[7 January 2004]
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is Nintendo’s much-anticipated third entry into the Mario Kart saga. The series began on the Super Nintendo system, and all three games have featured Mario and his crew racing go-carts with a comedic bent. Something of an antithesis to games like Midnight Club, with their photorealism and gritty real world feel, the Kart games feature races which rarely exceed 45 miles per hour and our favorite Mushroom Kingdom characters are always portrayed with their usual comic art.
Just because you’re putting along about as fast as you might drive in a residential neighborhood doesn’t mean the gameplay doesn’t get intense at times. Rather than relying on tight turns at breakneck speeds, however, the gameplay centers much more on combatative items you pick up along the track. All pulled from the Mario mythology, using these items well often determines victory more so than pure racing skill. You can casually use a mushroom (the same kind that back in the 1980s made Mario “super”) for a short boost, or you can hold onto it until you can use that boost to knock someone else right off the racetrack. This game is not for those looking for a nice relaxing drive. Far from it—you’ll find yourself riding on the edge of your seat as you near the finish line with competitors right on your tail.
Or, I should say, you and your partner will both find yourselves on the edges of your seats. Because the best part about Double Dash!! is definitely not the single player mode. The major improvement this sequel brings is its cooperative mode. While its predecessors’ popularity always relied on fierce battle games, Double Dash!! allows you to stack two players on one cart. In this mode, one person handles the driving while the other dishes out the items (as well as handling some more “finesse” elements, like ensuring a speed boost after every turn). One GameCube and TV will allow a split screen mode so you can play with up to four people (on anywhere from two to four carts, depending on who wants a teammate). If you’re really ambitious, you can even hook up some GameCubes in a local area network, allowing access to the eight-player mode.
And this is where Double Dash!! really shines. Four people, one GameCube, and one TV is nothing but a recipe for good times. Whether you prefer duking it out in a battle game or just plain old racing, you’re guaranteed to have a barrel of laughs. In an age where it would be difficult to find four people to discuss a book (at least one not recommended by Oprah) or even to play a board game, I can always find four people up for Double Dash!!. I’ve even had people coming out of the woodwork to play—individuals who claim they hated all videogames would sit down for a three-hour marathon once they got started.
The ESRB rating of E means that you can play Double Dash!! with your little sisters, brothers, or even your grandparents. While the media pundits and political action groups are up in arms about video game violence and the video game industry is responding by saying they can make whatever they damn-well please, Nintendo has decided to sidestep the entire issue. This game is arguably more violent than most racing games, but it’s also so abstract and ludicrous that it becomes a complete non-issue. It’s pretty difficult to imagine someone getting reasonably upset about a princess crashing into a gorilla, or someone suing Nintendo because a teenager decided to chuck a green turtle shell at one of his friends.
Similar factors place it out of the reach of cultural critics like myself. While some would say that all art is political, and video games, as an art form, must then also be political, they would have to dig awfully deep in Double Dash!! to find politics worth discussing. It can certainly be done by anyone willing to try hard enough—everything present in this game from the number of female characters (although one has to wonder if Yoshi the dinosaur or Boo the ghost have determinable genders) to the representation of Italians have been tackled in cultural mediums by critics before. But really, Nintendo has included just enough foolishness here that any attempt to discuss the politics of a giant piranha plant causing a toadstool’s go-cart to slip by dropping a banana peel couldn’t possibly be held without permeating laughter.
And this is the pure, simple genius of Mario Kart, and, more largely, Nintendo. As Looney Tunes once approached violence in film by making it comedic and absurd, Nintendo now does the same with video games. Although with titles like Double Dash!! they restrict themselves to being seen largely as a console for “kids” (in contrast to the more “adult” Xbox or PlayStation 2), they avoid the entire zeitgeist around videogame violence and just how “real” games are allowed to be. In a fantasy world where critics got extremely bored or all the big-name Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt scandals disappeared in the near future, they might turn their heads to the likes of Double Dash!!. But for now, I think Nintendo will get away unscathed by providing what is, by comparison: good, clean fun.