Mario…perhaps the most multi-faceted video game hero since MacGyver. He can make fireballs out of flowers, plays tennis and baseball professionally, balances two careers (carpentry and plumbing), and even has two girlfriends. Okay, maybe MacGyver wasn't actually a video game character. But if he were, he'd want to be just like Mario. And he'd be back for yet another outing at extreme go-cart racing in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (emphasis not added).
When Double Dash was released, the Mario Kart franchise was already well entrenched in the Nintendo library. Although Mario Kart 64 had left a bad taste in some reviewers' mouths because of its buggy programming and broken game play, consumers ate it up anyway and demanded more. Nintendo was happy to oblige. Double Dash avoids many of the flaws of Mario Kart 64. But in so doing it also changed the formula in ways that not every fan will appreciate.
For the uninitiated, Mario Kart games are racing games with power ups that allow you to throw items at your opponents or otherwise improve your chances of winning. The items collected are mostly random, but the frequency of some items is determined by your current position. For instance, the person in the lead will more often get a lone banana peel to drop behind them. But the person in last place is more likely to get something more powerful like the blue shell…a shell that homes in on the first place person for an automatic hit.
In this way, Mario Kart games punish the leaders and help the people in last place catch up. The more skilled driver will most likely win anyway, but among players of equal skill this system can encourage 'sandbagging'…the technique of staying behind other drivers on purpose to get better items. Although many reviewers dislike this game mechanic as it adds decidedly more luck than in straight racing games. But we find that it adds to the excitement and makes every single race a real fight.
The new gimmick on display here is that each kart has two racers…hence the 'double dash'. Having two racers doesn't really make you go any faster. But what it does do is let you pick drivers based on their attributes and items and match them according to your strategy. As an example, Bowser is large and can drive the larger karts that have higher top speeds. His unique item that he sometimes gets is the super large shell. So choosing him alongside Mario, who tends to get mushrooms a lot, will give you access to a large kart with a high top speed that can accelerate to its top speed quickly when it draws a mushroom. Additionally, having a large kart accelerate into someone with a mushroom can seriously knock that other kart around and will steal their item in the process. Mixing and matching drivers will provide any number of different combos, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and they all are well balanced without any one being a superior choice to the others. Learning to master each kart as well as combination of drivers is a process that can take you months and provides seemingly endless replayability.
As for the glitches prevalent in Mario Kart 64, here everything runs smoothly with a polish that shows that someone actually play-tested the game before release. You won't be able to hop over walls or launch yourself from one rainbow road track to another anymore. Now the only shortcuts are those deliberately intended by the games designers. And even those shortcuts are more like alternative routes. There is no one path that you absolutely have to take in order to win.
The first thing you will notice about Mario Kart on the Gamecube is that the graphics have been given a major overhaul. In fact, we dare anyone to say that these graphics are not up to par with Mario Kart Wii's graphics. The game is beautiful to look at and rendered in true 3D for the first time. The frame rate is silky smooth. Be warned…going back to Mario Kart 64 after this may induce motion sickness.
The second thing you will notice is that there are more Karts and game modes to unlock than ever. As you have complete each race track, you will unlock bonuses such as other Karts, race tracks, and battle mode levels. Part of the fun of any Mario game is discovering and unlocking hidden items and Double Dash starts out with more content locked than unlocked. So for your first few outings you'll be unlocking things all over the place.
Some of this fun dissipates after you have unlocked everything, but this is where alternate modes of play come in to extend the life of the game. For starters, there is a time trial mode to let you compete against your own best times. This is really just a practice mode and not as much fun as an actual race, but it lets you race the course with minimum randomness involved from other drivers interfering with your attempt to set the perfect speed record for each course. Similarly, there is a versus mode to let you and your friend decide once and for all who is the better driver without anyone else to get in the way.
But the best bonus mode (and some would say the primary fun to be had in a Mario Kart game) has to be Battle Mode. Instead of racing, this is a duel between drivers competing not to finish first, but rather to be the last survivor. Upgraded from Mario Kart 64, there are now six maps instead of four.
Additionally, in Double Dash there are actually three Battle Modes to choose from. First is the traditional balloon battle in which players attempt to shoot one another with items and are 'killed' when they lose all three balloons. Second is 'Shine Thief' which is essentially a game of keep away in which players attempt to hold onto a 'shine' from Mario Sunshine for as long as possible and lose the shine if another player manages to hit them with an item. Lastly, 'Bomb Blast' is a new take on balloon battle in that instead of using regular items you use only bombs that can be thrown or set behind you. Instead of automatically dying at three hits as in balloon battle, players can get back some of their life by hitting the other player with a bomb. In this way, a battle can last for much longer and is in some ways more strategic. It is a shame that Bomb Blast was not carried over to Mario Kart Wii, as such it can only be enjoyed here.
A curious design choice in the battle mode courses is that, with few exceptions, the maps feel smaller and flatter. Gone is the sprawling block fort of Mario Kart 64. In its place is a tiny, claustrophobic map that doesn't even allow you to drive up on top of the blocks. The idea behind smaller maps was to make the game more exciting for the small number of players available in local play. As exciting as the large maps in Mario Kart 64 were, a lot of time was spent just driving around looking for your opponent. Nintendo made the conscious choice to shrink the battle mode maps this time around so as to force the players together into a more frantic match. Many old timers will not appreciate this change and will wonder why, with these fancy new graphics, are most of these maps simply flat, two-dimensional planes with no obstacles.
Another downside to Battle Mode on Double Dash is that there are no computer AI players to play against. This was a noticeable weakness at the time of its release and is even more so now that the game is in competition with Mario Kart Wii which does allow for computer players in Battle Mode. Even so, for some fans of the series this is a blessing in disguise as Mario Kart Wii does not allow you to play battle mode without a full room of players, whether they be online human players or local computer controlled players. If you want to play head to head with just you and your friends to see who is best, you won't have that option in Mario Kart Wii but you can do it in Double Dash.
Worse, although Mario Kart: Double Dash was one of the only Gamecube games to feature online play, the accessory required to make it happen means that most players never got to experience online play and it is even less likely to happen now. This means that you are limited to playing locally unless you and someone else have a broadband adapter for the Gamecube. But in this day and age of online gaming for the Wii, jumping through these hoops to play online feels downright archaic.
Mario Kart is a staple in the Nintendo library and Double Dash is a worthy successor to that tradition. This franchise pre-dates the Smash Bros. franchise and for many Nintendo fans this is the must have multi-player title on any system. As a result, Mario Kart Double Dash enjoyed tremendous success on the Gamecube and was even included in a bundle with the system at one point. Nevertheless, the game has lost some of the edge that it had in its first two outings and shows fewer innovative ideas here. This time around the game was mostly about better graphics and less buggy programming with a few gimmicks thrown in like having two drivers instead of one. As a result, Double Dash is not the most recommended Mario Kart game in the franchise. But compared to other games in general it's still one heck of a ride.