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January 6, 2006

Mario Kart DS packs game for everyone in bite-sized package

For more than a decade, one game has transcended all gaps: gamer and non-gamer, young and old, male and female. In it’s first go-around on the Nintendo DS, that same franchise has now jumped the gap from fun party game to perfection.

Mario Kart is back and packed to go. If that’s not enough for you, then you simply don’t have a heart. But the good news for you soulless black holes out there is that this wireless-enabled rendition has the features, graphics, control, and scope to keep you going for a long time.

Unlike Nintendo’s simple “Touch Generation” games, Mario Kart DS bears more resemblance to the pad-and-buttons games of yore than to those new touch-and-go experiences. The means are different, but the ends are the same: The Nintendo DS continues to be the home for games that anyone can pick up and have a blast playing.

Players still control Mario, Yoshi, Peach, and the rest of the crew by accelerating, powersliding around corners by hopping and turning, and of course, picking up items and firing them at your hapless opponents. Touch-screen and microphone control is minimal. The graphics lie somewhere between Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash, which is to say they’re vibrant and beautiful on the small DS screen. In fact, the sense of speed in this iteration is better than any version before it thanks to some great visual cues and a hopping (but not skipping) frame rate. It’s a familiar experience yet enhanced to perfection thanks to some of the DS’s innovative features.

First of all, screenshots have shown for a while that the bottom screen has been implemented as an overhead map. It looked confusing and practically useless—too much goes on in a typical Mario Kart game to look away from the main action. Leave it to Nintendo to make this idea not only passable but also a substantial enhancement to the gameplay. Because the secondary view follows the game action live, you can for the first time keep track of items being thrown at you and opponents’ locations. Shooting shells or dropping bananas no longer involves guesswork: Bait someone into closely trailing you (which happens often now that racers get a draft boost) and then quickly drop your item behind you. The alternate perspective, of course, is most useful when driving on a straightaway, but hairpin turns shouldn’t be conducive to looking through your rearview mirror anyway.

So Mario Kart DS is the best playing kart racer ever, but what will keep you coming back for more? Mario Kart: Double Dash was a smooth, fun game on the Nintendo Game Cube, but with only 16 tracks and 6 battle arenas, gamers started casting it aside after mastering the otherwise well-designed courses. That won’t happen again.

Nintendo packed the pint-sized version with the biggest slate of tracks we’ve ever seen: 16 brand new ones, 16 classic remixes. The new ones are fully three-dimensional, dynamic, and outstandingly designed. DK Pass is a personal favorite thanks to its huge blasts over a snowy mountain, bouncy turns, and growing snowballs. Airship Fortress is a throwback to the old Super Mario 3 monstrosities, and Tick-Tock Clock has players racing around the old Mario 64 world.

For each of the four classic cups, Nintendo handpicked one Super Mario Kart (SNES), Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64), Mario Kart Advance (Gameboy Advance), and Mario Kart: Double Dash track. The formerly two-dimensional ones remain flat, but they have been beautifully remastered for the DS’s better-than-N64 graphics. Every Mario Kart version should have classic tracks from here on out, an easy way to provide good variety without having to design everything from scratch.

The battle modes—Ballon Battle and Shine Runners—both provide what you’ve come to from these free-for-alls. The battle courses are great as well, going from simple donuts to three-level (Luigi) mansions. Finally, the all-new Mission Mode offers task-oriented challenges that have you completing minigames in a certain amount of time: Take out 10 enemies in a minute, for example. Boss battles and some just-one-more-try challenges make this one great for those five-minute-turns-into-50 play sessions.

There are more racers than ever before too, with plenty of hidden characters that have to be earned by passing cups. This time around, each character has a variety of karts available to him, her, or it, allowing for some better customization and more feels to the game. Maximum control here.

The last reason that this game won’t be cast aside is the brand new Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection (NWC) mode, a first (and a must) for the kart racer. The presentation is completely barebones, as is the user control. Still, it fits perfectly with Nintendo’s mantra that people should get trapped in the games, not in setting them up. Users can jump into random matches (location or record based), or they can trade “friend codes” with others for direct access. There’s no in-game chat, so your play does all the talking.

Still, the game holds up great online, and the more frequent photo finishes will have you pumping your fist and maybe even letting out a scream. The heartbreak of an on-the-finish-line blue shell is magnified as is the importance of taking that tight corner. Matches were completely lag-free in my personal testing (over 70 four-race cups), thanks to Nintendo’s restriction to 16 manageable courses. Everyone votes on a track before each race with the computer randomizing between ties.

The biggest problem is, of course, disconnections, and I suspect that almost all of them are intentional. Please, if you lose your first race, don’t drop out. If you can’t win the cup in the fourth race, just hang through the two or three minutes and jump out then. Since your record gets penalized if you disconnect anyway, there’s really no point. Sportsmanship, people.

Non-internet multiplayer games are still great—finally those tethers are gone so that players can just focus on gaming. Even with a single cartridge, players can play through 10 tracks with opponent racers and all. The only limitation is that players can only choose from a generic Shy Guy character.

Nintendo’s formula with Mario Kart DS was simple: Take one of the most fun and wide-open games ever. Add more features, accessibility, control, and tracks than in all previous iterations combined. Squish it into the smallest (and currently one of the hottest) packages possible.

It’s a winner, and you’ll soon want one both for yourself, your significant other, your friend, and your sibling.

Bottom Line: Even though you’ll visit familiar locales with tried-and-true game mecahnics, there’s no feeling of been there, done that with Mario Kart DS. More racers, more features, more connectivity than ever means that this game is one to pack for yourself on the road... and get for your friends too.

Final Score: A