Some racers have stories, some racers aim for pure speed, but no racing game out there focuses on the art of building the perfect track like Trackmania.
Quick, name a racing game for the Nintendo DS.
Okay, good, you said Mario Kart. Congratulations. Now name another one. I'll wait.
Wasn't so easy, was it?
A quick look at GameFAQs reveals that there are actually a whole pile of racing games for the DS. Unfortunately, most of them are niche titles and genre exercises, games released almost entirely for the sake of putting something with a recognizable brand on the DS. Remember the Burnout game for the DS? Right, neither did I and with good reason apparently. Need for Speed made its mark, Diddy Kong Racing showed up to flex a little bit of that Nintendo licensing power and even the Pokémon fans got their fix of racing at one point, even if there were no cars involved. The truth is that there really isn't a shortage of racing games on the DS. There is simply a shortage of memorable ones.
Trackmania DS is the latest racing game to show up on the people's portable, and it does enough things right to at least be in the conversation as the DS's second-most memorable racing game.
This is largely because Trackmania DS dares to do something different; well, different that is if you haven't touched the PC version of the game. Let's say for the sake of argument that you haven't. What a new player to Trackmania DS will notice right off the bat is that the very feel of a single Trackmania race is actually quite different than any other racing game out there. For one thing, most racing games make sure that a single race takes at least a minute; if a lap takes less than a minute, multiple laps will show up, and the player usually gets something close to a two-minute race. Trackmania, on the other hand, sticks to one lap, which in some cases can last less than 20 seconds. That's right, you can pick up the game, boot up the DS, hit start, race, and shut it back down again in under a minute.
Right off the bat this makes Trackmania DS an ideal bus ride game (or doctor's waiting room game, or standing at your locker between classes game) -- the playtime is as quick as any game out there, and who knows? Maybe that minute that you snuck in while your significant other was looking for the keys was worth a quick gold medal.
Adding to the appeal of the racing is the fact that the game looks great. It is another example of the DS doing three dimensions surprisingly well. The frame rate is seriously quick, and the car models are well-designed. Also important is the control, which is just about as tight as you could ever hope for. There is simply no lag between a button-push and a game response, putting the vehicles entirely under the player's control.
Still, after a few playthroughs, it's easy to be put off by what feels a little bit like sterility in the game design. There are three course types -- a traditional racetrack, a desert scene, and a rally car setup -- but while the cars differ from type to type, all of the cars racing at any given time look exactly the same as each other except for the different colors used to tell them apart. There's no personality in the cars, and there is no inherent personality in the environments either -- once you get used to them.
After a few more playthroughs, though, it clicks, because you're getting better and you're starting to see what the game has to offer: Trackmania DS is not about cars, or fancy environments, or even personal investment in your little avatar of a racer. Rather, it's about the tracks.
Given the name of the game, this should be an obvious and immediate leap to make, but it's not because almost every racer out there is either car-centric (e.g. Gran Turismo) or environ-centric (e.g. Midnight Club L.A.). Some racers have stories, some racers aim for pure speed, but no racing game out there focuses on the art of building the perfect track like Trackmania. The first time you do an upside-down loop yo'll feel the thrill. The first time you pull off a perfect jump you'll beg those two tiny little screens for more. And the best part is, even if you take everything the built-in tracks have to give you (which rest assured will take even the greatest racers some time), you can then create your own tracks.
The track creator in Trackmania DS takes some getting used to. There's a serious learning curve, and the limitation of having to buy parts using your winnings in the races could put some players off. Still, spending time with it allows two benefits: one, you can keep adding tracks to your heart's content allowing for theoretically unlimited replay value, and, two, you actually start to appreciate the built-in tracks more. When a jump carries you through the same loop that you just went through, and as you see one of your opponents upside-down on the loop as you pass through it while airborne, you know you have a special track.
Trackmania DS won't be for everyone by any means. It's not flashy, requires a serious commitment to get the full value of the game, and finding the quickest way around some of its twists and turns is an utterly unforgiving experience. Hurting it further is a lack of any sort of online play other than quick races with friends in the same room -- there's no way to share your creations with the outside world, which is unfortunate. Still, as a single-player racing game, it's like nothing else on the DS right now, and the racing experience it provides is perhaps the most visceral and thrilling one to be found on a current-generation portable. If, after three straight years of constantly playing Mario Kart, you're finally looking for another racer to replace it (if only for a while), Trackmania DS may well be just what you're looking for.