Review by clarkisdark

"Super Dash Kart 64... DS!"

When I was younger, I liked going to certain people's houses just so I could play "that car game," which I now know was called Super Mario Kart. That game was pure magic. Mario Kart 64 was pure magic. Mario Kart: Double Dash was okay magic. The point is, this series kicks butt, and seeing a new version for the Nintendo DS is the kind of good that can only come around Thanksgiving time.

Mario Kart DS looks a lot like Mario Kart 64 but runs at a much smoother framerate (though not as smooth as Double Dash). While the characters are noticeably low-polygon and some objects noticeably flat, seeing this game in motion is a lot of fun. It's 3D Mario Kart on a handheld, for heaven's sake! It runs really well, too, with no notable slowdown. During online matches, opponents tend to jump around sporadically when the game starts to lag. The pacing remains constant, but it's difficult to fight someone that keeps teleporting back and forth.

Mario Kart's use of the second screen isn't revolutionary, but it's definitely handy. An overhead map may seem like a cheap way to use the DS, but it's a helpful addition. Thanks to the map, you can keep track of approaching opponents or even bananas and shells. One item squirts ink all over everyone else's screen, so navigating by the map becomes almost essential.

The Mario cast has always been quite chatty, but Nintendo has thankfully toned them down a little bit for this game. You'll still hear plenty of grunting and yelling, but it isn't annoying like it was in Double Dash. The music retains a familiar air: light, cartoony themes which are easily forgettable but fit each level all the same. It's a bummer the microphone couldn't have been used for online play. Online matches are fairly quiet, and you feel like you're missing out when you can't hear your opponents whine. But I'm not even sure that is a possibility with the DS, so I have no room to complain.

Mario Kart DS is cartoon racing bliss. Looking back across the franchise as a whole, this game takes what has made every Mario Kart work and puts them all together in one package. The two-character seating from Double Dash has gone back to one. The ability to jump has returned. The weapon system is balanced with no character-specific gimmicks, a few new items, and the ability to drag shells and bananas behind you again. The character roster isn't as big as Double Dash, but each of the eventual 12 has several special karts unique to them, making it possible for players to finally be the same character. Mario Kart DS also adds a feature I have been anxiously awaiting: the ability to push opponents around! Past Mario Karts have not really let you bully your opponents. In this DS version, it's possible to slam into other players and even throw them off a cliff, and there are plenty of cliffs for said opportunity.

The levels don't get too wild, however. Rainbow Road is the wackiest it's ever been with actual loops and corkscrews, but others are just really tame (not lame but tame). I can think of at least three courses that are simply an oval track. No matter, because there are 32 tracks in the game. I'm going to repeat that for emphasis: there are 32 tracks in the game! That's twice any other Mario Kart. Half of these are completely new to the series while the other half are hand-picked from the SNES, GBA, N64, and GCN games. I question some of the levels that made it in over others, but it's still very fun to see these recreated. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't smile when the original Mario Circuit loaded up.

If there was any doubt about Mario Kart DS, it was that the D-pad wouldn't be able to replace the analog stick. Need I remind you, however, that Mario Kart started out with a D-pad, so this "fallback" isn't so serious. In fact, the D-pad still allows for precise driving just as the analog stick would. Powersliding isn't as easy to do as it was in Double Dash, but it isn't as difficult as Mario Kart 64, either. In fact, I've noticed several people online have already caught onto the art of "snaking:" powersliding repeatedly on a straightway. It's a tiring trick, however, and I can' keep it up for long before my hands start to cramp. Playing too much Mario Kart physically hurts.

Mario Kart has never been fair, exactly. The weapon system is brutal. Being in first place is scary, because there are seven other racers all firing red and blue shells at you. Your luck can change instantly, whether for or against you. That's kind of what makes the game so fun, though. Realistic racing games have never been enjoyable for me, because it's too hard to catch up to the competition. Mario Kart tries to keep everybody close together, making it a much more interesting and frantic experience. Red shells are a little more devious than usual, however. Like Super Mario Kart, they attack from the side, making it nearly impossible to avoid getting hit. It would have been nice to see more items you could use as a defense. Being able to see a shell coming towards you on the map doesn't do anything for you, because you know it's going to hit you anyway.

Lasting Appeal:
Every Mario Kart offers more to do than the last. Double Dash had a great idea with the All-Cup tournament. That, unfortunately, doesn't make it into Mario Kart DS, but this game jumps way ahead of the rest with eight different cups and four classes and several special single-player missions and a working battle mode! While I still think Super Mario Kart had (and has) the best battle mode, Mario Kart DS puts up a good fight and is much better than the fiasco that was Double Dash. In the classic balloon battle, you start out with one balloon instead of three, but by blowing into the microphone, you can fill up more. The battle arenas are also more intelligent, bringing in the best from Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash and adding in a few other goodies. What really "makes" the battle mode is the inclusion of AI-controlled bots. The AI isn't very smart and just seems to drive around and fire randomly, but having them there is wonderful. It really extends the single-player value.

Mario Kart isn't about playing alone, however. Mario Kart has always been a multiplayer forte, and this DS version goes all out. The ability to connect eight local DS systems together is sweet. Not everyone needs a copy of the game, either, but the game isn't the same without. Mario Kart DS has been a hot topic of discussion, though, because of its ability to go online. After driving all over town to find a participating McDonald's (ugh), I was finally able to try this mode out. I wasn't too impressed, to be honest. Online matches are severely limited. Only a handful of levels are open, and you can't tow items behind you. There also isn't a general lobby where you can pick and choose who you play. The network tries to find three people for you but doesn't always fill those slots and sometimes starts the game with only two in. It's annoying to get stuck in a one-on-one match. It's also annoying when people are sore losers and drop out in the middle of a race. There's no penalty for doing so, and naturally, people take advantage of that.

It's too bad Nintendo decided to focus only on the racing mode. Battles would be perfect for online play. That is where personality really comes through. I think I'd rather have an online battle mode than an online racing mode. Regardless, there is some enjoyment to be had knowing that the person you just screwed over is on the other side of the world, cursing at his/her DS. I've put many hours into the online portion already, so it definitely has its merits.

Each version of Mario Kart has a uniqueness that I like more than the others. Super Mario Kart's battle mode still remains the best while Double Dash is great simply because it's so smooth and fast. If there can only be one Mario Kart, however, I'd take this one. Mario Kart DS combines all the good from past entries, adds a whole bunch of new elements, and tosses in one of the best handheld multiplayer experiences ever. There is still room for improvement, but these are marginal nitpicks. Mario Kart DS has delivered a fun, fun, fun experience, and you'd be a fool not to get this game.

+ Classic gameplay refined
+ Lots of content
+ Great replay value
-- Mediocre online
+ But hey, it's online!
-- Hand cramps
-- Unbalanced weapons

Score: 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/17/05, Updated 12/16/05

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