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JadeDragon's game reviews and playing tips: Nintendo DS games
Read our review of the Nintendo DS here!

Mario Kart DS

Reviewed Dec. 2005 by Tony Peak

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release Date: November, 2005
ESRB Rating: "E" for Everyone
Genre: Racing
Price: $34.99

I don't think I need to go in to too much background this time around. If by now you haven't played the classic Super Mario Kart of '92, Mario Kart 64 in '96, or even its GameCube and GBA editions, you're probably not interested in this game. What you should know, however, is that Mario Kart DS is the best of both old school and new school. It's back to the roots at the core, yet jazzed up with concepts and levels from many of the later games. Fans that were put off by the changes in Double Dash need not fear Mario Kart DS.

Gameplay

Mario Kart DS plays like a real evolution of the series, incorporating all of the best old racing mechanics, items, levels, and modes. On top of this are new tricks like drifting, drift turbos, kart statistics, fun new items, new levels, and even plenty of new modes. Add online play to the mix and you easily have one of the most complete Mario Kart packages to date, on any system.

Grand Prix works much as you'd expect, 3 series featuring 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc, four nitro cups and four retro cups per series, and each cup uses four tracks. So that's 32 tracks repeated at four different speeds, which represent four different difficulties. To unlock everything, you'll have to race all 128 tracks and take gold on each cup, and then some, as you'll eventually unlock a mirror mode to boot! Featuring 16 new tracks and 16 retro tracks from the SNES on, you'll be racing for a long time.

On Mission Mode, you'll play 6 stages and a hidden 7th stage of challenges, each stage featuring several levels and a boss challenge. While the stages are tough but fun challenges like collecting coins or driving through gates, the boss challenges are spectacular. I must say, they're something I completely didn't expect in MK DS. We're not just talking outrace driver X, but actual Mario Kart 64 style boss battles.

Time Attack mode is the underdog that in so many games is a good feature, but ultimately underplayed here. While Mario Kart DS goes the extra mile with ghost data (a personal favorite of mine) and the ability to swap ghosts wirelessly with friends, the real surprise kick here is that each track features the hidden ghost data of the Nintendo staff that made the game! By getting close to their time, you'll unlock the ghost and be able to literally race against the staff's (very difficult) best times. Quite a nice feature!

Battle Mode is much like previous games, except now you're free to not only battle friends, but CPUs as well. The CPUs add a real value and longevity, if you don't know enough people to get a good local battle going. The shine mode features a new mechanic where you attempt to gain and steal shine from the other players, yet another effort to stuff as much as possible in this little kart.

Unlocks are part of what makes Mario Kart DS such a joy to play single player. Your wins are rewarded, and your progress feels like more than just doing the same thing with a different kart. With the increase of cc class the difficulty gets noticeably higher, from simple on 50cc to quite challenging on 150cc. Getting 1 star on every mission unlocks a whole new level of missions, and as said, the unlockable staff times are really something I'm giddy about.

But let's face it, as well fleshed out as the single player is, multiplayer is where it's at. Mario Kart DS delivers here yet again, both local, and amazingly, online. Locally, on a single game card, you can race up to 8 people! Yes, on a single game card! All your opponents need is a DS. Although such players limited to only a special Shy Guy racer and not all the tracks, it's still an absolutely incredible value that's sure to be a real crowd pleaser, literally.

But, what if you don't know enough people with the DS system? Or, what if you want to play at 3AM and everyone else is asleep? What if it's snowing outside? Well friends, we finally have a natively online Mario Kart. While it's been done with various methods before, none are anywhere near as satisfying or dead simple as Mario Kart DS. Although you can only race 4 people in prix mode, and only 20 of the tracks with no dragging style items, it just works. It just works, and I'm overjoyed. I've raced everyone from forum members and fellow reviewers, to Nintendo of America staff, and had a blast every time. It's simple, no hassle, and it works.

Graphics

Graphically, Mario Kart DS actually looks quite a bit improved from past titles. If you're coming from the GBA, N64, or SNES, you'll definitely enjoy the polygonal karts and items. It's simple, but it makes a world of difference in practice. The tracks are huge, detailed, and entire sections are teaming with motion. Thanks to such a large collection of tracks, there's a beautiful mix of both straight racing, and kart style gimmick tracks like a giant pinball machine. Perhaps easily the best looking track is one of my old favorites, Rainbow Road. Still as deadly as ever, especially with drifting mixed in.

 

 

Screen shots:

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The second screen is, for once, used to great advantage here. Although there's very little to do with the stylus, you wouldn't want to have to use it mid game anyway. It does, however, make wireless setup trivial, and makes drawing your custom decal more fun! The main use for the second screen this time around is a very good one, a live overhead map. While you may think a map is no big deal, this one is detailed and zoomed in enough that if you wanted or had to, you could race an entire lap using nothing but the map. You'll see, at a glance, everything from player race positions, the exact locations of other players on the map, and even shells and traps. Your situational awareness is definitely unmatched in MK DS.

Sound

Great music, great sound clips, voices, and background sound all put this game pretty high up there. The little victory animations and voices whenever another racer gets hit by one of your items provide great cues to your surroundings. Everything a Mario Kart DS game's soundtrack should be.

Conclusion

Sadly, I must say that online play is not perfect quite yet. While I'm simply thrilled that it's actually there, and that it actually works, there are still improvements to be made. Aside from the limitations mentioned above, Nintendo choose to limit you in some very, very strange ways. First off, there's absolutely no online chat in any way. You can't even trade friend codes. Bummer. Though to dispel the "AI" feeling, you'll see their handle and custom decal floating above their head, and it really does work. Driving against humans, even strangers you can't talk to, feels completely different than AIs.

Secondly, while finding a game is drop dead simple due to MK DS finding open players and automatically matching you up without rooms or lists, you have very little control. For example, although you can use codes to keep a friends list and race people only on that list, you can't see which friends are online, or even choose a group of friends to race. A real shame, Nintendo. If you can manage it though, playing with friends while running voice chat over the PC (or cell phones), is simply amazing fun.

And finally, while finding an open game is dead simple due to the automatic matching, it takes far longer than it should and is not by any means guaranteed to work. After waiting to find players and finally getting in game, it's a dang shame when players start dropping because they're losing. Though I believe at the time of this writing you'll get a win if you stay in, it's little consolation in the long run. So, it's both an incredibly simple "just works" system, and at times, a very frustrating one.

All that said, if Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow hasn't sold you a system yet, this ought to. If you've ever been a fan of the Kart series, you need this title in your collection. We're finally starting to see the real power of the DS at work, and all the promises made at launch are coming true. It's been a long wait for Nintendo fans, but if the quality of games of late says anything, the DS is truly the successor to the GBA. Likewise, Mario Kart DS is truly the successor to its great series.

Playing Hints and Tips

- Always keep an eye on the map. Knowing where everyone else is and seeing any tight turns or traps ahead of time will get you that much further.

- Drift often! Drift every chance you get. Start your drifts WAY early and slide completely sideways into the turn for the sharpest cornering possible. Watch the ending animation for an example of this. Furthermore, be sure and hit as many drift turbos as possible in each lap by hitting left and right while holding the drift key until the wheels spark red, then release the drift.

- When you're behind, you'll get far better items. When you're in front, you'll have to make due. A well placed shell or peel can still be a formidable weapon though. And don't forget, pressing down and L will drop an item behind you, rather than launching it forward. Use for deadly effect with the bombombs!

Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):

Graphics

The polygons are really put to good effect here, as everything simply looks great. The karts are well detailed, true to style, and fun to use. Old tracks are brought up to modern standards with just enough polish, while new tracks look absolutely amazing. The maps are absolutely huge and detailed, and not a single track sticks out as a lesser quality design.

Sound

Great music, great sound clips, voices, and background sound all put this game pretty high up there. The little victory animations and voices whenever another racer gets hit by one of your items provide great cues to your surroundings. Everything a Mario Kart DS game's soundtrack should be.

Fun Meter

This one's off the chart. Online play, 8 player single cart wireless, staff ghost data, tons of unlocks, and a mirror mode really just push this over the edge. From the simple prix to the battle modes to the missions, you'll be having a blast. There's just nothing like playing online against fresh opponents.

Addictivity

Aside from the vast amount of unlocks, the 32 amazing tracks, and the multiplayer, the online play will keep this one glued inside your DS for a long time to come. Even if by some chance you can't get online, or some day the players move on, the single player and wireless play will keep it in your collection.

Total Score= 5 Dragons, 100%



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