Review by King_Lueshi

Reviewed: 04/12/06 | Updated: 07/14/06

The most complete Mario Kart ever.

Mario has possibly the most illustrious history in all of video gaming. Starting out in the original arcade Donkey Kongs, gaining popularity in Super Mario Bros. for the NES, and starring in the best-selling game of all time, Super Mario Bros. 3, he is a staple in the minds of many gamers. However, the best proof of his fame and popularity is the numerous spin-off games in which he is featured. One of the best, most popular, and longest-running of those spin-offs is the Mario Kart series. With its first incarnation on the SNES, Mario Kart took the world by storm and has been doing so since. The series has seen various iterations on the SNES, N64, Gamecube, and Game Boy Advance, and each time, the game seems to get just a little bit more stale. Clearly, with the DS, Nintendo needed to release a Mario Kart, but by doing so, they run the risk of making the series into an image of their milking of the Mario character.

Nintendo took a risk in Mario Kart DS, but as we all know, risks sometimes pay off. Mario Kart DS represents a rebirth of the series, attaining new heights with the utter completeness that MKDS achieves.

Mario Kart DS brings 32 courses to the table, a figure topped only by the GBA Mario Kart. It also has 12 characters and brings back the Karts system from Double Dash: there are many more Karts than characters. However, the largest and most significant addition to MKDS is the new modes of gameplay: not only is battle mode available for play against computer-controlled opponents, a new "Mission" mode has been created, in which players attempt to complete objectives that range from difficult to oddball, to say the least. Last yet most incredible is the induction of online play into the Mario Kart world: MKDS lets you play against up to four people in a set of four races over the internet.

Being what is basically the creator of the kart genre, Mario Kart's gameplay is well-known throughout gaming. It's not exactly complicated: race characters from the Mario universe around similarly-themed tracks while using power-ups to put yourself at the front of the pack. Mario Kart DS doesn't try to mess with the formula - even though it is on the DS, a platform designed for radical changes to gameplay, Mario Kart DS does not use any drastic changes. Its only use of the special features of the DS are to use the bottom screen as a map and the touch-screen for menu functions. Other than that, this is the same Mario Kart gameplay that you've come to expect. Note that the much-maligned two-characters-per-kart system introduced in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the Gamecube is not here, thankfully.

The most notable gameplay addition is the use of the DS's second screen. The bottom screen is used to show a leaderboard and map screen on which every other racer is shown. There are two different maps: one will show the area around you in detail, with things like fake or real item boxes, obstacles, and incoming shells shown. The other is a more encompassing map, showing the path of the entire course, but in little detail. The second screen is used well, and I am extremely glad that Nintendo didn't try anything too radical with MKDS.

If anyone's ever told you that Mario Kart can only work with an analog joystick, Mario Kart DS is the permission you need to slap them. MKDS's controls are surprisingly excellent. Karts control well, and everything is simple enough that you'll never have trouble. In fact, the learning curve for the new controls here is almost non-existent - it's almost hard to believe how easy it is to control.

Tracks and characters
Tracks are all brightly colored and overall very vibrant. They all vary in location, from the airships in Super Mario Bros. 3 to Delfino Square from Super Mario Sunshine. Many feature interesting shortcuts or other level-specific gimmicks. For example, in the Waluigi Pinball course, you will spend a good section of the level dodging giant balls that roll around the level. Or, in Tick Tock Clock, you will have to be sure to avoid the swinging pendulum. Whatever the case, the first 16 levels are all engaging and enjoyable.

Yes, I just said "the first 16". If you're wondering why I specifically mentioned that, then I should inform you that of the 32 tracks, only half are original, and the other 16 are lifted from past Mario Karts. This is where the first fault lies. The 16 "Classic" tracks, while being a good idea in theory, can be a source of disappointment for many when they discover that their favorite tracks are not there. This was the case for me when I found that Frappe Snowland and Choco Mountain from Mario Kart 64 were making their way in. I was also almost enraged at finding that Baby Park (yes, freaking Baby Park), a track that is nothing more than an oval, would be included. This is, frankly, almost insanity on the developers' part. Also, while the tracks have been remade to match MKDS (for example, the tracks that were 2D - the SNES and GBA ones - now have 3D obstacles and boundaries), many have been downgraded. If you've played Double Dash, you probably know about the secret tunnel in Yoshi Circuit and the alternate pathway in Mushroom Bridge: both are gone. In fact, the Gamecube tracks have practically been dumbed down to make MKDS, both graphically and in terms of gameplay. While I can understand and would almost expect a graphical downgrade, to remove part of what made the courses fun is odd, to say the least.

The worst part, though, is that the latter 16 tracks are simply inferior to the new ones. They are less graphically attractive, less functional, and, to get right down to it, less enjoyable. The graphical difference is especially noticeable. The N64 tracks in particular seem to be made out of different shades of a single color with no variety whatsoever.

The characters and karts are definitely something that the developers did totally right. Each character (all twelve) have two karts themed around themselves plus a "standard" kart that, in appearance, is essentially the same in appearance for all characters in all ways but the color. The most impressive thing here is that each kart, all 48, have different stats. These stats will make picking your character more than a "who looks the coolest" activity, and will require a bit of strategy and thinking. Of course, it also opens the door for some methods of racing that some would call... unnatural. But I'll get to that later. Anyway, the karts are all actually pretty cool, and some are actually a little humorous, like Waluigi's crane kart. Plus, Dry Bones is an unlockable character, and so is R.O.B. How cool is that?

The power-ups aren't anything that you haven't seen before, for the most part. There are your standard Mario Kart green, red, and blue shells, plus bananas, ghosts, and such. There are a couple new power-ups, though. I'll have to apologize in advance: I don't know their exact names. Anyway, there's one that will spray ink over the screens over opponents. Another, Bullet Bill, is a clone of the Chain Chomp seen in Mario Kart Double Dash. The power-ups are, for the most part, just the way they should be. However, I must say that I don't like the mushroom - it feels weaker than it should be, and it really doesn't give much of a speed boost. Other than that, everything is good in this department.

Gameplay modes
Gameplay modes will show the kind of stuff that you're used to in Mario Kart and some stuff that you've never seen before. The basics are all here - there is Grand Prix (in which you race computer opponents over four tracks, with difficulties of either 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, or Mirror Mode), Time Trial (where you race by yourself for the best time), and Vs (which is essentially a practice race). I was impressed with the inclusion of Staff Ghosts in Time Trial - this is something that previously was only in the Gamecube Mario Kart. These modes will last a little bit, but the new modes are what complete the single-player package here. First, like I mentioned, is the battle mode, which can now be played against computer-controlled karts. However, don't get your hopes up - it's not that great. Computer karts are, quite frankly, pretty dumb, and the only challenge is in the nerfing of you, giving you only one balloon against the computers' three in Balloon Battle, for instance. No, the better addition here is the Missions mode. Missions play in the structure of past Mario games - you must clear individual challenges and then face a boss character, whom by being beaten will open up a new chapter and a new set of challenges. Each "mission" places you in a section of a pre-existing MKDS track with a goal. Usually, blockades will stop you from wandering away from where you're supposed to be. Objectives range from using power-ups to eliminate obstacles to getting a certain number of power-slide boosts in one lap around the track. Missions are a nice diversion when regular racing is starting to get old, and it can take a few hours to clear - that timeframe isn't bad since at the core, Missions are only a glorified minigame.

Local Area Multiplayer
Put simply, everything's here. Compete against up to seven other players in either races or battle mode. No lag, everything works, no complaints. This part of the review is pretty straightforward, eh?

Online Multiplayer
However, Mario Kart DS's largest and most glorious element by far is its multiplayer, specifically its online multiplayer. Yes, after years of denying that gamers want online, Nintendo caved in and provided it with Mario Kart. Now, there is a lot of good here, but Nintendo's first jump into the world of internet gameplay is not without its bumps.

First of all, setting everything up is relatively simple. Nintendo's website will supply you with virtually everything you need to know about buying the necessary equipment (a wireless router or Nintendo's USB WiFi adapter) and setting it up. The in-game set-up process is simple and painless, and goes pretty quickly, too. Once that's done, you can jump right into racing against your friends from all over the world... or can you? Here, you will encounter the first bump in the road of Mario Kart DS online play: the "friend code" system. Online play will give you a few options: you can either play against anyone anywhere, people in your area, or people that are "your friends". However, adding friends isn't as easy as typing in their username and sending a friend request, a la X-Box Live. Instead, you must contact them outside of the game (not inside, because in MKDS, there is no method of communication whatsoever) and exchange friend codes, which are sets of numbers that are tied to your specific DS and copy of Mario Kart DS. So, this means a few things: first, you won't be playing with your account on anyone else's DS or copy of Mario Kart, just your own, and second, you won't have an easy time getting friends on your list. Of course, once you have some people added as friends, you can't just pick who you play against - in fact, there is no way that you can choose to play against a specific person or group of people, everything's randomized. The closest you can get is to choose the "play against friends" option in online, which will place you against random people from your friends list. To be honest, this system is not only annoying, it's just plain illogical.

Of course, it doesn't end there. Again, there's no chat, be it text or voice, in the entire game. For those of us who like to keep up friendly conversations while we're owning the crap out of our opponents, this is a bit of a letdown, especially since, at least among my friends and I, Mario Kart is one of the best opportunities for competition and trash-talking. Also, not all of the courses can be played online - the ones with cool gimmicks, like Waluigi Pinball and Tick-Tock Clock, aren't included in online play, apparently because Nintendo was worried about what lag would do to them. It's a shame that the best tracks can't be used online. To top it off, online play supports no more than four people, and only in racing - there's no online battle mode, sadly.

On the bright side, online is, for the most part, lag-free, and it's pretty fun. Sometimes, it can be hard to find an opponent, but that's usually not the case. Also, your wins and losses are kept, so you can show off your 100 wins, 1 loss (or 1 win, 100 loss) record to your friends.

Now, I'm going to mention the infamous method of snaking that I referenced earlier. "Snaking" is the use (or abuse) of the power-slide-boost technique to essentially be receiving a boost for the entire race. Many feel that it is a legitimate technique, and many use it, but a large portion of people feel that it is cheap, low, etc., and ruins online play, since "snakers" generally win their races unopposed. Now, it's up to you whether or not that's true, but I think it should definitely be mentioned here.

Now, I realize that I just spent the last half a page slamming Mario Kart DS's online play. However, it's in no way bad - many people really don't care about half of the flaws that I outlined. In fact, even with all those flaws, I think that online play is genuinely fun, and in no way a bad part of the game.

Oh, before I forget - a cool and sometimes ignored feature in online play is the ability to create your own "emblem". This emblem is displayed next to your name. It's fully editable and allows a player to get a little customization out. Actually, Mario Kart could practically be one of my favorite games ever on the sole fact that it allows me to display a LUEshi whenever I play.

Now, obviously, at this point, it should be clear that Mario Kart is no slouch in the length department. There's simply so much to do in every category - there's four difficulty levels in Grand Prix, the last of which is VERY difficult, there's staff ghosts in Time Trial, which can also be difficult, there's Missions, which can take some effort to clear, and there's online multiplayer. The game could last you a long, long time.

Graphics and presentation
Mario Kart DS packs graphics that are not only better and more detailed than MK64's, but at a perfectly smooth 60 FPS to boot. Seriously, especially in the new tracks, everything is gorgeous and colorful, and there are some cool effects. As for presentation, the menus are slick and intuitive - you won't be getting lost here, nor will you be wasting time.

The music here is just what you'd expect - the standard Mario upbeat tunes. However, Mario Kart has advanced past the MIDI audio of the GBA and SNES to the point where a piano actually sounds like a piano and a bass guitar sounds like a bass guitar, etc. It's not exactly show-stopping music, but it's functional, and is perfect for the game. As for audio, everything is... realistic... well, you know what I mean. Basically, no problems here. Engines sound like engines do in real life, and blue shells sound like blue shells do in real li-... wait.

+Gameplay is just what it needs to be and doesn't try to be too radical
+Second screen is used well
+Controls are excellent
+New 16 tracks are awesome
-Classic tracks are disappointing
+Characters and karts are fun
+Power-ups aren't broken and do the job well
-Battle mode isn't a challenge against computers
+Missions are cool
+LAN play is fun and not noticeably flawed
-No voice chat
-The friend code system sucks
-The best tracks are taken out of online play
-No battle mode in online
+However, the point is, ONLINE IS STILL FUN
+MKDS will last you a long time
+Graphics are great and smooth
+Audio's awesome

Mario Kart DS represents the most complete Mario Kart package that Nintendo's ever put together. It's got the standard Mario Kart stuff you know and love, plus the brand-new Missions mode and, of course, online multiplayer. Even though it certainly has its share of flaws, it's a fantastic game and a must-buy for any DS owner.

Rent or buy? Obviously, Mario Kart DS is not a game that can be fully experienced in just a few days, and if you rent it, you will be returning it with great sorrow, I assure you. Don't make that mistake: buy it immediately.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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