[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]
Well, I've had Mario Kart DS for a while now, and I'm reaching the end of my tether on the single player game experience, so I thought I'd post my final impressions of the game.
I'll start with the title. The game's called Mario Kart DS. That's all. The DS does not stand for anything above and beyond the title of the gaming machine. They didn't try to call it Mario Kart: Dust Strikers or Dual Strike or Dawn of Sorrows or Deadly Silence or any other clever or not so clever extension of the letters "D" and "S". So big points for that. Yay Nintendo.
Right, so now that we've established that the name's relatively pretension-free, we can move onto the gameplay. There's essentially three single player modes: a grand prix, a mission mode, and a battle mode.
The "main" single player game is the tried and tested Mario Kart race formula: a series of grand prix style "cups", each featuring four races. You can choose from 12 familiar Mario-style characters (four of whom are unlockable), and then pick one of that character's karts (a choice of two to start with, expanding to some ridiculous amount through unlocking). Each character and each kart has different strengths and weaknesses, including their weight, their speed, their handling, and the average quality of items they find on the track. Bowser, for example, is a high-speed powerhouse, but a little slow to start and awkward on the corners, whereas Toad is annoyingly nippy with a tendency to lose ground on the straights.
There are eight cups of four tracks each (that's 32 tracks in all). Half the tracks, collected in "retro" cups, are re-issues of tracks from the last four iterations of Mario Kart, including favourites like the Mario Circuit from the original SNES game and the Baby Park from the Gamecube. The other half are new tracks, which are a little more hit and miss; some tracks like DK Pass and Delfino Square are a load of fun, whereas some others like the notorious Rainbow Road are just a pain. (Though it's worth mentioning for veterans of the older games that this time round the Road is a walk in the park compared to its last outings - it's not hard now, just dull.)
As always with Mario Kart, the gameplay involves driving the track using very simple controls, and attempting to improve your position by the use of items scatterered around the track, and by controlled drifting and boosting around corners. The items include such things as red koopa shells which function like homing missiles, banana peels which can be dropped to foul races behind you, or mushrooms which give a brief speed boost. The more you're losing by, the better the items you get are, so there's a constant rubberbanding which feels good when you're learning or playing someone a lot better, but can be a bit frustrating when someone you've outperformed all race nips the victory which a cheap Bullet Bill at the last second.
Boosting bears mentioning, though, largely because it very nearly wrecks the game. This isn't the first time this game element's been included in Mario Kart, but it's the first time I've really appreciated how annoying it is. Basically, it works as follows - when you turn through a corner, the best way to do it is to do what's effectively a handbrake turn, allowing you to "drift" through the corner. While drifting, you have the opportunity to waggle the D-Pad left and right very quickly. If done sucecssfully, your wheels spark orange, and when you come out of the drift you gain a quick burst of speed which makes up the speed you lost on the corner and then some. It's so effective, that it's essential for mastering the game - on the top difficulty, you absolutely have to boost at least once on every corner, and sometimes twice.
But it gets worse - the speed boost is so significant that on straights, instead of just accelerating like mad, it's actually more effective to drift back and forth across the track, boosting like crazy. The speed gain makes up for the snaking motion, and will outperform a racer just driving normally. To play at the top level, you spend almost the entire race holding the drift button and waggling your thumb on the D-pad. I've almost ruined my wrists doing this online - I wish there was an option to have a race with boost disabled. Item use and course positioning largely become irrelevant in the face of the mad thumb wiggling; which is a shame, because those are the best bits of Mario Kart.
Boost-snaking aside, the grand prixs are pretty fun. There's more, though. The second gameplay mode is a mission mode, which challenges you to complete certain tasks, such as "collect 5 coins" (which are laid in certain pattern on the track), or "drive through six numbered gates in order". You're ranked on performance factors (usually speed) to get a rating for each mission. Every ten missions culminate in a boss fight with a classic Mario boss rendered in Mario Kart style - for example, you're challenged to race the giant Goomboss from Mario 64 DS around the Baby Park - but the Goomboss cheats by stepping over the median strip! There's no real point to Mission mode as far as I can tell - it doesn't unlock anything or have any plot - but it's kind of fun and the boss battles are truly excellent. There's about 80 missions in all, by the looks of things.
Lastly is the classic Battle mode, featuring the Balloon Battle and Shine Runner modes from the Gamecube. Here you're placed against other karts in an arena-style level and challenged to use items to take out or otherwise frustrate the other karts. This has always been my favourite Mario Kart mode, and so I'm a little disappointed to see only two battle modes and only a handful of courses. Where's Bob-omb Battle? Where's King of the Hill? Where's Capture the Flag? Still, what there is remains solid.
No discussion of Mario Kart DS would be complete without mentioning multiplayer. I have to say I haven't had the chance to try out Multi-Card play against other people who are physically close to me, but I have thoroughly explored the online options, thanks to me DS Wi-Fi USB connector.
Online play is excellent; it's well implemented and almost lag free. But it's not without its disappointments. Firstly, online play is limited to grand prix. That's right - no battle mode. I can't fathom this omission - it strikes me as just plain bizarre, and a little sad. I assume you can play battle mode multi-card, but I would have loved to go global with it. And secondly, of course, everyone else in the world is better than me. I can go nuts breaking my fingers with drift boosting and I still lose an awful lot. At least it's not on the PSP or I would have gone into terminal hand cramps long ago.
There are several online match finding options. "Friends" allows you to match against people whose friend codes you have. There is no way to trade friend codes in game (this is deliberate to protect minors from online predators, apparently) and as far as I can tell no way to tell when your friends are online short of trying to start a game with them, so I haven't had any joy from that mode yet. "Regional" matches you against players from your region (which I assume for me is Australia). I've yet to find anyone else actually using that mode, so I've never had a regionial match. And "Worldwide" effectively dumps you into a match against the first three players it finds, out of everyone looking for a game in the world. It might just be that I'm playing at Australian hours, but considering I'm searching "everyone", it takes me a damn long time to find players. Often I'm forced to go with only one or two opponents as we can't find a fourth.
That's worth noting, by the way - although you can race eight players in single player or multi-card play, it's limited to four online. I don't know whether that's a technical limitation or just a wierd design decision, but it's another small frustration. I suppose given my luck to date in even finding four players, I'd never find eight in any case, but still. Also, in passing, it's worth saying that Mario Kart doesn't have the voice chat support that Metroid Prime Hunters has implemented. In fact, Mario Kart doesn't support chat of any kind - not even a "good game" button for when someone hands your butt to you. Sometimes it feels a little like I'm not playing other people, just a spotty AI. The only sort of communication you can engage in comes in the form of your "icon", which is a little picture that you can draw yourself in an included pixel-paint application. Your icon appears over your head in multiplayer games.
I know I'm picking a lot of holes in the game, so it's worth saying that despite all its niggles, Mario Kart DS is far and away the best multiplayer handheld title I have ever played, Liberty City Stories notwithstanding. Its online implementation is a great first step into the obvious future of handhelds, and it's a ton of fun no matter what mode you're in. It picks up everything that's always made Mario Kart great and is probably the best ever released in the series.
Now, it's almost certain there's a Wii version of Mario Kart in development right now, so can I just shout out a message to any designers out there that stumble across this - forget about drift boosting. Just take it out, and get back to the item-focused, skill-light gameplay that we know and love. And for Jeebers' sake, give us more support for battle mode!
Once more, my Friend Code is: 210523 733451