The Mario Kart series started on the SNES, and it has since become one of Nintendo's best multiplayer options, right alongside the likes of Smash Bros and Mario's many sports outings. With that in mind, Nintendo coded up another Kart game for their highly successful DS system. They could have easily coughed up a Mario Kart that comfortably rode the coattails of its predecessors, but instead they went above and beyond and made one of the best Mario Kart titles yet.
When the player fires up the game, they are greeted by a menu screen (innovative). The first choice is single player, and it's first up to review. Upon tapping single player, the player can choose the standard Grand Prix, Time Trial, VS (basically a quick race), and battle modes, with the new addition.
Before we delve into the modes, it would be best to give a brief overview of Karting for the benefit of those who haven't picked up a pad since 1989. In Mario Kart, Mario and company race around in character-themed courses while throwing Koopa shells, bananas, Bob-ombs, and other hazardous items at each other in a brutal attempt to win. Everyone's welcome as Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Donkey Kong inexplicably call for an armistice with Bowser, Wario, and the Koopa Troop for a relaxed go-kart tournament. Rubber is burnt in every imaginable locale as well: the crew will race along standard tracks, curvy mountain roads, Isle Delfino, a pinball machine, Luigi's Mansion, Bowser's Lair, and of course, the classic Rainbow Road. But no Nintendo game would be complete without nostalgia, so Nintendo kindly updated a select 16 classic tracks from every previous game so that you might relive your glory days on the SNES Mario Circuit 1 and the GameCube's hectic Mushroom Bridge. For new players, this is not as interesting a feature, but all should agree that the old tracks work quite well even with new abilities and items.
The Grand Prix mode offers eight total cups (four of which borrow tracks from the previous games) with three difficulty levels. When the race begins, players fire up their engines and go. Players can draft, drift, boost, and throw items in an attempt to be number one, and the racing is as fun as it ever was (in spite of/thanks to absent touch controls). While the AI can get a bit unfair on the hardest difficulty, it rarely matters because the racers farthest back get the best items. If the player gets Gold in these events, he or she will unlock various karts and characters for their efforts. Time trial needs no explanation: just race alone for the best time on any track, and your best times can be shared between friends for those seeking a little competition. VS allows players to quickly race a track or two against the computer, which, surprisingly, was a new feature at the time of MK:DS's release, and one that lends itself to a handheld game due to its pick-up-and-play nature.
The series' popular Battle mode returns, seeing players race around enclosed arenas and use the game's various items to attack each other. It has two game types: Balloon and Shine Runners. In Balloon Battle, the player has a set of balloons which act as a lifeline. Every hit sustained will result in a lost balloon, and players must blow into the mic to inflate another. Run out, and you lose. In Shine Runners, players zip around to pick up shine sprites so they can stay alive. Contestants are periodically eliminated based on lowest score until the last man (or team) standing wins. Both modes are fun, but the AI's a bit on the easy side.
The new addition is Mission mode, which pits various characters in random missions such as crushing boxes or doing X number of power slides in one lap (a mechanic that will be covered more later). Once all of the missions in any particular section are completed, the player can take on a boss, which is actually quite fun. That said, the mission mode is a little short, but it certainly adds to the single player offering.
Overall, the single player is probably the best of any MK so far, even if the AI is unpredictable. Mario Kart is all about multiplayer though, and Nintendo knew that, allowing players to play locally and for the first time, online. Locally, players can race or battle on any track or course... assuming they both have the game. If you have to download, only a limited selection can be made, but it's still good fun for up to 8 people, and multi-card or download notwithstanding, homing-shell revenge is twice as sweet against real people. Online play is a blast, but battle mode is not available. Players can play against their friends or strangers, and races tend to get started rather quickly. Unfortunately, being Nintendo's first try, the online is limited, with no voice or friend requests to strangers met in races. The biggest problem, however, is snaking.
Snaking is a technique which involves using power slide boosts (previously mentioned) through the entire race. It gives advanced players a distinct advantage, and it can eliminate any fun to be had by novice players. That said, online play is a great addition to Mario Kart, and it is still fun to play even against the likes of Mario Kart Wii thanks to better item balancing.
Now that all of the gameplay options have been mentioned, what of the graphics and sound? They both check out quite nicely, especially for early DS titles. The racing clips along a great pace with no hiccups, and all of the character models look good and animate nicely. The retro tracks all look and sound better than ever, which makes them feel like they were made for the game, making them an even more welcome addition. Those with a little artistic flair of their own can even design their own decals to place on their kart and show off online. All of the crew's voice files, if a bit repetitive, are on cue and clear. There's very little to complain about; the music is catchy, and the graphics are pretty, enough said.
In short, despite some minor shortcomings like weak AI and button-heavy controls, Mario Kart DS is great. The sturdy single player packaged coupled with potentially endless multiplayer fun online and with friends makes Mario Kart DS an incredible deal and proves just what Nintendo is capable of with online play. As it stands today, Mario Kart DS is the best Mario Kart out there, and you would be hard pressed to find a better racer on the DS.