Review by Rad_Mage

"Online play is sweet, but the game is unbalanced."

As a franchise, Mario has been incredibly prolific and lucrative for Nintendo. It seems like some new spin-off or sequel comes out every month. Mario Tennis anyone? Despite this, some of these spin-offs sometimes turn out to be incredibly entertaining. If the first thing that comes to your mind when I say this isn't Mario Kart, you are not a real gamer. When the Mushroom gang hops into a fleet of go-karts, frantic and lighthearted fun always follows.

The latest game in the Mario Kart series is Mario Kart DS. One of the most important things about this release is the fact that it is the first game Nintendo has made that has online play. Miyamoto and Iwata have stood atop their mighty fortress, laughing maniacally at their own superiority for years, but they finally listened to us and decided to give us a game with online play. Not only that, but the online is entirely free. Once you've purchased the game, you've purchased unlimited rights to online play. Sweet. Making it more sweet is the fact that the game keeps track of your online win/loss record, adding a real competitive motivation to improve your skills. I realize some of you out there might not care about this, but I know a lot of gamers are competitive. What's the point of having a better win/loss record than someone else? Nothing, I suppose, but it's still fun to intimidate n00bs with your awesome record.

So, why should you buy this game as opposed to any of the other Mario Kart games out there? Well, this time around, it features strippers, horrendously gory violence, and Grand Theft Auto-like Kart-jackings.

Whoa! That sounds awesome!

Kidding. *shivers at the thought of a stripper Princess Peach* It's still the same saccharine sweet Mario world we've loved for over twenty years.

Darn! Guess I'll go back to my Madden NFL, Halo, and GTA

In essence, this is still the same Mario Kart formula that Nintendo has offered since the days of the Super Nintendo. You still pick a Nintendo character and race around a track three times. You pick up various items and power ups that will either hit your opponents to slow them down, or they might give you a boost of speed. Sure, there are a few new items to play around with, such as Bullet Bill, and there might be a few minigame-like diversions to distract you, but there's nothing significantly new here.

That's fine, though. The Mario Kart formula is very nice. Almost any kind of person will get some enjoyment out of this game. It's the sort of casual fun that Nintendo is known for. Not everyone will enjoy Final Fantasy or Morrowind, but anyone can get some amount of fun out of Mario games.

It's not all good, though. There's one major issue I noticed through my extensive testing of this game. The items are simply too powerful. In the face of the overwhelming strength of the power-ups, your racing skill takes the back seat, as it were. In particular, the Blue Shell and Lightning bolt totally unbalance the game. Neither one of these attacks can be dodged, or even delayed.

What does this mean? Imagine fighting your way through three tough races on the hard difficulty. You've managed to take first in all the races so far. You're going for your highest rank ever in the race class. You're on the final lap of the final race, in first by a decent amount, when you make a jump. Unfortunately, as you're flying through the air, you're hit with a blue shell, causing you to fall off the course. By the time the game puts you back on the course, you're in sixth, causing you to lose the race. Keep in mind, there was absolutely nothing you could do to avoid that shell. Sound like fun? No.

You don't even necessarily need to get knocked off the course for these items to ruin your day. Getting hit by a succession of blue shells, lightning bolts, and red shells means an instant drop from 1st to 5th. This problem is especially prevalent in the higher race classes. You'd think being on a higher difficulty would mean the opponents would play with more skill, right? Wrong. All it means is that they're faster and they get better items. If you manage to go a single lap on 150cc without getting hit by at least three blue shells, a lightning bolt, and two red shells, fall down on your knees and praise whatever deity you worship. You have just witnessed a miracle.

Further compounding the problem is the fact that your current rank affects which items you get. If you're in first, forget about using good items. You'll almost never get anything but green shells (the lamest kind) and bananas (almost worthless items.) By contrast, the player in 8th gets nothing but the best items in the game.

What does this mean? Good players are actively punished for their skill. If you're in the lead, you have nothing to look forward to but get hammered by a succession of powerful items.

Just jack their Karts and beat them with a baseball bat!

Um.. Yeah. Can't do that here. You just have to put up with it.

It's not exactly a deal breaker, but it's certainly annoying. You'll still have a good time with it. Besides, this problem becomes less apparent at the lower difficulty levels.

When you get tired of the anal AI chucking blue shell after blue shell, you can take the game online. Connecting is relatively easy, and the games are remarkably stable once they are connected. Unfortunately, you can only race against three other people online, but you'll still have a blast.

As I said earlier, there are some little minigames you can do if you get tired of the normal races. They're basically just little thirty second diversions with weird goals like going through a series of arches or ramming some boxes. Most of them are unremarkable, but a few stand out. Every ninth minigame is a boss battle, and they're pretty fun. You never thought you'd be facing off against the infamous Two-Giant-Stone-Hands-With-Eyeballs-You-Have-To-Hit boss in a Mario Kart game, did you?

If you're interested in multiplayer, but don't have access to fast enough internet, there are still a couple of options open to you. If you only own one copy of the game, other people with DS's can download it and play a stripped down version of the game. In this mode, only the player with the actual game gets to choose their characters, everyone else plays a generic racer. Additionally, only the first 8 tracks are open to you.

If everyone you're playing with has a copy of the game, you get to play multiplayer with no loss of functionality. All the courses are open and everyone gets to play any character they want.

The multiplayer is a good way to kill some time, but it's not as compelling as the online game is.

As much as gamers (old school Nintendo fans in particular) like to say that graphics don't matter, the fact is that they do. Most people would rather play something that has good presentation (Halo) more than something that looks worse, even if it has better gameplay (Morrowind). Oh, yeah. I went there. What are you going to do about it, tough guy?

So, how is the presentation in Mario Kart DS? Entirely unremarkable. The graphics will neither impress nor repel you. They're just there. The graphics look better than Mario Kart 64, but they're not exactly pretty. It's not like it even has a charming art style like the 2-d Marios, either. It appears to use the same engine that Super Mario 64 DS used. Sure, the tracks designs are nice, but you won't be marveling at the graphics.

Sound wise, it's pretty average fare. There are silly sounds when stuff gets thrown around, and the music is pretty standard Nintendo stuff.

What? No licensed rap soundtrack? Forget that! I'm going to play some more GTA!

Um... Okay. Whatever.

So, the presentation is fairly unremarkable.

So, now, the big question on everybody's mind. The whole reason you read this review. The question of all questions.

Why is Toshiro Mifune so awesome?

Because he just is. That's why.

As for the Toshiro-Mifune-less, and therefore much less interesting question of whether or not to rent or buy, I say it could go either way.

If you just want a weekend of casual fun, you won't go wrong with this game. Especially if you have access to Wireless Internet. If you want to get good at the game, buying it will keep you entertained for a couple of weeks. Just don't expect much out of a long term commitment, there's just not enough depth to keep you playing once you can beat all the tracks.

Final Scores:
Gameplay: 8/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound/Music: 6/10
Replay Value: 6/10 (8/10 if you have internet play.)

Overall: 7/10

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/31/06

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