Handheld versions are often a large step back from their console counterparts. Mario Kart Super Circuit on the GBA was a good game in it's own right but was a huge step back from the N64 version. I think the DS had enough performance to capture the essence of Mario Kart, but it also took a step forward by providing the ability of online play.
There's plenty of familiar items such as the green shell, red shell, banana, Boo, lightning, Starman, and Mushroom in addition to new ones such as the Blooper which hinders other player's vision, or Bullet Bill which is a simple reinvention of the Chain Chomp from Double Dash. Using this item puts you in auto-pilot in rapid speed, pummelling any opponent in your way.
As usual, your position in a race determines the quality of the item that you receive. If you are struggling, you are awarded with quality items such as red shells, Bullet Bills, and Starman, while the leaders will be picking up bananas or green shells from item boxes. This formula aims to keep players closer together to ensure there's constant action, yet you need good driving skills to achieve victory on the higher difficulty modes.
Drifting allows you to navigate tricky corners, and by toggling the D-Pad left and right; you gain a turbo boost which triggers as you exit the drift. You can gain a significant boost by drafting (driving directly behind) opponents, although this can be risky if they have weapon and throw it behind.
The course design is fantastic. The developer's have used the power of the DS to create interesting courses with good use of elevation (rather than the flat circuits seen on the SNES and GBA). The environments are varied and there's plenty of tricky corners that require skilful use of drifting and boosting.
On the bottom screen, you can see a map of the course which shows locations of item boxes, hazards and player positions. Its actually incredibly useful, and you can drive fairly well just by looking at that screen.
Another cool use of the touch-screen is the Emblem Editor which allows you to design your own logo to add to your kart and is shown to players when playing online.
For single player, you have the usual Grand Prix and Time Trial mode in addition to a new Mission mode. VS mode and Battle mode can also be played against computer controlled opponents, giving you plenty of options.
The Grand Prix has two categories. There's 16 new tracks split over 4 cups (Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special), in addition to the Retro GP which remakes 16 classic tracks from previous games (SNES, N64, GameCube, and GBA iterations of Mario Kart) and these are also divided over 4 cups (Shell, Banana, Leaf, and Lightning). That means Mario Kart DS features 32 tracks over 4 difficulty modes: 50cc, 100cc, or 150cc and Mirror.
The Grand Prix mode is where you'll unlock karts and characters. Initially, eight characters are available, each having two unique karts. There are four additional characters to unlock, and everyone has an additional kart to unlock. Once everything is unlocked, then you are allowed to pair any character and kart together. Each character seems to have certain base traits (you aren't told what they are), but the bigger characters have more weight to them. Certain combinations seem terrible, so placing a heavy character in a small, light kart may not be a good idea; but it looks humorous. The kart's attributes are shown, with ratings for speed, acceleration, weight, handling, drift and items. Items dictates the availability of double/triple items such as shells/bananas/mushrooms. This is also used in Time Trial mode which gives you 1-3 mushrooms depending on your kart.
The Time Trial mode is a great way to learn the tracks and it's always fun to try and better your scores. You can race against your own 'ghost' times, a friend's (via wireless transfer) or a 'staff ghost' which often shows the use of shortcuts within the tracks. The staff ghosts are often at a high standard, so are enjoyable to race against.
Battle mode is primarily a multiplayer mode, but you can play against CPU controlled opponents too against 7 players. In the standard mode, players inflate balloons by blowing in the microphone, and these are used as lifes. You have five in total, and will lose one every time you are hit. The other mode is Shine Sprites which involves you collecting and stealing Shines from other competitors. The game plays Elimination style, so the player with the least amount of Shines at the end of a set time period is out, and the match continues until a winner is determined.
In VS mode, you can choose your engine class, opponent difficulty and track selection. This gives you the flexibility of making a cup that not only lasts longer than the usual Grand Prix mode, but offers a different selection of tracks.
The Mission mode gives you tasks such as to pass through numbered gates in order, follow racing lines, collect coins along the course, or use power-slides with boosts. Each group of missions ends with a boss battle which you take down by racing, hitting weak-points or ramming.
There's single-kart multiplayer but other players can only use Shy Guy. This character is not actually a selectable character, so it's the only way to play as him. If everyone has a copy of the game, then you get the full character selection. At the time of release, online play was a great option too, but the Nintendo Network is long-since dead.
Mario Kart DS is one of the best games on the DS and is a must own on the system. The game has stood the test of time and is very enjoyable to play 11.5 years after release.