Nintendo DS Review: Mario Kart DS

Mario Kart, the often imitated but never duplicated kart racer is back, as strong now as it was in its debut 13 years ago. This time the DS's dual screens add much to the already polished game.

Arguably the most highly anticipated DS game this year, Mario Kart DS is now on store shelves. From what I have seen though, it is keeping the stock boy busy. Everyone wants a copy.

Mario Kart DS is the first Wi-Fi enabled game on the Nintendo DS. That might be the main hook, but certainly is not the only reason to pick up this hot title.

The web site statistical tracking is similar to Bungie.net (Halo 2). While not as involved, it is more then I expected. However, I would like to see even more statistics tracked. Tony Hawk's American Sk8land (the only other Wi-Fi DS game at present) shows a lot more information and is a 3rd party title. Mario Kart DS should have a stronger showing online.

The Gaming Hub integration on NintendoWiFi.com is astonishing to say the least - especially since Nintendo has no track record for this type of online play. The website is a joy to use.

Unlike the PSP, the Wi-Fi software is on the DS game cartridge, not in the handheld's memory. What this means is that your copy of Mario Kart DS is paired to your DS the first time you setup Wi-Fi in the game. If you take the game to a new DS, you would have to erase the Wi-Fi settings and start over.

Nintendo Wi-Fi supports most wireless routers and supports WEP (Wired Equivalency Privacy). I was able to connect at McDonald's (no WEP) and in my apartment (128-bit WEP) with equal ease. You have three slots available to save different Wi-Fi settings.

If you do not have a wireless connection you can use the $35 Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector. You will need a PC running Windows XP and a broadband connection. With Tony Hawk's American Sk8land out now, Animal Crossing: Wild World, and Metroid Prime Hunters on the way, the USB Connector may be a good investment if you do not have wireless Internet in your home.

The Nintendo Wi-Fi USB Connector is not Mac compatible. At least that is the official line. It comes with software drivers written for Windows XP. Whether you can use it on a Mac remains to be seen. I would like to see the issue of Mac compatibility addressed by Nintendo.

Game play is handled on the top screen with a well-designed HUD (Heads Up Display). Sometimes the choice of font can be a problem on a small screen like the DS or PSP. The text is big enough and well defined so you don't have to guess. Game play is fast and smooth - online and off. There are no lag issues to worry about here.

Once on the track you see where Mario Kart DS becomes its very own Mario Kart title. The bottom touch screen not only displays a handy overhead map, but also on the left a column shows what place you are relative to all other opponents. You can also see what weapons they are carrying. If you tap the screen it turns to an overall map of the track.

Players who utilize the touch screen by glancing down to it will come out ahead every time. It truly makes the second screen invaluable to the game. In fact, you could race entirely using the overhead map. It shows not only the other players around you, but hazards, weapon boxes, and most importantly, where those shells are flying! Placing banana peels for opponents has never been this much fun.

When you first start Mario Kart DS you are asked to provide a nickname, your DS nickname is input by default. This name is used both in single and multiplayer games. You then have the opportunity to create an Emblem. This is a great feature as it gives you the chance to personalize both your kart and avatar while on the track.

It is easy to create this Emblem using your stylus given the paint interface. Think Microsoft Paint. There are about 30 predefined shapes and 15 colors to choose from. With the drawing tools I created a BGSU Falcons logo. When in multiplayer games you see this avatar above the head of your opponents.

At the onset of the game you can choose from eight characters; four more can be unlocked. Each character starts with two karts, but many more are unlocked as you progress though the single player portion of the game. Once you achieve a low enough time in Time Trials mode, developer ghost characters are unlocked, pushing you even more to beat the best time.

Other then Time Trials, single player Mario Kart DS has four additional modes: Grand Prix, Vs, Battle, and Missions.

Online via Wi-Fi only has Grand Prix. No real “lobby” system exists either. You just have the choice of what type of opponents to face: regional, worldwide, friends, or rivals. Picking rivals will pair you with players of similar skill level.

Where Mario Kart: Double Dash!! strayed into unknown territory, Mario Kart DS returns to its roots with driving mechanics from a couple titles in the series. What you get is classic Mario Kart game play that looks similar to the N64 version.

Mario Kart DS introduces three new weapons that add to the strategy and fun factor. Bloopers spray black ink all over opponent's screens that are in front of you. Bullet Bill will briefly transform you into a Bullet Bill that plows through everyone, but also runs on autopilot. Lastly there are Bob-ombs that explode on contact or after a brief pause and cause damage to all opponents in the blast radius. All are great editions but my favorite is Blooper.

The weapon effects in Mario Kart DS look amazing. Animation is crisp and detailed, from the characters to the karts. The stereo effects sound great on the DS speakers. Mario Kart DS has that same up-beat music we have come to expect from the series. With this fifth release, the tunes border on memorable, if not only because of nostalgia.

Mario Kart has always been an easy and fun game to pick up and play. You don’t even have to be a “gamer” to have a blast. This is part of the reason it has been so successful for more then a decade. Local and Wi-Fi multiplayer on the DS is no different. You will be online throwing banana peels at someone from across the room to across the globe in no time.

The single player side of Mario Kart DS is great entertainment too. It is not all about multiplayer.

  • Grand Prix is broken into two sets of four cups comprising 32 tracks total. Half of these tracks are new to the DS, the other half are a "best of" selection from the SNES, N64, GBA, and GameCube versions of Mario Kart. Some of the classic tracks have been tweaked for the DS. The shortcuts found in the GameCube tracks have been removed. This follows the "back to basics" feel of Mario Kart DS. I personally do not have a problem with that at all. The new tracks created for the DS really feel new, and are of a higher quality. They just feel meatier, with nicely varied level design.
  • Time Trial is a great way to learn the new tracks and brush up on the classic ones. Your best time is saved as ghost data on every successive completion of a track. You can share this ghost data with friends via local wireless play. Developer ghost data can be unlocked allowing you to test your skills against the development team. Ghosts take full advantage of the overhead map on the bottom screen. Different colored hash marks show the rout of the ghost character, as well as powerslides and jumps. This is yet another great use of the dual screens of the DS.
  • Vs mode pits you against the CPU. Oddly, player avatars are used in this mode. It is neat to see the avatar for Donkey Kong and the like. Nevertheless it seems misplaced, as this is a single player mode.
  • The two Battle mode games are a lot of fun, especially multiplayer. In Balloon Battle you have to burst your opponents balloons with weapons. To inflate your balloons you simply blow into the DS’s mic. Shine Runners tasks you with collecting and stealing Shines from opponents. Players with the least amount of Shines get booted as the game goes on. The big let down here is that you cannot play Battle mode games online via Wi-Fi. It is unfortunate, but does not mar your online experience in the least.
  • Lastly there is a single player Mission mode. There are six stages all comprised of eight levels plus a boss battle. There is even a seventh stage to unlock. The levels require you to perform tasks before time runs out. These include things such as "collect 10 coins," "drive through 8 numbered gates in order," and "perform 4 power-slide turbo boosts in 1 lap." Most are fun yet some are downright annoyingly difficult. These may take days to complete. The best part of this mode is that you learn how to play the game by progressing through the missions. They are also a fun diversion from racing. With 54 stages (plus locked stages), this adds a lot to the single player experience. I enjoy Mission mode because it is a fun change of pace.

As mentioned previously, playing online - local and Wi-Fi - is painless. For local play, choose Multiplayer from the main menu. Then either create or enter a Group. Local opponents join and play begins. One note about single cartridge multiplayer: those without the game are limited to Shyguy for their player character, and a select list of tracks. Still, eight player Download Play with a single cartridge is a terrific feature.

Using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection you can play with up to three other people worldwide. Setting up a match takes on average one to one and a half minutes. If it takes any longer, you will be paired with one or two other people. Before the first match, and between matches you vote on a track to use. The track is then selected at random based on the player’s votes. You are limited to 20 of the 32 tracks online. Some people have been complaining about this. I think 20 tracks for Wi-Fi play are plenty for a game like Mario Kart.

I have experienced a couple disconnects while in game. An error message is displayed and you are dropped out to the “lobby” screen. This is aggravating, but it is handled well. There is no way to tell if someone willingly disconnected or got bumped out because of connection problems. There is also no stat to track user disconnects. There should be. Players should also be penalized for quitting a game just because they were losing.

The one major downfall to Wi-Fi gaming in Mario Kart DS is that you cannot share your 12 digit Friend Code with others you play against. You have to share your Friend Code offline. This defeats the purpose of finding people online that you like to game with. The Friend Codes are great if you find a bunch of people locally or you share them via email or the like. Although Nintendo does not want you sharing your Friend Code online. This is very limiting, especially when you see Xbox gamertags displayed all over the place. In that same vain you cannot share ghost data online either. This feature is for local multiplayer only.

Even more frustrating is the limit of the Friend Roster (36) and limit to available slots for saving other people's ghost data (10). You might not think this is an issue, but imagine living around a campus that has a lot of Nintendo DS owners who have Mario Kart DS. These limitations are most likely due to storage space on the DS cartridge.

Given that Mario Kart is the greatest kart series ever made, Mario Kart DS is the best kart game ever produced. Superb production values have been poured into both the single and multiplayer experience equally well. Neither feels like it got the short end of the stick. Mario Kart DS has limitless replay value no matter if you are deprived of the Internet or not. No game is perfect, however the few shortcomings to gripe about do not prevent Mario Kart DS from becoming an instant classic.

This game is one of three reasons I bought a Nintendo DS (the other two being Sonic Rush and Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow) and should be a system seller if you are still on the fence. I highly recommend that you buy this game. You can even purchase the “Red Hot Rod” Nintendo DS bundled with Mario Kart DS.

Mario Kart DS is a rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

5 out of 5 stars out of 5 out of 5 stars

Comments (11)

LKM:

Gah! Cruel! I have to wait another week or so to get my Mario Kart fix! Oh well, I bought Metroid Prime Pinball to survive until then. Which is great, by the way.

Sorry, I really am. But it is worth the wait! And Metroid Prime Pinball is a good game. We got a review copy in the newsroom. But I don't think I would play it now that I have MKDS. I don't even touch Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow since I picked up MKDS.

LKM, when you get the game, we will have to exchange Friend Codes.

LKM:

So I couldn't wait. I got an import version. It's tough, being a DS owner. There are too many good games right now! I bought Tony Hawk's three on friday, and I bought Mario Kart on saturday, and between playing Mario Kart, Tony Hawk's, Metroid Prime Pinball, Castlevania and a bit of Trauma Center, I hardly have the time to feed my poor Nintendogs anymore :-D

Actually, I've pretty much only been playing MK:DS since I got it. It's simply the definitive Mario Kart game. It has everything that made all the other Mario Kart games great, and then some. There's so much stuff in this game, it's unbelievable. I didn't really get to the online part yet (I tried it out once - I won, but two of the three other guys dropped out when they got too far behind, which is a pity), there's so much stuff to do in single player mode. I mean, Metroid Prime Pinball and Tony Hawk's are both amazing games. Any other day, I wouldn't do anything else but play them, but Mario Kart simply blows every other game away. I could go on and on about the handling of the karts and about how the car stats influence your strategy and about how well-designed the courses are and about how they managed to even re-create the Gamecube courses without taking too much away, but I don't have time. I need to go back to playing.

Oh, and my friend code is 236-282-899-221, but I don't know about how the lag is if you're playing people from other continents... Hopefully not too bad. Don't know how often I'll be online during the next few days, though, I think I will to play through the grand prixes and try to unock most stuff before playing too many online matches.

LKM:

uhm... instead of "I bought Tony Hawk's three on friday", I meant to say "three days ago on friday", but then I noticed that I wasn't sure whether friday was three days ago, and I didn't have time to find out since I needed to go back to playing mario kart, but then I didn't delete the whole "three days ago" part and didn't re-read it since I, uhm, yeah. mario kart. no time. :-)

Heh, yea, I agree about the "Mario Kart DS - No TIme" mantra. If you take a second look at this review, you will see that it is changed drastically. It took me a couple days to polish it so it was good enough to put up on Blogcritics. It took me so long because the game is so damn addicting to play =P

My friend code is: 120 318 556 048.

Hope to see you online?

And Nintendo can kiss my ass about sharing Friend Codes. That is just lame.

Since you how have Tony Hawk's American Sk8land, what is your friend code for that game?

Mine is: 176 153 294 437.

LKM:

my sk8land friend code is 502 570 793 440. I've added your codes to Mario Kart and Tony Hawk's. Hopefully there's some overlap in our gaming times :-)

I'm wondering about why Nintendo discourages (or even forbids) publishing friend codes. I can't see what you can do with them. I guess it must have got something to do with pedophiles or something going after kids playing Nintendo games, but I can't figure out how that should work. You can't do anything with a friend code. You can't even contact somebody if you only know his friend code.

I'm thinking about launching a community site for DS online players. I guess an important feature would be that you could enter a user name you've seen, and the game in which you've seen it, and it would give you some way to contact the owner of the name so you could exchange friend codes... I'm wonderin why nobody has done anything like that yet. Maybe Nintendo goes after those who try? But what law is there to keep somebody from doing this? Weird.

If you can't share your friend code, doesn't that defeat like 90% of the purpose? I mean, there's no in-game chat for either of the online games, so what's the worry?

I'm finally caught up with the world. Mario Kart code (for the tim being likely) is:

403 787 341 581

shayne:

hay if you want to add me to your friends list for mario mine is 386-607-473-147

My Animal Crossing WW Friend Code is: 2105-1665-0075.

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