Mario Kart DS review
Shells aplenty on DS
Solid Weapon System
Great new tracks
Go online with Wi-Fi
Unfair CPU in Grand Prix
Some retro tracks showing their age
That damn spiny shell
Spin off series aren't unheard off, but Mario Kart is probably one of the most well known, as well as one of the most successful. The series has had its ups and downs and now makes its entrance on the Nintendo DS. So, let's see what the second handheld instalment of this series has for us.
We all know how well the DS can manage 3D imagery, and Mario Kart DS goes on to demonstrate that perfectly. The character and vehicle models have been rendered wonderfully, with some good detail and a style that is rather suited to the fantasy world of the Mushroom Kingdom.
It's pleasing to see such a good variety too so none of it comes off samey. With 36 karts on show across 12 characters you're bound to find one that you like the look of. In addition to the regular kart designs we've come to love (suitably detailed for the DS) we also have a wide selection of more bizarre choices that are quite reminiscent of the Double Dash vehicles. Notable standouts involve the Dry Bomber (a vehicle modelled in the visage of Dry Bones) and a vehicle designed to resemble the clown craft from Super Mario World.
The animation of these drives is also managed well. You can see them lean into corners or be surprised as they spin out. It's a little disappointing though that the weapons just appear dragging behind the kart. Double Dash had demonstrating that the karters were capable of holding their items.
The tracks themselves look wonderful too. There's a clever mix of 3D objects with 2D textures and backdrops, all seamlessly woven together to create stunning locations. The shortcuts taken in the designs aren't hidden by any means, but they've been handled well.
There's a variety of special effects on show here, like the sparkling of a power star or the flash of the lightning bolt. There all look pretty and vivid, enhancing the gameplay experience. If you're a fan of the series then chances are you've seen these kinds of effects before but that doesn't make them any less impressive.
Mario Kart DS comes with a healthy selection of music tracks to accompany the racing and many of them are impressive tracks. The fortress ship music is a personal favourite, but many sound good and fit their tracks perfectly.
That said, there are some duds in the group. Yes, they also fit their tracks well, but they're also bland and uninteresting so it doesn't really help them. That's only a few though so it shouldn't matter that much.
Regardless, there's no doubting the technical quality of it all. The developers clearly know what the DS's speakers can do, and it comes across with high quality sounds. This carries across to the sound effects and voice clips too. Not only do they sound as they should do but they sound good as well.
A pretty presentation is all well and good, but the main point of interest for any game is how well it plays. Not only does Mario Kart DS deliver in this respect as well, but I'd be tempted to label it as the best entry in the series so far.
MKDS is, as its predecessors, a racing game, but with the additions of crazy tracks, weapon play and an assortment of characters straight out of fantasy land. This is no simulation. This game sets its sights directly on an arcadey experience and delivers something that is deep and accessible.
The control layout is pretty logical. A is accelerate and B is brake, as expected. Karts can jump into the air with a tap of the R button, which can also launch them into slides if held down while turning. The L button is used to fire weapons off.
The karts have a pretty solid feel to them. There's not a point where they feel as if you could never manage to guide them accurately around the tracks, although it does take practice. It's pleasing to note that driver and kart choice really does have a significant impact on how a kart performs as well. What's even more interesting is the sheer number of combinations. Each kart doesn't act exactly the same to every driver, making selections even more important.
There are a few racing tricks available to racers to get them to the front of the pack. Powersliding is perhaps the most prominent one though. Sliding around corners helps to reduce speed loss, but there's a trick to this. By moving the steering from side to side the power can be build up. When the sparks are red the player receives a mini-boost upon exiting the slide. Not only can players reduce speed loss they can compensate for it when exiting the turn.
The system takes some practice but once done enough it becomes pretty easy to manage them around most corners. The real trick comes to those players who can make the most of every opportunity to boost ahead.
Karters can also slipstream other drivers. This involves driving directly behind another driver so that the air resistance is reduced, which gives an increase in speed. Unfortunately, this isn't really that effective, due partly to the twisty nature of the tracks. It's incredibly difficult to actually maintain position behind someone else, and often rather dangerous to do so as well.
Of course, the most effective way to catch up to rival drivers is to make use of the weapon system. MKDS comes packed with a large arsenal of weapons to unleash, with carrying effects. Many of these will be familiar to Mario Kart veterans too. The classic collection of shells return, which are the Mushroom Kingdom versions of missiles. Karters can drop hazards like bananas on the track and receive mushroom boosts too.
The best thing about the weapon system is how the game balances it. Some weapons are natural better than others, but they aren't just handed out randomly. Drivers in the top few spots will be getting low level weapons like bananas and green shells while those near the back of the pack will be picking up power stars and red shells. This prevents the front runners from simply running away from everyone through sheer luck.
That said, I really don't like the spiny shell. This blue/purple variant of the shell weapon is a homing version that zooms along the track and takes out whoever is in first place. However, this doesn't really help the person that fired it that much (they're more interested in passing those nearby than someone in the distance) so it only really ends up costing the person in first place while letting everyone else off for free.
There's a healthy collection of tracks on offer here. For the racing modes there are 32 tracks on offer. These are separated into 8 cups of 4 race tracks each. The Nitro Cups are the brand new tracks created specifically for MKDS, while the Retro Cups are updated versions of tracks found in previous entries in the series.
This is a nice high number, but the choice to update the older tracks only in looks really shows in the gap between the design quality.
The nitro tracks are amazing. Veterans may scoff at the earlier tracks for being too simplistic but I feel the progression is natural. The early tracks have little in the way of hazards or special features, but this concept doesn't last long.
Soon enough the tracks start coming across as more bizarre as you'll run into all sorts of hazards. Pirahna plants, bullet bills and fireballs are just some of the things in your way to cause trouble. The actual track layout becomes more complex and exciting too. What started as basic turns extends to hairpin bends, lingering turns and sharp corners.
By comparison the retro tracks are mostly inferior. That's not to say it's a complete failure. There are still some solid tracks in this selection, including some oddball obstacles and track features that the series is known for. However, only a handful of these tracks are really on par with the quality of the nitro tracks. Perhaps it's a testament to the impressive track design for the new courses, but it's not particularly tempting to run through these cups when many of the tracks are pretty boring by comparison.
MKDS offers a healthy selection of game modes too, and most of these will, once again, be familiar to long term fans of the series. Grand Prix mode returns in full force and is largely unchanged from previous iterations. Players select a cup and then tackle the tracks of that cup in order.
Points are awarded in each race based on the finishing position of each karter. Trophies are handed out to the final top three at the end of the cup. A rank is also given to the player regardless of their finishing place, although the higher ranks won't be earned by any finishing place other that first.
Sounds good, and it is for the most part, but it does come with a downside. The computer karts play dirty. These races aren't eight way free-for-alls, there're much more like the player versus all the computer drivers instead.
The computer rarely aims for each other here. Instead you'll find yourself the target of every attack. It gets a bit silly when computer drivers are firing red shells backwards at you despite their being other racers ahead of them.
There is also this inexplicable ability to catch up regardless of what you do short of taking massive track-cutting shortcuts. Generally this is done to give some challenge to the player, but the experience is hurt when it is done so obviously. Of course they should give a challenge, but allowing it to look so cheap is silly.
Versus mode is essentially the same kind of racing you do in Grand Prix mode, but with changeable settings, like the difficulty of the computer and being able to tackle any track without going through a whole cup.
It must be said that the computer tends to play more fairly in this mode. There's no sudden catch up out of nowhere and they'll actually target other people. Versus mode can be played in multiplayer games as well, adding to the fun. There's also an option to race in teams, but honestly it doesn't feel or play any different from the normal racing. You don't even get to choose which team to be on - everyone is automatically assigned a team.
Time Trial returns and is pretty much the same deal. It's a single player experience where players aim to get the best time on each track. The only items in play here are a limited number of boosts. What sets this apart from previous time trials is that the number of boosts is determined by the item rating of the kart being used.
The ghost system still works the usual way. Time records can be saved as ghost data, where a semi-transparent version of your run will play out when the track is played again. In addition to this there are staff ghosts locked away, which show the best times of those on the development team. Unlocking them means getting fast times, and beating them even faster.
One thing I am glad about is that the system tends to be rather forgiving in how much you can screw about before ghost data can't be saved. Past games have tended to be a bit iffy about this (on Mario Kart 64 it's impossible to save a ghost on Rainbow Road with using the shortcut all three times) so having this flexibility is rather nice.
Battle mode makes its return too, although here it is split into two variations. Balloon battle is the classic battle mode found in previous games, although this DS incarnation puts a unique spin on things. See, at the beginning of each battle every driver only starts with one balloon inflated, as opposed to the three balloons in past games. However, players all have four reserve balloons that can be inflated for extra protection.
So, how to inflate a balloon? Holding select does the job, but a faster way is to blow one up yourself. Yes, the DS's microphone is put to use here, where you literally blow on the machine to inflate extra balloons. It looks kinda silly though, especially if you're on a bus or something, so the inclusion of the select button method is good.
You can't inflate balloons while driving though, so this introduces a sense of balance between increasing your balloon count and avoiding being a sitting target. Even better is the ability to boost through opponents and steal a balloon off them.
Shine Runners removes the balloon concept and simply scatters nine shine sprites around the course. An invisible timer ticks down and drivers are eliminated based on who has the least number of shine sprites. This process continues until only one driver remains.
Of course, a collectathon on its own wouldn't be Mario Kart. Drivers drop shines when they are hit or fall off the track, which still puts emphasis on weapon play. Shine Runners also makes a much bigger play on the map displayed on the second screen, as shines are displayed there.
There's a nice little collection of battle course, although a couple seem rather mundane in design (the island one just feels a bit big and empty to really capture the feeling of battle) but overall a solid collection.
MKDS isn't one to take everything from past games though, so say hello to Mission Mode. This mode isn't merely about racing or battles. You are given an objective to complete for each mission and are forced to use a specific driver and kart each time.
Some missions are simple run-of-the-mill racing objectives, like go so far in said time limit. Many bring about their own concepts though, like racing through numbered gates in order. There's a good variety in the challenges here and the difficulty gets progressively harder as you go along.
The boss battles are the most interesting though. Yes, boss battles. These can be either races or battles, but tend to put a spin on the norm. One battle involves firing shells to knock a boss off the platform before he knocks you off.
Mario Kart DS also offers a wide variety of multiplayer options. Local wireless connections can be done with multicard play for full game options or single card play for a more limited experience. MKDS also supports online WiFi gaming, allowing you to challenge those around the world if you have a wireless network connection.
Mario Kart DS provides an enjoyable racing experience. It's not without its flaws, but there's no denying its charm. It manages to pull off the 'just one more go' feel perfectly and is the ideal time waster. If you have a Nintendo DS then I recommend that you get this game.
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