Mario Kart is easily the most beloved offshoot franchise of the vast, franchise-making franchise that is Super Mario Bros. I spent many hours battling friends in the original SNES iteration, and have been a loyal fan ever since. After the alterations to the series that characterized the GameCube version, Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, I was interested to see how Nintendo would bring the game to the Nintendo DS. Would they try to rely too heavily on the touchscreen and microphone mechanics unique to the DS, or would they simply try to make another entry to the franchise.
As it turns out, Nintendo has essentially created a fitting continuation to the series by piecing together little bits and pieces from every entry in the franchise. Courses are available from the SNES, GBA, N64, and GameCube versions. The touchscreen is only used to navigate menus, and the microphone input (used to inflate balloons in the Battle mode) is completely optional. And although there are no longer two players per kart, as there were in Double Dash!!, what remains from that game is the ability to put the same character in a variety of different karts. As it is possible to eventually unlock any of the more than 30 karts in the game as selectable by any character, the amount of combinations provides a good deal of depth and strategy. I’ve found myself experimenting with various characters and karts recently to try and find the best combination for my particular racing style.
Classic weapons are all present here, and there are two additions. The first turns your character into a Bullet Bill and serves as both an autopilot and an invincible power-up. For a few seconds, you’ll fly up the course, taking out any opponents you happen to hit. The second is a Blooper Squid, and blots an opponent’s screen with ink. Although in single player mode this item causes an opponent to drive haphazardly, ostensibly because they can’t see, it proves fairly useless in multiplayer, as all one has to do to get through it is navigate solely by the ever present map screen that the DS provides.
Any discussion of Mario Kart DS must include thoughts on the online portion of the game. Given Nintendo’s previously dismissive approach to online gaming in general, the announcement that MKDS would be playable online for free was exciting news to many. Along with Super Smash Bros. and Metroid Prime, I can’t think of a Nintendo franchise that’s so readily adaptable to online play. That said, there are good things and bad about the online component of Mario Kart. I am of the opinion that the things I’d like to see are not missed opportunities per say, but rather a function of technical constraints. Given that the service is free, I’m happy to forgive them.
Although the racing is quite fun, and provides a challenge that is decidedly different from the one posed by increasingly difficult AI opponents, it’s unfortunate that the number of players in an online race is limited to four. I would imagine this is an effort to reduce lag and dropouts, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. With the popularity of this franchise, many cliques, including mine, are bound to have more than four friends with both Nintendo DS systems and Mario Kart DS cartridges. But there’s always DS-to-DS play, I suppose, which allows for up to eight players.
Mario Kart DS clearly indicates that Nintendo does not necessarily plan to have every game for the DS rely on the touchscreen and microphone input. Proving that it could serve as the GBA’s next-gen replacement, which Nintendo has claimed isn’t the case. Either way, given the loving inclusion of pieces from previous iterations, MKDS serves not only as homage to the franchise, but further as the definitive version.