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Review: Mario Kart DS (NDS)

Posted in NDS,Racing,Reviews by Shawn Wallace on 26 2006f February 2006

What happens when Nintendo ports one of their most popular franchises to their DS handheld with all the game modes you know and love, old and new tracks AND includes support for wi-fi connectivity? Perhaps one of the best handheld gaming experiences out there.

As soon as gamers heard that Nintendo was releasing a new handheld that was more powerful than their successful GameBoy line of handheld consoles, they were scrambling to find out if a Mario Kart port was planned. When the port was confirmed, there was much rejoicing.

If you’ve never played a Mario Kart game before, shame on you! However, if this truly is your first time, you’re in for a treat. There’s really no storyline behind this game. It’s just good fun to scoot around nutty tracks in some wacky carts, flinging such items as Koopa shells and banana peels at your opponents, all in an attempt to finish each race in first place. “Is that all there is to it,” you may ask. Oh no… there’s much more.

The real beauty of this game is the balance that exists between the various racers, their carts, the tracks, and the weapons. MKDS isn’t just simply a race three laps, finish, move on-type experience. There’s actual depth to this game. Every cart has some attributes; speed, acceleration, weight, handling, drift and items. All of these attributes play a key factor in the game, and not only how racers interact with each other, but this also allows the gamer to choose which racer/cart combo fits him or her the best. Higher acceleration will see you off the line quicker. Lower weight means you’re going to get shot all over the track when opponents run into you.

It wasn’t until a few hours into the game that I realized it really was a process (and a fun one, at that) to find the racer/cart combo that best fit my driving style. I wreck… okay, I wreck a lot, so I needed a cart that could get back up to speed quick and had good handling. However, in choosing this type of cart, I get slung all over the track by the heavier racers as they skim by me with a not-so-gentle bump, so I have to watch for them as I race or I can go from second to fifth with a simple bump from Donkey Kong or Bowser.

“But, I’m playing this game on a DS… what’s the other screen used for?” Prior to races, you’ll make some selections, as far as tracks, racers, and carts using both screens (one screen for selections, the other to see what you’re selecting). Once you’re in a race, the top screen is used for primary racing (behind the cart view) while the bottom screen gives you in race data like player positions and upcoming turns on the track. I honestly find myself very rarely looking at the bottom screen, but it’s nice to have when I need to give it a quick glance to check on cart placements or incoming weapons.

Also, during your races, you’ll have access to various weapons to use on your opponents. You’ll have items like banana peels, which cause your opponents to spin out. Koopa shells (turtle shells, basically) of various types; some are dummy shells, so you have to be pointed at your opponent for them to hit. Others are smart shells, which will seek the opponent in front of you like a heat-seaking missile. Then there’s the blue shells… ah, the hated blue shells. I’ll let you play the game to find out what they do, but let me say, they’ve been the most cause for me to close the lid of my DS in disgust (only to open my DS one minute later to continue playing).

Your carts are broken up into three speed classes; 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. The higher the cc value, the faster the carts (and the tougher the opponents). To get a feel for the game, I’d recommend starting with 50cc and, once you know how the carts handle, you can move up then. You also have access to 16 new tracks and 16 “retro” tracks. The 16 new tracks are just as high quality as the previous Mario Kart tracks. The new Wario Stadium track and the DK Pass tracks are two of my favorites, and, in my mind, could be considered “new classics” (not to rip off TNT or anything). The retro tracks include tracks from the previous Mario Kart games on the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, GameBoy, Nintendo 64 and Gamecube platforms. This many different tracks just raises the bar as far as replayability.
Controls for the carts are very smooth. The feel is polished and takes no time at all to know how your cart’s going to react to various pushes and pulls. All previous iterations of Mario Kart have felt great, so it was no surprise when MKDS turned out the same way.

Multiplayer for MKDS is handled wirelessly, but there’s a couple great features that really pushes the envelope and takes the DS to the next level. Of course, if two, three or four people are all together and all have a copy of Mario Kart DS, they can link up wirelessly to play head to head matches. However, let’s say you don’t have anyone near you with a DS, but you still want to get some multiplayer action. If you have a wireless access point, that’s no problem! Simply set up your DS to find your wireless access point, and you can use the Nintendo Wifi service to locate other games in your country or across the globe to race with. Getting in races via Nintendo Wifi is a snap, so much so that it’s not uncommon for me to whip out my DS after lunch at a Wifi-enabled restaurant and get a couple races in with some other like-minded individuals. Don’t have a wireless access point? That’s okay, too. Nintendo also has a USB “key” that will plug into your internet-capable PC, creating a mini-hotspot for your DS to connect to so you can race online.

You’ll also have a friend code which you can distribute to your friends so they can easily find you in game (and vice versa). This way, you can keep tabs on your buddies, and quick jump into games with them, requiring minimal setup before you’re in it waist deep, bumping and grinding on the track. In the end, there’s really no excuse why you can’t play multiplayer MKDS with all the options you’re given by Nintendo.
The graphics are really very good, especially for a handheld game, but I really feel like it’s the audio that shines in this game. The stereo effects are fantastic, and it’s very easy to tell when an enemy cart is coming up behind without even looking at your secondary screen. I expected the audio to be good, but it’s really pushed up to the top of my favorites as far as features for this game. The audio has simply been executed so well that it takes the whole MKDS experience up a notch.

In closing, let me say that Mario Kart DS is a deep, rich experience, easily on par with the previous versions of the game. What makes MKDS so appealing is the ability to take the game with you. Not only that, you can play with others across the globe via wireless internet access. I’ve had plenty of handheld consoles before, but in all reality, MKDS is the first title that’s caused me to take my handheld with me pretty much everywhere I go. Do I need to be entertained all the time? Absolutely not. But, when you have the experience that is Mario Kart DS with you everywhere you go, it’d be a shame not to put it to good use. Mario Kart DS is easily one of the best games I’ve played this year, and perhaps my favorite title from Nintendo yet. Get this game today!

FINAL SCORE: 96/100 » REVIEWER: SHAWN WALLACE

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