“Cut me off and I’ll red shell your ass”
So reads the bumper sticker on the blue Honda Civic trapped in my morning commute. Nintendo’s Marioverse has so invaded 21st century culture that blue Honda Civics are packing reds. How cool is that?
A good 15 years ago, give or take, someone at Nintendo decided Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, and the whole gang should temporarily put aside their differences, get behind the wheel, and race. Mix in some imaginative tracks, a half-dozen killer power-ups, and easy and addictive gameplay, and you’ve got quality single-player with multiplayer that gives this title legs like no other. Mario Kart defined the cart-racing genre, and few others have been able to accurately duplicate the feel of the franchise.
Nintendo has crashed through sales records with every iteration of Kart: Mario Kart 64 for the Nintendo 64, Mario Kart: Double Dash for the Nintendo GameCube, Mario Kart Advance for the Game Boy Advance, and most recently, Mario Kart DS for Nintendo’s newest portable.
The formula remains the same: Choose a racer, choose a kart, race and win. Gameplay is easy and intuitive, and even the greenest of newbies can be up and racing competently inside of 20 minutes. While the game lacks any tutorial, it really doesn’t need one. The controls are completely straightforward and the driving physics are very forgiving. Tracks range from the neophyte-friendly Figure-8 Circuit to the potentially maddening Rainbow Road. As a nostalgic little treat, 16 courses from old-school Kart games are also included.
Mario Kart DS makes interesting use of the dual-screened platform, with the upper screen displaying the race itself, while the lower screen provides either a short-range view of the action going on around the racer, or a long-range scan of every kart’s position on the track. It not only looks great, but it adds an element of strategy to the game without cluttering up your heads-up display on the top screen.
The single-player mode includes a series of Grand Prix cup competitions, each involving races at four tracks. New to the Mario Kart family is a Mission mode, which requires the completion of different objectives in a given time frame. Grand Prix is the real meat of the game, and where most single-player action is going to be found—Mission mode feels a little tacked on.
Multiplayer includes similar traditional races, as well as the popular Battle Mode. Little has changed about Battle Mode—karts race about trying to damage other karts. Three solid hits and you’re out. This time around, the popular feature allows for AI drivers and team play, both features that are well overdue; cooperative play against the AI is good times.
Han Solo once said, “Good against remotes, that’s one thing…good against the living, that’s something else.” He was totally talking about Mario Kart. A good player can conquer every Grand Prix series at every difficulty level, but multiplayer is where this game becomes great. Aside from a direct wireless connection to one or more other local DS owners, Mario Kart DS provides for Wi-Fi play against players worldwide. This is the first time Nintendo has offered Internet multiplayer with Mario Kart, and it’s a long time coming.
Wi-Fi play is fast and smooth, its only shortcoming being the lack of the ability to communicate with your opponents. What good is shelling an opponent from a narrow precipice if you can’t take 10 seconds to grind it into his face? Kart was born for the smack talk, and the DS’ PictoChat feature could’ve made for great post-race discussion. Nintendo might have omitted this to prevent mindless Neanderthals from throwing about gratuitous four-letter words and ethnic slurs, but I still miss being able to proclaim ownage.
Graphics and sound are about what one would expect from the Nintendo DS. While the high framerate provides for silky-smooth racing, it’s relatively simplistic—Mario Kart DS looks an awful lot like Mario Kart 64. Game sound, while remaining vintage Mario, is little better than audio window dressing, but an experienced player can actually hear a red shell coming up on him and block or dodge it.
Anyone can play Mario Kart DS. It’s easy to pick up, and the violence of shells crashing into karts is all good cartoony fun. I doubt it will be the cause of any shell-based violence at elementary schools across the nation, and rare will there be the individual who winds up in therapy a dozen years down the line complaining about the “lightning bolt nightmares”.
Mario Kart DS delivers in spades. Fans of the series will sing songs of praise after sitting down for a few hours, and I can’t imagine very many people not finding this game an absolute joy. With the multiplayer options, time trials, and multiple unlockables, Mario Kart DS has near-infinite replay value. The game is incredibly well worth the cost of admission.