Review by NDS_Master

"A Superb Series Meets a Superb System"

Mario Kart DS

The hype is over, the game is out, and many people are happily playing against opponents from all around the globe. Mario Kart DS was welcomed into the marketplace with open arms on November 14, 2005, and hundreds of thousands of customers snatched up copies of the game within weeks of its release. Nearly half of those buyers went online in the first week, while others stayed offline and even more saved their copies to hand off as gifts later on in the year. In case you've been out of the gaming loop for the past several months or need to find just the right Christmas gift, I have a little something for you to read.

Controls: 8.9

Let's start off by saying that the controls are tight. And I mean tight. Avoiding some strange touch screen control scheme, the makers of Mario Kart DS decided to stick with traditional controls -- and did so with amazing effectiveness. Every button is positioned well, and even during intense play the button placement will cause little hand strain. The only problem with the buttons comes when people have large hands, but the strain only occurs if advanced techniques such as snaking are used. Otherwise, yours hands will feel fine.

Along with the good controls and the game's excellent response, Mario Kart DS has some uniqueness in its control setup. It is not enough to make someone annoyed with the game, but it is enough to provide much needed humor and variety. In basic races, the A button is accelerate, the B button is brake, the R button is drift and the L button is use an item. As for the touch screen, its only contribution to the controls is its ability to change the map view; other than that it is only used for display. The unique part of the controls comes in battle mode, where gamers actually have to blow up their balloons via the microphone. Contrary to what you may think, the microphone is a good thing, since it makes for a more relaxed yet strategic setting. I was pleased with the controls, and chances are you will be to.

Game Play: 9.4

In case you haven't guessed from the rating, Mario Kart DS has a lot of game play -- and it's really good. Not only does it have thirty-two awesome courses (including sixteen from previous Mario Karts) that provide days of enjoyment, but it also has enough high quality modes of game play to keep someone hooked for weeks on end. Its game play wealth makes it by far the best Mario Kart DS to date, ranking even higher than Mario Kart: Super Circuit, which I hold in very high esteem.

All the traditional game play is still there: using 12 classic characters and 36 zany karts, gamers can challenge computer players to an exciting race. During the journey through the entertaining courses – which include a pinball machine, a warring airship, and a clock – racers have to use all available skill to pass opponents and take the lead.

But, if they fall behind, they still have a chance to catch back up using Mario Kart's items. These are located in special boxes scattered throughout every track, and when a racers runs into one it breaks. A random item is then added to the player's inventory. The chance that a racer receives any one item depends on what position (and kart) that racer is in, so people that are far back typically receive higher quality items. All the regular Mario Kart items are back, including the lightning bolt, which shrinks opponents down to a minuscule size, the star, which turns its activator invisible, and the banana peel, which causes adversaries plenty of trouble should they happen to run over it. Along with the rest of the classic items are two brand new items that add even more to the game.

The main aspect of Mario Kart games is Grand Prix, a game mode that tests a racer's skills against those of tough computer competitors. It features three different engine sizes – 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc, though these are usually thought of as difficulty levels. Larger engines go faster, and as a result they also feature more cutthroat competition.

Once gamers have their engine size, character, and kart, they have to choose between one of eight different cups. Each cup contains four different levels. At the end of every level racers receive points depending on their position, and at the end of every cup they receive a trophy that corresponds with their position (if they were in first, second, or third). Mario Kart DS also has a ranking system, so even if players attain gold they will want to play the cups over again to improve their grade.

Time Trial is another Mario Kart great. Though the mode itself is simple – gamers race against the clock to achieve best times – the strategies and skill involved are anything but that. To make it better, each of the best races are recorded on ghost format, so when players race again they can race a “ghost” of themselves. It makes it easier for them to see how they are doing in comparison with their previous best time. Also, racers that do well enough in Time Trial will unlock staff ghosts, which are exactly like regular ghosts except that they were created by a member of Nintendo. That aspect gives even more challenge to this already challenging game.

Besides Time Trial and Grand Prix, Mario Kart DS has a new game mode. It is Mission, and it is a worthy addition to this series. In it racers must complete short, in-game tasks to earn ratings and finish missions. Some require gamers to complete simple goals, such as driving through ten tire gates, while others require more skill, such as driving backward to collect coins. Mission consists of six levels (though there may be one more should you do well enough), and each level has eight different missions and a boss. It might not be enough to keep you occupied for days on end, but Mission will teach you shortcuts in levels and provide you with some much needed driving experience. Your race is sure to improve after finishing this short-lived yet respectable game mode.

Along with the main modes of game play, gamers can play Versus, which is exactly like Grand Prix except that it is more relaxed and more customizable. Also, instead of racing through an entire cup players can choose exactly which level they want to try out.

One last mode, Battle, lets gamers try their hand at what was once thought of as multiplayer only games. This includes Balloon Battle and Shine Runners, which are special battle modes that gamers can play in one of six unique battle arenas (celebrate Block Fort's return!). In Balloon Battle, racers have to blow up balloons and use items to knock balloons away from their competitors. The last man standing wins. Shine runners, on the other hand, forces gamers to drive wildly to collect Shine Sprites. Once the Shine Sprites have been collected, individual players must use weapons to smash the sprites out of their competitor's hands. To make it even more intense, every so often the player with the least amount of sprites is eliminated. Both game modes are awesome, and they are also available on multiplayer as well.

It has levels, it has characters, it has items, it has challenge, it has fun, and it has length. Yep, Mario Kart DS's game play pretty much has it all. While it might be classified as a racing game -- and in every sense of the word it is one -- Mario Kart DS is so much more than that. Its levels and game modes are unlike any other racing game on the planet, but they are more than enough to satisfy your cravings and leave you anxious for more.

Graphics: 9.0

Since it pushed the boundaries in many other areas, why shouldn't Mario Kart push the boundaries in graphics capability as well? Actually, it did. Instead of using 2-D karts like every other Mario Kart game besides Double Dash, Mario Kart DS harnessed the full power of the DS to make karts and characters that were both 3-D and realistic. Obviously the characters aren't perfect due to the inherent limitations that the DS provides, but they are still well done nonetheless.

The courses are also three dimensional (duh!) and well rendered. Each of the new tracks looks wonderful, and each one takes the graphics of the DS to a whole new level. Even the Double Dash tracks seem like the originals despite the fact they are on a system with less graphics power than the GameCube. Also, all of the Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart: Super Circuit tracks moved beyond 2-d style landscapes and into three dimensions, and they did so without losing any of their former charm.

My only complaint with the graphics comes with some of the obstacles, such as Piranha Plants, Pokeys, and pipes, which are only 2-d. I do acknowledge that 2-d obstacles are a lot easier to do than 3-d obstacles, and since you usually only notice the 2-dness when you crash into the obstacle it is of little degradation to the overall graphics of the game. Fortunately, at least some of the obstacles (Thwomps, Chain Chomps, snowballs) are in 3-d, so the game is not completely devoid of three-dimensional interaction.

I love the graphics, and they are by far some of the best seen on the DS to date. The minor negative comment I made above does apply, but it is neither serious nor noticeable enough to warrant a lower score than what this game received. By striving for more, Mario Kart DS showed that the DS has a lot more potential than many people give it credit for. That's as much a plus for the game as it is the system, so it is evident that Mario Kart is a winner in the graphics category.

Sound: 8.6

I may not have much to say about sound, but everything I do have to say is positive. Every level has music to accompany it, and every song in the game is great (I find myself staring at the title screen for several seconds so I can listen to the song that goes with it!). The tunes are catchy, yet not annoying. They add to the game play; they don't detract from it. Even the character, kart, and item sounds effects are superb. For the most part they are realistic, and when they are not it is to show that Mario Kart DS is not always about realism but about having fun and being challenged at the same time. This section may be short, but what can I say? I feel like playing my DS and listening to a little more of that spectacular Mario Kart music.

Replay Value: 9.7

Of all the DS games that I have rated, this is the highest score I have given to any one game in any particular category. Why? Mario Kart deserves this rating. It lasts hours on end, and it does not get boring easily.

To begin, there is the challenge of earning three star grades in all of the Grand Prix modes. That alone should keep most players occupied for a very long time, and even experienced players will have to devote several hours of their time if they want to earn three stars in every Grand Prix. The same goes with Mission, although it is easier to get all three stars in Mission instead of in Grand Prix.

Staff Ghosts also add to the replay value of this game, as many of them are challenging. Most racers will have to play them multiple times before they even get close to overcoming them, and experts will still be able to play for hours to improve their personal times should they find the staff ghosts to easy.

Despite the tremendous replay value of the single player mode, it is the multiplayer that takes Mario Kart to the next level in replay value. Not only can gamers play against their friends, but they can also play against people from all over the world. I realize that online play on any game does not get dull easily, no matter how boring that game is. However, Mario Kart DS fuses its solid game play to the online community with such power that people cannot help but take notice. Months, weeks, and even years down the road you will still find other competitors that are ready and eager to keep playing.

I'd love to tell you how long Mario Kart DS lasts, but frankly, I can't. At least not yet. Dozens of hours after I first picked this game up, I still am not bored of it. The challenges presented in Time Trial are too much to pass up, and even the regular matches hold my attention for extended periods of time. Throw in online play and Mario Kart DS's replay value is a solid winner.

Multiplayer: 9.4

Months after the DS launched, it still lacked a game with a powerful multiplayer. Some games, such as Meteos, had excellent multiplayer, but they just did not have enough to stand far above the crowd. Mario Kart DS has multiplayer, and I must say that it does stand far above the rest of the games already out.

Download play is its first aspect of multiplayer, and it allows eight people to play off of just one game card. Only the host can choose his or her character, but the rest of the people get to play as Shy Guy, who is only playable through download play. Along with the special character, download play also has optional teams and computer players, making it somewhat customizable. With Balloon Battle, Shine Runners, and Versus, download play has more than enough to keep a group of DS wielding friends happy for several hours. The level choice is disappointingly limited in download play, but the overall quality is satisfactory.

Once you are bored of owning friends who don't have the game, you can also find someone else who does own the game and play. Regular versus is exactly like single player versus and battle, but you can play against a friend.

Finally, Mario Kart DS's online play takes it above and beyond regular multiplayer gaming. By going online with the DS, racers can play with up to three other people in one of the twenty online-enabled courses. This makes for astounding game play, as you never know whom you will get hooked up with. It is even possible to only play against your friends using the DS's friend code registry. My only complaint is that rivals, which is supposed to pair you up with people of your own skill level, rarely works, and you end up either playing people who are too far above or below your skill level. Other than that minor complaint, online play is probably the best thing to happen to the DS since the touch screen.

Closing

It is not a matter of likes and dislikes: this game should be in your collection! It is excellent in nearly every way, and it is appealing to gamers of all genres. Online play is an added bonus, but even without it Mario Kart DS has enough quality to stand on its own. You have read this review, now take some action and purchase this game!

Overall Score: 9.5


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/08/05


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