers at the back of the field, so that even when you're in last place you won't feel that a podium position is unattainable. The result is either that you could be deprived of your first-place position just inches from the finish line, or you could suddenly find yourself gaining four or five places on the last corner of a race simply because you got lucky with a power-up. It doesn't always seem fair, and you can bet that it's incredibly frustrating at times, but it's a system that rarely fails to keep a race competitive and interesting, and one that has been a feature of the Mario Kart series since day one.
Charming visuals and sound effects are also an ever-present feature of the series, and Mario Kart DS is no exception. All of the characters and rides are nicely detailed and animated, and the game's weapon effects have arguably never looked better. The circuits vary a little in terms of visual quality as a result of the GBA and SNES tracks getting only minimal makeovers, but none of them stand out as being inferior to the rest, and you're unlikely to take much notice of the scenery while a race is underway anyway. Everything in Mario Kart DS also moves extremely smoothly, which is a big plus during races. The game's audio is composed largely of engine noises, weapon sounds, and occasional remarks from the racers, who are quick to express their glee or disappointment as they overtake you or fall victim to one of your weapons.
Mario Kart DS is without a doubt one of the best games to hit the Nintendo DS to date. The game plays every bit as well as any of its predecessors, and adds just enough new features to the mix to make it worthy of your attention, even if you're still playing any of those games on a regular basis. The online play is undoubtedly the icing on an especially yummy cake, and even if you're not in a position to sample said icing, a yummy cake without icing is still a yummy cake.