Eight-player LAN, free WiFi internet play, and downright brilliant gameplay more than warrant all the wanton excitement.
If you've ever played a Mario Kart game before (honestly, who hasn't?) then you'll feel right at home with Mario Kart on the DS. Obvious changes, like eight-way wireless multiplayer, and, of course, the overdue online option stand out, as do the single-player Battle, VS., Emblem Edit, and Mission modes, but the overall feel, presentation, and structure are the same Mario Kart fare of old.
Returning to the Mario Kart series are the Grand Prix and Time Trial modes. The Grand Prix mode, however, boasts an interesting twist, in that its title belies the fact that there are actually two unique Grand Prix courses available to race at the onset of the game. The first one, dubbed the Nitro GP, is host to sixteen all-new tracks which are divided among four "cups" as follows: Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special. Sound familiar? As a bonus, the aptly named Retro GP accomodates sixteen tracks of its own. Each of those sixteen tracks, however, are pulled straight out of past Mario Kart games, spanning the SNES, N64, GBA, and GCN, and are apportioned similarly in the Shell, Banana, Leaf, and Lightning Cups. That means Mario Kart DS features 32 tracks to tear around at either 50cc, 100cc, or 150cc speed/difficulty settings.
The unforgettable, hectic gameplay the series is known for makes its way to the DS fully intact. It's still heaps of fun to zip around tracks, powersliding at every opportunity, and infinitely fun to invoke items like red "homing" shells, banana peels, and phony item boxes to wreck your opponents' progress. And, naturally, it's still plenty frustrating when it happens to you. But it's all in good fun, and is possibly the defining element of the Mario Kart experience. The DS introduces its own brand-new items into the series as well. The Blooper item squirts black ink on the top screens of every racer holding a better position than your own, hindering their vision and, thereby, impeding their progress. Bullet Bill is a simple reinventing of the Chain Chomp item from Double Dash. Using this item transforms your kart into a giant Bullet Bill and speeds you onward, pummeling any opponent in your way as you go. And, best of all, it's on autopilot, so you can just sit back and enjoy the destructive ride. Your position in a race at the time that you gain an item will determine the quality of the item that you receive. So, back-of-the-pack racers receive choice items like red shells, Bullet Bills, and stars, while frontrunners usually pull weaker items like banana peels or green shells from item boxes. This time-tested formula helps to further balance out the gameplay, and makes for some enormously exciting close calls at the finish line.
The Grand Prix mode is where you'll unlock everything you're going to unlock in the game, not counting staff ghosts. There are eight characters available to use at first, each having two unique carts which are characterized by traits like acceleration, top speed, drift, and so on. There are only four characters to unlock, for a total of twelve, but each winds up with three standout karts. In what is perhaps the coolest twist of all (small spoiler alert), once all the unlocking of goodies is in the books, any character can commandeer any kart. While it is humorous to put Donkey Kong in Dry Bones' tank-style kart, combining karts and characters also has strategic implications. Every character has inherent traits that affect the performance of a vehicle. So if you prefer the lightweight speeders like Yoshi and Toad for their dexterity and off-road capability, but detest being knocked off course by brutes like Bowser and Wario, simply have Wario, D.K. or newcomer R.O.B. pilot the vehicle and trade a bit of handling for a weight advantage. In a sense, each character has 36 total karts at their disposal in which to compete (end spoiler). In Mario Kart DS, the selection of the kart is at least as meaningful as the selection of the racer, sprucing up an otherwise straightforward element of the game.
The Time Trial mode, as its name suggests, pits player against the clock in a race to ring in the fastest course time possible. It's a great way to learn the nuances of each track, and the perfect place to practice powersliding through the various tracks' many twists and turns. The game automatically creates a ghost file of your best time that can be sent to friends' copies of Mario Kart DS and, if you're speedy enough, you might unlock the secret staff ghost who will race alongside you. More often than not the staff ghost will show you the best way to handle a given course's turns and reveal existing shortcuts. Staff ghosts will often overshadow your own best times while expertly zipping around the track. This is an allegiant recollection of yesterday's Time Trial modes, and it's still loads of fun and highly addicting.
Battle mode is unsportsmanlike conduct at its finest and is no stranger to Mario Kart. Its application to the DS game, however, separates it from the pack by the overdue option to play solo with CPU controlled bots. A whopping seven CPU controlled bots, to be exact. And if you want, you can split up into two teams of four to really mix things up. In one Battle mode variant, players are outfitted with one balloon attached to their buggy that can be popped or stolen by the dirty deeds of other players, while four other balloons wait in the wings to be inflated. To inflate them, you literally blow them up via the DS microphone. Besides the dual-screen display and optional functionality in the emblem editor, this is the only utility of the DS' peerless features, and it's a pretty nifty one at that. In the other Battle mode option, you scoot around one of six arenas, collecting Shine Sprites (think Super Mario Sunshine) while unleashing your arsenal to knock the Shines out of rival players. The player with the least amount of Shines at the end of a set time period is out, and the contest continues thus until a winner is determined.
The biggest downfall involved the Grand Prix mode is that once everything is unlocked, there is little incentive to replay it outside of getting better ratings for each cup -- which provides exactly nothing in the way of tangible rewards. Maybe that's enough for you. Or perhaps you like a bit more variety than that. That's where the VS mode comes in. In it, you can choose your engine class, opponent difficulty, track order, and terms of the competition. What it offers you is a means to quickly and easily race on whatever tracks you want to without having to mull through tracks you might find boring or frustrating. Like Battle mode, you can choose to separate into two teams of four to switch things up a bit. Every facet of racing in VS. mode, from the lousy no-cinematic startup to the lifeless "you win" screen, is unapologetically plain, but it still breaks up the monotony of Grand Prix mode as it is intended to do.
You can also have a stretch of fun in the game's Emblem Editor mode, composing works of art pixel-by-pixel. Your fine creations will be automatically situated in predetermined positions on whichever kart you happen to be driving, and it's a cool way to customize your ride for online play. Unfortunately you shouldn't get too attached to any one emblem if you intend to ever create another one because, surprisingly, only one can be stored on the DS card. Also absent is the ability to swap your logos with friends, which is a total bummer.
Playing with friends is the best way to play Mario Kart, and Nintendo included some cool ways to do just that. For instance, DSes use magical powers to talk to each other, so up to eight players with DSes of their own can get in on Grand Prix, VS, or Battle mode madness -- wirelessly. Of course, it's best if everyone has a copy of the game so that all the courses, racers, and karts are available, but single-card playability is available. Also, Nintendo has finally opened up to online gaming with Mario Kart DS. It's one small step for Nintendo... and one small step for gamers too. Fact is, the online component works, but it's pretty dry. The very best thing about it, in fact, is that it's cost-free and (more or less) ready to use right out of the box. You can choose to race against people globally, regionally, or as registered friends/rivals in best-score-outta-four matches. Track selection is determined by player vote before the races ensue, and then you're off. Sadly, playing online takes you back to the stone-age (before the invention of magical powers) where cave men played Mario Kart only four racers at a time. Occasionally you'll even find yourself racing against only one or two opponents if more don't come available, and that can be a tad boring. The final ding against the Wifi play is that fan-favorite Battle mode is unavailable online. On the bright side, though, playing online is smooth as butter and virtually lag free. Nintendo's first step in online gaming may be a small step, but it's still a small step in the right direction.
The graphics and sound found in Mario Kart DS mirror the gameplay in that they represent tried-and-true, undeniably formulaic presentations. The characters themselves, as well as their karts, have undergone sparse visual renovation since, well... ever. The same is true for the game's interface and assortment of tracks. The layout is so typical, in fact, that even the 16 new Grand Prix tracks and 4 new Battle Mode arenas feel familiar and a bit uninspired soon after first sinking your teeth in. Further complicating matters are the awkward 3D graphical flaws that, once upon a time, were easy to overlook. Nowadays, however, steering wheels should be circles, not octagons, and it's hard to turn a blind eye when big characters' legs taper down and just disappear into smaller carts. But these visuals represent about as much as anyone could ask for this early in the DS' cycle, and the honest truth is that they still look pretty nice. The audio follows the trend and is remarkably ordinary. Many of the sound samples, from the item selection sound to the "3, 2, 1!" countdown diddy at the beginning of each race, are completely recycled from past Mario Kart games, with only a few exceptions. Characters will occasionally chime in to celebrate overtaking an opponent or to voice disapproval when being surpassed. Your racer will still groan upon being pummeled by an attack and gleefully approve when you score a hit. Again, this is all very typical, if not predictable. Overall, the audio/video package maintains the fun theme Mario Kart is known for, and is the perfect accompaniment for the simple, approachable nature of the game.
To completely reinvent an already dazzling franchise could have been disastrous, but missing a great opportunity to really polish the game is regrettable as well. Why aren't there more retro tracks to unlock? Why are there only 12 characters to choose from (13 if you count Shy Guy, but he only appears in single-pak VS. play)? Why can't I save more than one emblem in the emblem editor or share them with friends? How come I can't edit the appearance of the karts and characters? What about a stat-tracker? Wouldn't it be cool if Mario Kart DS tracked my accuracy with green shells, red shells, bananas, Bob-ombs, and the like? Why are there only two startup screens when I should be able to unlock, or better yet, make some more of them with the emblem editor? Hey, what the heck happened to my trusty, somewhat dusty speedometer? Now that it's gone, I really miss it. And for goodness sake, why don't I get to watch the other racers finish racing after I finish anymore?! These types of questions will probably begin to percolate in your head once the newness of Mario Kart DS wears off, and that tends to happen right about the time you finish unlocking everything in the Grand Prix mode -- which can be accomplished in ten or so hours by a veteran player. If you don't have easy access to the online play or any pals to race against via LAN, the sweetness of Mario Kart DS probably won't take long to cloy.
The fact remains, though, that with great gameplay comes great replayability. In truth, Mario Kart DS could have, and certainly should have, been more fully fleshed out and polished than this. Not only would it have further differentiated this installment from installments past, it would have served to further enrich the series' shining legacy. But take that with a grain of salt. Mario Kart on the Nintendo DS is decidedly the series' finest recurrence; worthy of a spot in every DS owner's collection.