Mario Kart DS’ solid gameplay, engaging single-player and strong multiplayer features result in an engrossing title that no DS owner should miss.
Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the old saying goes. Therefore, it shouldn’t be very surprising that there is a myriad of Mario Kart clones. Ever since Super Mario Kart came out for the SNES back in 1992, multiple developers have tried to duplicate the exact experience. There have been good clones (Crash Team Racing, Konami Krazy Racers, Diddy Kong Racing) and lackluster ones (Sonic R, Pac-Man World Rally, Chocobo Racing,) but none of them were able to capture the qualities that make the Mario Kart series so unique. To a certain extent, it feels like Mario Kart DS imitates itself, combining the best features of each iteration. Nevertheless, the game’s solid gameplay, engaging single-player and strong multiplayer features result in an engrossing title that no DS owner should miss.
In terms of single-player modes Mario Kart DS has everything you’d expect and much more. The traditional Grand Prix is here and it’s better than ever. In Grand Prix mode, players choose the class they want to participate in (50cc, 100cc or 150cc,) one of multiple characters from the Mario series (which include Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Toad, Donkey Kong, Wario, Bowser, Daisy, Dry Bones and Waluigi) and a kart. Each kart has its unique set of attributes, including speed, acceleration, weight, handling, drift and items. Naturally, different karts adjust to different styles of play and you’ll definitely have a favorite kart (mine is B Dasher.)
Once you have chosen a class, racer and kart you need to select a cup. There are eight cups to choose from: four of them are part of the Nitro Grand Prix and the other four are part of the Retro Grand Prix. Nitro Grand Prix includes a collection of new courses, while Retro Grand Prix features a selection of classic courses that have been featured in other Nintendo platforms. Additionally, there are courses based on popular titles such as Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion, to name but a few. Both the classic tracks and the new ones are masterfully designed and fans of the series will be delighted to revisit classic courses and discover some new ones.
Apart from Grand Prix, there are many other single-player modes. In Time Trial, you race against the clock and your best lap is saved in the form of a ghost, so that you can compete against yourself later on. In Versus, you race against up to seven opponents and you can choose a class, difficulty of the opponents, courses and even divide the racers into two teams.
Then there’s Battle Mode, a straight-up competitive mode that consists of two minigames: Balloon Battle and Shine Runners. In the former, your objective is to burst your opponents’ balloons with items and you lose when you run out of balloons. In the latter, you need to collect more Shine Runners than the rest of the racers, but to make things more interesting, players can steal items from each other. Over time, the player with the least number of special items is kicked out of the game and the competition continues until there’s a winner. Both of these minigames are inventive and engaging, but they are much more fun to play with friends than with AI opponents. In terms of single player modes though, one of the most creative ones is definitely Mission Mode.
As its name indicates, Mission Mode allows you to undertake a wide variety of missions. Missions require you to drive through numbered gates in order, get all the coins in the allotted time or destroy multiple item boxes. After you’ve completed all the missions in a given level, you unlock a boss stage where you need to do something specific to defeat the creature, such as hitting the boss’ weak points with green shells or knocking the boss off the stage. Overall, missions add variety to the tried-and-true formula and they are much more entertaining than just reaching the finish line before your opponents.
From a gameplay standpoint, Mario Kart DS incorporates a couple of inviting additions. One of the most useful ones is power-slide, a special movement that can be performed by drifting and then rapidly alternating between the left and right buttons. After a few seconds of doing this (it depends on the chosen kart,) the tires will start emitting orange sparks. If you stop pressing the drift button at that precise moment, your racer will gain boost for a limited amount of time. Naturally, perfecting this technique can be the difference between winning and losing a race.
Moreover, a few adjustments were made to capitalize on the DS’ bottom screen. The bottom screen is put to great use, since not only does it show the outlay of the circuit, but also the position of opponents, obstacles, items and item boxes. Theoretically, you can race only by looking at the bottom screen and still finish in a respectable position.
In addition to classic items such as red shells, green shells and banana peels, three new items have been added. Bob-omb is a bomb that causes an explosion and slows down all the enemies that are affected by its blast. Then there’s Blooper, a flying squid that squirts black ink on your opponents’ screens, causing loss of vision. Finally, Bullet Bill temporarily transform you into a flying bullet that drives automatically, knocking over anyone in your path. It’s worth pointing out that the most devastating items are awarded to those racers who have fallen behind, providing the game with a great sense of balance. Therefore, most races feel really fair and entertaining, even to those who are just learning the game’s basics.
Finally, there are a couple of multiplayer modes that can be played both locally or via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Although this isn’t very surprising by today’s standards, Mario Kart DS was one of the first Nintendo DS titles that could be played online. Setting up the connection isn’t as easy as it should be, but playing with or against people from all over the world is definitely worth it.
In the end, not only is Mario Kart DS one of the best titles in the series, but also one of the greatest racing games ever made. The finely tuned controls, colorful visuals and convincing sense of speed make the experience nigh irresistible. There may be countless clones, but Mario Kart DS is miles ahead of the competition.