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Mario Kart DS

 The Mario Kart franchise has come a long way since the original Mario Kart made its debut on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1992. Our favourite plumber went 3D with the Nintendo 64, and portable with the Gameboy Advance in Mario Kart Super Circuit. The Gamecube altered the form of the game, allowing two characters to board a Kart together and did away with the jump button. As you read this, thousands of racers are bashing each other with green shells and slipping on banana skins as they take their game to the global stage with the new Nintendo wi-fi connection, representing their country against the best in the world. No pressure, then.

The mechanics of Mario Kart DS are wonderfully simple Ė the top screen accommodates your primary racing view, while the bottom screen shows two different course maps with a quick tap to change between the two. It acts as a third eye on whatís going on in your area Ė itíll pick up shells hurtling towards you, course obstructions, and other racers. Picture this: itís one of those situations where two of you are hurtling towards the finish line and youíre in front. You donít know where heís going to pass you and whether you can cross the line before he does. The bottom screen, however, knows all. Glance down and you can clearly see that Princess Peach is attempting to overtake on your right, prompting you to block her path and finish victorious. In other games the course map acts as an indicator of rankings and which direction you need to turn. In Mario Kart DS, itís your ally. Learning when to revert to the map is fundamental to success, and proper utilization can take your game to a new level.

Quality racing in Mario Kart DS isnít just about finishing first Ė itís also about how you deal with the surprises and hindrances along the way. You can be at the front of the melee going into the last bend and finish 5th because an overgrown mushroom wasted you with a red shell. Youíll be taking a corner like a king and Bowser will lightly brush your kart and send you flying. These of course, are typical of any Mario Kart game. But it seems to be intensified on Mario Kart DS: Pick up a Blooper, and youíll cover your enemiesí screens with a splash of black ink, making it all the more difficult to avoid those pesky cheep cheeps. Grab a Bullet Bill and youíll rocket from the back to the front, scattering plumbers and apes in neck-ties alike.

Although the bottom screen proves imperative at this point, itís a constant reminder that you have to expect the unexpected when playing Mario Kart DS. What you can expect though, is plenty of tracks (both old and new, for you nostalgia lovers), challenges (the new Ďmissioní mode sees you testing your Mario Kart abilities to the limit) and of course, characters. But not as much as Double Dash, which not surprisingly has about twice as many characters than Mario Kart DS. You have to work for them though - 8 different cups await, on the three typical speed settings plus the inevitable mirror mode, just to stretch your skills a bit further.

The courses are beautifully constructed and varied Ė who would have thought Luigiís mansion would make such a great setting for a Mario Kart race? Despite the age of the Mario Kart franchise, Nintendo can still dream up some classic courses Ė like Waluigi Pinball. Now, Waluigi hasnít lent his name to anything of much merit, and if he has to be remembered for something, let it be this. Waluigi Pinball is arguably one of the best Mario Kart courses ever created. Set on a tilting pinball table, you make your way downwards around a twisting track, drifting through corners and avoiding the big nasty pinball that is determined to give you a game over. Reach the bottom, and itís every man for himself as flippers, bollards and balls cover the floor. Itís a truly memorable Mario Kart experience - itís just a shame you canít take it with you online, as only 20 tracks are available and sadly, Waluigi Pinball isnít one of them. Each Kart has its own advanced set of statistics, more so than in previous MK games. Choosing a racer to fit your playing style is simpler than ever before, and you can even customize an emblem of your own design onto the kart which can be seen above your kart and by your name when you take your fight online.

The handling and controls of the karts are superb, and you can really notice the difference between a kart that specializes in drifting and another that may excel in acceleration. As well as the Grand Prix, Time Trials and Mission Modes, there is the ĎBattleí option where you can choose between two games Ė Shine Runners and Balloon Battle, the latter of which you have to burst other racers balloons while keeping yours in the air. Blow into the mic, and youíll inflate another of your remaining balloons. Itís a nice touch, but itís easier just to hold down select and get a better view of the course while you do. Shine Runners sees you collecting golden shines, enough to progress through each level of dismissal before just you and another racer remain. Itís a frantic battle of accuracy and pace as you aim to either smash more shines from your enemy or preserve your own. Both Battle modes take place in beautifully crafted custom-made arenas Ė ĎTart Topí has you bouncing around a creamy dessert treat, which will splodge onto your screen like Blooper ink if you hit it. Graphically, Mario Kart DS is a treat as well.

The surroundings of each track are still simple Ė enough to create an atmosphere and do justice to the diversity of the Mario World, while also reframing from cluttering up the screen with anything that might prevent you from racing properly. The characters are as charming as ever on the DS. Apart from that idiotic robotÖIíll say no more. Sound-wise, the beats and riffs are not far removed from its predecessors, and they donít need to be. When youíre fighting to stay on course in DK Pass, or licking your lips as you let loose a spiny shell, the music isnít something you really notice. It does, however, provide a quirky and at times atmospheric tune to accompany the track, which is all thatís needed. The racers will still snigger and cheer as they make their way around the course, so if Marioís voice got on your nerves in Double Dash, it will do again.

And now onto the big cheese, the cherry on Tart Top, the crucial mushroom to the finish line. Mario Kart Multiplayer online. Itís undoubtedly been the major selling point of the game, and something that needs to be successful in order for the Nintendo wi-fi usb connection to get off to a turbo start. As you venture online, DS in hand, palms sweaty Ė youíll notice 4 gameplay options available to you. These are Friends, Rivals, Continental, and worldwide. The Friends option will find you racers who you have exchanged friend codes with, whereas Rivals mode will pit you against those of similar skill level. This unfortunately, is flawed. Having just started my online conquest with an even number of wins to losses, I was pitted against somebody with over 1000 wins and under 100 losses. He wasnít really a rival, rather somebody with permission to hand me my ass on a platter. The Continental and Worldwide options allow you to play against people from your continent and globally.

Despite there being a reported 850,000 wi-fi users, it can still take a 2 minute wait before youíre matched, sometimes not even against the maximum 4 players the service accommodates. When you do get matched, your name, emblem, and wins/losses ratio is shown and you are all able to select a track, with the most popular being played. There are only 20 tracks to choose from however, and some of the better tracks like Waluigi Pinball and Tick-Tock Clock have been left out. The races take the form of a mini tournament, with a points tally and a winner decided after 4 races.

 Youíve heard of quitters, and online Mario Kart has them in abundance. Donít have enough points to win the tourney? Just quit to avoid the blemish on your record. Somebody sends you off-track? No problem, just quit and prevent them from getting the win they deserve. Absolute idiocy. There are no prizes for a Ďflawlessí record, so put up and play Ė everybody is there to have fun and if you canít keep your petulance under wraps then find something better to do which welcomes sour grapes and cry babies. Ranting aside, Mario Kart online really is an addictive experience, and utterly frantic. There is danger around every corner, with every item your enemy has a possible reason for you finishing last. Despite the drawbacks, Mario Kart online is a superb experience Ė just not the flawless one you hoped for.

Gameplay: More of the same, and more. It has always been a winning formula and Mario Kart DS takes the experience a step further with clever new items, well-crafted courses and in-depth kart mechanics.

Graphics: Some of the best the DS has to offer. Expect rich 3D environments that are consistent and fluent from the word go.

Sound: Not far removed from its predecessors, with voice-overs and background beats

Multiplayer: Fantastic, but flawed. Quitters can ruin your day, and the wait times can be lengthy.

Lifespan: The main Grand prix modes will have you entranced for a while, with a good few modes, karts and racers to unlock. The Battle and Mission modes add a new spin to the gameplay, and time trials are there as well. Itís lifespan will ultimately depend on how long you can stick it out in online play. From start to finish line, Mario Kart DS delivers the golden mushroom. Consistently brilliant tracks, varied karts and different modes are on show here, all with classic Nintendo panache. Itíll frustrate, excite and amaze you in ways you hadnít thought possible. Itís just a shame the online aspect can be ruined by quitters, but hey Ė once a quitter, always a quitter. Real winners will stick with it, and speaking of winners Ė you wonít steer off track with Mario Kart DS.


Review by Matthew Long © 2006

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