|Mario Kart DS (2005)
Available for: Nintendo DS
Over the past decade, Nintendo has been accused of whoring out Mario to just about every sports genre possible, including – but certainly not limited to - baseball (“Mario Superstar Baseball”), soccer (“Super Mario Strikers”), tennis (“Mario Power Tennis”), golf (“Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour”), racing (“Mario Kart: Double Dash”), dancing (“Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix), and seven incarnations of the “Mario Party” series. The last two examples could hardly be described as sports titles, but it’s worth noting the exaggerated use of the franchise characters, and while only a select few of the aforementioned games have actually been successful in the West, the Japanese gaming giant has always done one thing right: develop solid racing titles. When a near-flawless “Mario Kart: Double Dash” debuted on the Cube a year ago, though, it seemed like Nintendo would never again be able to reinvent the wheel, but if “Double Dash” was almost perfect, then “Mario Kart DS” is the epitome of perfection.
Starring all of your favorite characters from past versions of the game, “Mario Kart DS” reintroduces you to the world of mini go-karts and flying green shells as if it’s a brand new experience. We’ve all played “Mario Kart” sometime in our lives, however, and getting back behind the driver’s wheel is a breeze. The familiar Grand Prix Mode is still the flagship method of racing, with three speeds (50cc, 100cc, and 150cc) and 32 courses (16 brand new tracks and 16 classic tracks) to choose from. The goal, of course, is to earn gold trophies in the different cups, and by doing so, you’ll also unlock new content. You can’t win these races by pure driving skills alone, but instead will have to make use of the weapons that are placed in “?” blocks throughout the various courses. In addition to the usual arsenal (like shells, stars and mushrooms), three new items have been added to this release: Boo, who can steal an opponent’s weapon (this item has come and gone from the various editions of “Mario Kart”); Blooper, a giant squid that will cover the other player’s screen in ink blots; and Bullet Bill, which transforms you into said bullet and soars you through the air, knocking over karts along the way.
The other three game modes (Time Trials, Battle, Missions) offer a nice balance of variety, but they’re simply just not as fun as the Grand Prix. Time Trials is probably the least exciting of the bunch, but it’s a good way to practice your skills and compete against the game’s developers (via the preloaded ghost data). Battle mode returns with two types of matches: Balloon Battle (knock out your opponent before he pops all five of your balloons) and Shine Runners (collect the most shine sprites), while Missions offers six, nine-tiered levels of challenges like collecting a set number of coins or destroying a certain amount of boxes. Of course, if most of these features are available on previous versions of the series, why is “Mario Kart DS” getting all of the praise? Good question, young Padawan, but the answer is quite simple: Wi-Fi.
If there was ever one thing missing from the fuel-driven, turtle-throwing mayhem of “Mario Kart,” it was the ability of online multiplayer, and as the first Nintendo DS game to support wireless technology, “Mario Kart DS” proves just how powerful an accessory like this can be. Gone are the days of staying indoors to play “Halo 2” with your best friend in China. Now, you can be practically anywhere, and play with practically anybody in the world. How cool is that? What’s even better is the convenience of the program, which takes less than a few minutes to set up and runs incredibly smooth during gameplay. My only concern is that some owners won’t have access to a wireless access point, and though Nintendo is trying hard to establish hot spots all over the world (including McDonalds), it may be some time before perfect connection is established.
Despite that small bump in the road, “Mario Kart DS” is still one of the first true killer apps for Nintendo’s newest handheld system. It makes great use of the double screen - showing the race on the upper portion, and a map displaying all of the characters and objects on the bottom – and it’s easy to pick up and play by just about anybody who likes video game. Perhaps the one flaw in the game is snaking, a driving technique where the player can go faster by swinging around the track in a snake-like movement. I’m not sure if this is a flaw in the game design, or just something that gives the hardcore players more initiative to practice, but it’s incredibly annoying to those of us who are used to dominating with pure talent. Whatever the solution, it doesn’t make “Mario Kart DS” any less dominant over the other racing titles on the market, especially for portable systems like the Game Boy Micro or Sony’s PSP. This is portable racing perfection. Period.