Mario Kart DS (Second Opinion) Nintendo DS Review

Just when many supporters of the hardware and software developer that is Nintendo didn’t think it would ever happen, November 14 proved us all wrong. Mario Kart has been a well-renowned franchise since the SNES era. Whether it’s just having that kooky Mario atmosphere or the intense racing battles against the AI or your friends Mario Kart has done it and done it well. Nintendo has always been a company to focus on family-oriented game titles that can also be played with friends in your living room. Well it’s no different in this case, as we now have the best of three worlds. Single player, local multiplayer and worldwide multiplayer take us into one of the very first Nintendo online experiences we’ve ever had.

If you’re a fan of any of the Mario Kart games, whether it may just be one in particular or every one we’ve gotten, you’re bound to love MK DS. The SNES title relied heavily on a great single player experience while introducing two player battles. Mario Kart 64 emphasized both on a very balanced scale with lots of action to be had in single and multiplayer modes. Mario Kart: Double Dash emphasized the very same thing, but then offered two different Mario characters in one single kart. Mario Kart: Super Circuit relied heavily on showcasing the entertainment value one can get in a single player/portable MK experience. Now with Mario Kart DS, we have everything we ever could’ve wanted in one tiny DS cartridge.

MK DS is a game that mixes old and new elements, and both are welcomed with open arms. With 32 different tracks to spin your rubber on, you will see very inventive tracks such as Waluigi Pinball and Tick Tock Clock. These are split in the Nitro section of cups which are comprised of four series just like the Retro part. The brand new tracks offer a ton of originality and that kooky music we’ve all become familiar with since 1985. The Retro tracks couldn’t possibly make the experience any better. Nintendo took tracks from every Mario Kart they’ve made to date to offer a mix of MK goodness that any franchise fan would salivate over. Whether it’s the very first Mario Circuit track on the SNES to Baby Park and Luigi Circuit from Double Dash, we get a beautiful balance of old and new.

A big surprise is how well the game presents itself graphically. The DS is more than capable of punching out Nintendo 64 quality graphics, but it’s also slightly more powerful to allow more polish and refinement. Granted it’s not a huge amount, but it’s nice to see, especially in games like this. All your environments are very well-detailed and varied, so you will never feel like you raced the same track more than once. The characters (both available and locked) also add to the great Mario atmosphere the franchise has always offered. Of course a number of old faces make their traditional return, while a few new ones make their first appearance. The only small disappointment is that there weren’t a whole lot of characters to unlock, and they really should’ve added more to make it even better. Each character looks like they should, and sticking them in the huge number of karts that are eventually available can be downright hilarious at times. Have you ever wondered what Bowser would look like in a motorcycle-like kart? Here’s your chance to see just that.

Now you may be wondering how the game actually plays since the DS is without analog control. Really, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Whether you’re more used to playing Super Mario Kart/Super Circuit more or MK 64/Double Dash more, you should have no problem controlling MK DS. Yes it uses the D-Pad, but it’s hardly difficult to master. You really only have to worry about the left and right parts of the pad anyway, as that’s how you do all your steering. Yes you have to hit forward or backward on it when you want to launch a particular item whatever way, but it’s not hard.

Now a huge part of Mario Kart has always been the sliding, drifting/drafting and boosting. In MK DS, if you wish to do a power slide and get that extra boost of speed, you simply hold one of the shoulder buttons and turn in the direction of the bend you’re going through. While you’re holding the shoulder button and turning into the bend, you simply have to drag your thumb left and right on the pad multiple times until you see a red flame behind you. Once you see that, simply let go and enjoy a small boost of speed that could very well be the difference between a position or two when racing. The same applies to the “drafting” technique you can do. Just like in Mario Kart 64, if you follow closely behind an AI or human opponent long enough, you will get a bigger boost of speed than power sliding would do, giving you nice assistance if you’re in dire need of it.

But of course assistance is also offered by the plethora of MK weaponry we’re all familiar with. Virtually all the great items we’ve seen in MK titles of the past have come back, along with the addition of two brand new ones. So yes we do have the traditional red and green Koopa shells, the first place targeting blue spikey shell and many others. But now, we have the addition of the Blooper and Bullet Bill. Now Bullet Bill, that’s what makes a Mario game if you ask me. Users of Blooper will cause the squid to spray ink on the screens of all other opponents in a particular race, temporarily blinding them. Bullet Bill is a little more useful, as the item literally turns you Bullet Bill, and you fly in a straight line through the middle of the track, taking out anything and anyone who may be in your way.

This also helps a great deal when it comes to competing against the pure AI opponents that you will in single player mode. Their AI programming was given a nice revamp so that they aren’t necessarily as cheap as they used to be, but smarter. Unfortunately that’s when a large amount of frustration can come in when you eventually go through the 150 cc cups. For the 50 and 100 cc cups, their level of intelligence and skill of driving is pretty much on par with yours. There is no “miracle” of them just happening to catch up to you or pass you when they really shouldn’t have been able to. But they are a bit more aggressive in terms of how they come into contact with you. So if you are using a lightweight such as Toad and are driving next to Bowser, prepare to be smacked around a little bit. Thankfully this is pretty balanced throughout the game, so any frustration is really only felt during the 150 cc cups when the AI actually does feel a little “cheap”. But elsewhere that problem really isn’t too evident, and that’s a very good thing.

So with the traditional MK cups that you race through to unlock more tracks and characters, you have your other modes as well. There is VS. which allows you to play either AI or human opponents in either normal MK races or the battle modes (Balloon Battle & Shine Sprite). You also have Time Trial in which you can compete against the Time Ghosts of the MK DS staff and try breaking their records. You can actually send those over to the online databases as well to see where you stack up. But a brand new mode that was implemented especially for MK DS is simply called Mission Mode. While it doesn’t exactly retain the same entertainment and atmosphere of Mario that is always evident in the cups and battle modes, it’s something new and fresh to experience. In a series of six different stages split into nine scenarios, you do anything from trying to beat a certain MK DS character in a race to using items to take out whatever the mission may ask for. They can be fun, including the really simple boss battles after completing all the main scenarios around them, but generally you’ll find yourself going back to what makes the MK franchise what it is.

Now of course, with the release of this game, we saw the start of a whole new era of Nintendo gaming. Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection is Nintendo’s first real online service dedicated to gaming, as they are finally using their own servers. So no longer is SEGA the only one using a Nintendo system for online service for a game like Phantasy Star Online. Now all developers are free to utilize the service how they please. It’s no different here, and Mario Kart DS is one of two first games to use the service.

To access NWC, you can utilize one of three mediums. One is a hotspot at one of 6,000 McDonald’s across the country. Another is using the Nintendo USB Connector for computers that don’t utilize a wireless router/network. Then obviously the last is a wireless router that you can directly connect through. Whichever you use, it is extremely easy and just as simple as selecting multiplayer mode in any given game this generation.

When you eventually do get yourself connected, you have one of four options to play online. One is Rivals, which tries to pit you against opponents with similar skill level to you. That tends to work for the most part, but the servers seem to base it solely on your record, and sometimes matches can end up being very unbalanced. Friends mode allows you to play people you know personally or online that you want to play directly. The problem with this is it requires you to exchange a 12 digit Friend Code, and both people must have each others’ code for a connection to happen. This can be a royal pain because you have to get into personal contact with your friend for this to happen, and it seems a lot that the servers just don’t want to connect you. It is very fun and all when it’s actually happening, but sometimes this “seamless community” doesn’t seem too apparent. Then you have Worldwide and Regional searches. Worldwide is pretty self-explanatory, as you play against opponents anywhere in the world that are utilizing the same search option. Then Regional works a little differently, as it searches for opponents using the same engine but just within your native country. So if you live in the United States, it will only search for those living in the U.S. as well.

Nevertheless, while connection may not always want to work and you’ll meet people who seem to be either too good or “cheating”, it’s a great thing for Nintendo and players of Mario Kart DS. Yes it’s not the greatest thing that we can never get the codes of people we may race in modes not using the Friends engine, but that’s all Nintendo’s philosophy. Perhaps that will change later on down the road since the service is still pretty much brand new; we’ll just have to see.

Mario Kart DS is most definitely a flagship franchise title for the Nintendo DS. Along with Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, if you were to own a Nintendo DS for any game, this should be an easy selection for you. There’s just no describing how fun this game is online and offline. Sure it’s not without its frustrations, especially in the 150 cc cup tracks, but it’s a very fun title overall. If you’re any kind of fan of the Mario Kart franchise, you will hardly be disappointed with this installment. Yes NWC may not be the greatest thing in the world right now in terms of doing what you actually want it to do, but we have time to allow it to evolve. But no matter, if you want a great racing title featuring all of Nintendo’s great characters, Mario Kart DS is for you. Mixing old and new, Mario Kart DS delivers, and ushers in a worldwide experience we’ve never seen before.