marino's Mario Kart DS (Nintendo DS) review

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Best. Mario. Kart. Ever.

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Thirteen years ago a little game called Super Mario Kart was released for the Super NES and a new addiction was born.  Personally I can remember spending countless hours trading controllers back and forth with friends trying to beat each others time trials, not to mention all the time spent in battle mode and actually racing.  Over the years Mario Kart has evolved by tweaking certain features while simultaneously keeping that same original charm we all fell in love with over a decade ago.  So what's so great about this version?  First of all, Mario Kart DS is the first Nintendo-developed ONLINE game.  Yes, you can take your Kart skills global.  Aside from that, you have 32 tracks (16 retro, 16 new), improved Battle Mode, all-new Mission Mode, customizable personal logos, new weapons, new abilities, and so much more.  As a fan since the beginning, I can honestly say that Mario Kart DS is the best game in the series. 
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The graphics are probably going to remind you mostly of Mario Kart 64, although they are better than that.  Obviously you aren't going to get GameCube quality crisp graphics, but the characters and environmetns are quite impressive for the handheld version.  Surprisingly, the sense of speed is the best in the series to date.  On many of the new courses you will definitely notice a difference.  The classic levels have been updated perfectly to fit the new technology and the GameCube levels have been squeezed in with extraordinary accuracy.  All the Mario style special effects are still in tact, plus some new ones.  Graphically the game has transferred to the DS excellently. 

Double Dash was a mixed bag for alot of people.  The ability to have two players on a kart was cool, but not being able to hop took some strategy out of the game.  Luckily, hopping is back in now.  Powerslides work the same was as always, except you only have to charge it up twice to boost.  One of the best new features is the ability to draft.  If you stay directly behind someone long enough (5 seconds or so), you can build up enough boost to slingshot past them, which is definitely handy on the home stretch.  New weapons include Bullet Bill, which temporarily turns you into a massive bullet that zooms down the track on autopilot destroying everything in its path, and Bloopers, which are the squid like creatures from the Mario series.  When used, Bloopers spray ink all over the other racers, which in multiplayer means that everyone elses screen gets splattered, obscuring their view for a short time.  The new additions definitely fit with the series and the classic features have been perfected over the course of a decade creating the best Mario Kart gameplay ever.  
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The sound department takes the biggest hit in the transition to the handheld.  The music is basically what you would expect in an up-tempo Mario-themed game and each track has its own style.  The voice-over work is a bit limited and some characters seem have been given more treatment than others in that department.  All of the sound effects though are top notch and the stereo speakers on the DS are utilized quite well in all modes of play.  
Replay Value 
Never has a Mario Kart game offered you more content.  To begin, you have Grand Prix mode, which consists of circuits that each have four races where you compete to earn points that tally up to trophies.  Grand Prix mode now consists of eight circuits, four of which (Nitro) include all new tracks including Tick-Tock Clock, Delfino Square, Luigi's Mansion, and many others.  The other four circuits (Retro) are comprised of classic levels.  Each of the four has a track from SNES, N64, GBA, and GameCube versions of Mario Kart in that order including Baby Park, Choco Mountain, Mario Circuit, and others.  Within Grand Prix mode you have four different engine classes, so to clear Grand Prix mode completely you will be racing all 32 tracks at least four times! 
Secondly, you have Time Trial mode, which lets you compete with others or yourself in order to see who can post the best time on a given track. 
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Mission Mode, which is brand new to the series, gives you over 50 scenarios to complete including Boss Fights.  Some of these may require you to gather coins, break a certain number of boxes, beat a specific racer, or navigate through gates.  Through these missions you will actually become a better player.  The boss fights, without spoiling too much, will pit you against many classic monsters from Nintendo past including Eyerok and Big Bully from Super Mario 64
For multiplayer, you can of course do a regular VS race.  The cool thing about this though is that you can have up to 8 players racing with only one cartridge. 
Battle Mode has also been tweaked a bit.  The object is still to pop everyone elses balloons, but now you have five balloons.  Only three can be out at once, but you only start with one.  Confused?  Well, you have to manually inflate your other balloons.  You can do this by either blowing into the microphone (fastest) or holding Select (slow).  If at any time you have no balloons tied to your kart, you're out.  This new element adds a ton of strategy to the multiplayer experience.  If you want to, you can even do Battle Mode with bots, allowing you to play alone or just fill up the rest of the slots if you have less than 8 humans playing. 
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Shine Runners is also included, which is a scavenger hunt style game where everyone is searching for Shines (Super Mario Sunshine).  There are only a certain number available on each level, but ramming into someone will force them to drop one.  Periodically a timer will appear and once it hits zero, whoever has the fewest shines gets kicked out. 
Last and most definitely we have ONLINE!!  Through Nintendo's WiFi network, you can jump online through most wireless networks.  You can find out if your personal router will work at, but if you don't have one you can try to jack someone else's or use the Nintendo sanctioned hotspots at McDonald's.  Once you get online, you have four options, all of which consist of regular race mode.  Worldwide pits you against people from anywhere.  Regional throws you into a match with people from your country.  Friends will search for anyone on your list who is actively playing.  And Rivals will search for people of your skill level based on your record online.  You can't do Battle or Shine matches, which would've been nice, but the VS matches are more than enough for any Mario Kart fan.  Up to four people can play in any given match, and each match consists of four races, much like Grand Prix mode.  The difference is that after each round, everyone gets to pick what track they want to do next, and then the computer randomly picks from those four choices.  It's not exactly Xbox Live in terms of features, but you can have a saved list of friends if you know their 10-digit code, and there is a sizable amount of stat tracking.  It's also very easy to set up, taking only 5 minutes or so from the time you turn it on the first time to being online. 
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As you can see, there is a ton of stuff to do in this game.  They even have a Mario Paint style interface where you can create your own personal logo that not only gets put on your kart, but is also used as an avatar online.  Some of the people online are quite creative with it. 
What else do I need to say?  It's Mario Kart.  And it's the best Mario Kart ever.     
*** This review was written for shortly after the release of the game. ***

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