The 2005 hit, Mario Kart DS, marked a new era for Nintendo and its long-running racing series. This particular iteration was released during a transitional phase for the company, with Nintendo beginning to rethink the conventions of gaming. Mario Kart on the DS mirrored this fresh approach, incorporating a portable online multiplayer experience that was accessible to the masses. Not only did this entry go on to become a flagship title for the DS, and one of the best-selling games on the system to match, but to this day it still stands as the second highest-selling Mario Kart of all-time, eventually beaten by its younger sibling, Mario Kart Wii, from the same generation of gaming.
With a newfound direction and plenty of accolades, it's clear the DS outing of Mario Kart had a significant impact on the series – arguably greater than that of any entry before it. The title reinvigorated a tried, tested and proven formula that fans had adored for years, and fuelled new life into the series with an even bigger emphasis on multiplayer. Players could now test their kart racing skills against the world. Of course, there was the elephant in the room – snaking – which acted as a vital lesson for Nintendo which was, at the time, still relatively new to the modern online games arena – but more on that later. So, with such a rich history, the question is – how successfully has Mario Kart DS transitioned into the Wii U Virtual Console library?
While the majority of the game has aged gracefully since 2005, unfortunately the setbacks are related to the limitations of the Virtual Console. Reality hits hard upon realisation that the core components of what made Mario Kart DS such a success – the local and online multiplayer – are no longer accessible. And with that, a very large portion of experience is gone, raising serious questions about appropriate titles for Nintendo's download collection.
With removal of the defining aspects of the original, what's left is a single player mode that offers a similar experience to fellow portable Virtual Console title, Mario Kart: Super Circuit for Game Boy Advance. Thankfully, the solo mode in the DS version is slightly more groundbreaking with the addition of a series first – Missions – where players test their skills in a series of driving challenges and face off against bosses, and a more enticing Battle mode – making use of CPU opponents and featuring two thrilling scenarios – called Shine Runners, and also the ability to blow balloons with the Wii U GamePad microphone (one of the few features that has remained intact in the Virtual Console port) in the standard Balloon Battle. Added to this is a VS mode against CPU players with plenty of track, kart and player customisation, a classic Time Trial mode (now limited to just the system and staff's ghosts), and then the usual Grand Prix mode with its familiar engine classes, while aiming for podium position and a three star ranking.
What remains of a stripped back version of Mario Kart DS is still admirable in terms of overall quality. There is plenty of content to work through as well, much like classic entries in the series. At its core, the DS version is a refined experience offering 36 karts, 12 diverse characters – not including the now unplayable Shy Guy (a Download Play exclusive) – and for the first time ever 16 retro tracks (excluding the GBA title which featured the entire catalogue of Super Mario Kart tracks) alongside 16 new tracks designed with the specifications of the DS in mind. And don't forget the new Missions mode broken into seven levels with each containing eight tasks ranging from coin collection, mini-turbo challenges and then the boss battles against archetypal Super Mario enemies.
One other feature still available in all of its glory in the Virtual Console port is the infamous snaking mechanic, where the player drifts and boosts repeatedly to gain a permanent speed boost. At the time of the original's release, this ability had a love / hate relationship with players – particularly in the online connected modes, with some players claiming it completely destroyed the game, while others believed it was a mechanic there to be taken advantage of. While snaking is still available in the Virtual Console re-release, the absence of online or any form of multiplayer makes this significantly less of an issue. The only advantages from snaking are now better lap times or getting the jump on the volatile CPU opponents.
In terms of course offerings, MKDS features some of the most memorable in the series, including the likes of Peach Gardens, Delfino Square and Cheep Cheep Beach. On release, there was no limit to the variety of retro offerings, ranging from SNES to GameCube tracks, including courses such as SNES Mario Circuit, N64 Moo Moo Farm, GBA Sky Garden and GCN Yoshi Circuit. The new and old selection of tracks are all well constructed, with thoughtful design and unique themes. They never become tiresome but only get better over time as players fine tune lap times with tighter lines around every bend.
The controls in the digital variant of MKDS are limited to the Wii U GamePad; fortunately the title's buttons are mapped appropriately to the GamePad's design. There is also the option to use an analogue stick, though traditionalists may find themselves sticking with the control pad. Either way works fine outside of snaking. The lower touch screen of the DS also fits perfectly on the GamePad. For Mario Kart, it's mostly useless outside of the emblem maker, which is still active.
The related screen settings in the Virtual Console menu also allow users to select from a left and right hand touch screen setting; users can choose between different displays as well. There are options to show both the touch screen and top screen on the television and mirror the picture on the GamePad, flip the screens left and right, display both screens in a vertical fashion mirroring on both screens, emulate the shell of the DS (again mirrored on both screens, which results in very small screens on the GamePad), and lastly, enlarge both screens on the respective television and GamePad.
Visually speaking, the portable MKDS does not exactly look flattering on a modern high definition television when upscaled. To compensate for the heavy amount of pixelation, Nintendo has thrown in a screen smoothing option, much like the one featured in GBA Virtual Console titles. The feature blurs over the pixels. Regardless, players are bound to find screen options they prefer, and one that suits their own setup. In the VC options there is also the standard save state feature and a full coloured instruction manual to flick through – although, as noted, many parts of the booklet may just be teasers for parts of MKDS players can no longer experience.
Lastly, the sound and music in Mario Kart DS carries across nicely to Virtual Console, with familiar music and sounds from the Mario series. These upbeat, nostalgic and catchy tunes are nicely mixed with a modern and cutting edge vibe that match the nature and period of the game.
When Mario Kart DS was originally released it was flawed perfection. Everything was in check, yet the key focus of the title – connectivity – was troubled by snaking which was rife throughout the title's entire lifespan. It acted as a vital learning lesson for Nintendo at the time. Despite this flaw – often deemed as a major error – this entry is still much loved by veterans of the series. In many ways the Virtual Console edition of Mario Kart DS has now created its own separate series of problems with a lack of local and online multiplayer.
As a result, Mario Kart DS rates as one of the most unfaithful Virtual Console recreations currently available within Nintendo's digital catalogue. This release is not necessarily a convincing start to the DS Virtual Console, either. The single player experience is still worth a look for casual observers of the series – providing a solid sample of what the original offered, but just be aware that, without the multiplayer, a fair chunk of content is missing, and the heart and soul of what made the game so brilliant during its prime is no longer there. Lighting strikes twice as Nintendo once again enter new territory, with new questions raised about what games should and should not be made available in Nintendo's Virtual Console collection. While the GBA Virtual Console iteration of Mario Kart also suffered the same fate with inaccessible multiplayer, the effects are magnified here due to the nature of Mario Kart DS and the era it was from.