A welcome addition to the ever-popular kart franchise.
Anyone who has ever played a Nintendo system and i think it's safe to say that is almost anyone who has ever picked up a joypad has played a Mario Kart game. A racing game that includes all of your favourite Nintendo characters from past and present, armed with some whacky weapons and some zany courses, Mario Kart has always had a unique feel that keeps fans-alike coming back for more. This is the 5th installment in the popular series and has gone back to it's roots in the sense that the two-manned karts have been ditched for the more conventional single racers.
Mario Kart DS features a whole host of single-player grand prix races that comprise of four tracks each, this many not seem like much at first but if you add all of these tracks together and include the unlockable mirror mode tracks that adds up to an impressive 128 races for you to compete in within this one mode. There are three speed classes to choose from like in all previous installments, 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. Each one see's the speed of your kart increasing and also the speed and AI of your oppnonents. Unlike previous installments your opponents seem like they are finally learning a trick or two and do some pretty clever thing's, from power-sliding around tight corners to trailing shells behind their karts to shield themselves from attacks. There are two seperate forms of grand prix within each racing class this time around, you have four 'Nitro Cups' which consist of brand new tracks that are new to this platform and you have four 'Retro Cups' which consist of one race from each of the four previous installments. So your first race will be a classic track from the Super Nintendo version, the second a classic from the Nintendo 64 version and so on. While most of the best tracks from previous games are here there are some i just can't believe didn't make it, like the original rainbow road and some of the classic bowser castle levels.
There are 12 characters for you to choose from this time around, 8 are available from the start and the other 4 are all unlockable through grand prix mode. They have missed none of the big names out but unfortunately 12 is a little disappointing considering the Gamecube version had well over 20+ characters. Characters such as baby mario, baby luigi and even koopa troopa have been dropped, i don't know if they just couldn't fit more into the game or if Nintendo decided 12 was enough but i can't help feeling a little annoyed. There are plenty of karts to choose from though, each character has 2 karts to start with, a classic kart and a character specific kart. As you progress all of the 36 karts will be made available for all of the racers and that gives you 432 different options to choose from, which should keep you going for a little while. Each kart has a different set of abilities, depending on the track and the style of racer you are your kart will make all of the difference. These abilities are speed, acceleration, weight, handling, drift and items. All of them pretty much speak for themselves, the only one i will need to explain is items. This ability see's you picking up better items throughout the race the higher your item stats are, for example you will have a lot more chance of picking up something useful like a star higher up the field than you would a banana or a green shell when you have a healthy item stat.
Being a Mario Kart game i feel i need to mention some of the new items included this time around, there are 2 worth mentioning and these are bullet bill and blooper. Bullet bill is essentially chain chomp from the Gamecube version, instead of a huge chain chomp pulling you along you morph into a bullet bill and plough your way through the field until the power-up runs out. Blooper is perhaps the more inventive of the two and see's black ink squirted on the screen of all your opponents, making it harder to drive for a short period of time. Other weapons such as the 3 red shells and the string of bananas that were missing from previous games have also been included for good measure too, so there really is a large array of weapons for you to take advantage of while in a race. The weapon system is as balanced as ever and players who find themselves near the back of the race will get the best weapons and as you move towards the front of the pack the weapons get considerably less effective. This can seem somewhat unfair at times but it does help to mix thing's up and keep the race interesting from start to finish.
In addition to the grand prix mode this game offers the predictable yet addictive time trial mode which see's you competing for the best time on any given track, if you get a good time you can save and trade ghosts with your friends and try to beat each others personal bests. Perhaps the biggest shock to Mario Kart veterans will be the new mission mode which gives you a number of objectives to complete against the clock. The game boasts 61 of these missions which get gradually harder as you progress, ultimately ending with a boss fight at the end of each set of missions. These missions have a lot of variety and will not only keep you entertained but will really help you improve different aspects of your driving as you complete them.
Battle mode also makes a welcome return with two modes, balloon battle and shine runners. Balloon battle is essentially a last man standing game where you fire weapons at your opponents and pop their balloons, however this time around there is a small twist. Putting the DS to great use you only start with one balloon and in order to get more you need to blow them up yourself via the built-in microphone on your system. This may sound like a bunch of hassle but with some practise turns out to be great fun and while it may sound easy to just keep blowing your balloons until you're the eventual winner you leave yourself exposed because you have to lower your mouth to the microphone in order to do it. Shine runners is a capture the bag type game, whoever has the most shines at the end of the time wins. However the driver with the lowest number of shines gets eliminated every so often and this makes for some frantic action. Another new addition to the battle mode is the ability to play by yourself with bots, so if you don't have any friends around you can get some much needed practise.
Having Mario Kart on the DS opens up so many new features to the series, i have already mentioned the microphone and i feel i should mention the new map system. One screen shows you racing and the other screen can be used to bring up a map of the race that not only shows you your location on the circuit but also the locations of items, opponents and other thing's you may find useful to help you win the race. Another returning feature is the ability to jump, as is the ability to drift around corners and can really give an experienced karter the edge in a race. There are many ways to use this effectively, as you enter into a drift you can wiggle the d-pad left and right and give your character a small boost as you come out of corners. More advanced techniques make it possible to boost on straights, this is known as snaking and only the most skillful of player will be able to use it effectively. Perhaps the coolest feature is the fact you only need one DS cartridge to play this game with your friends, while this does limit your character and track selecting options it is still something many handheld games fail to implement.
I'm sure if you have read anything about this game over the past couple of months it won't have slipped your attention that this game has the ability of going online, so you can test your skills against people from all over the world. All you will need to go online is a wireless router or a Wi-Fi USB Connector that you can purchase from your local gaming retailer. While there are various problems you can experience while attempting to go online you should eventually get up and running. You will need Windows XP for example and routers can pose a problem from time to time but once you have sorted all that there is nothing stopping you from experiencing a game that was clearly meant to be played with players from all over the world. You have the option of playing with random people from various regions or alternatively you can race against friends by entering a 12-digit friend code. Playing online does have some inevitable drawbacks, you will have to wait a few minutes while people join the race and like every online game you're going to experience disconnects from players who have a poor connection or simply don't want a loss on their record. Your opponents stats are readily available to you as you meet them online as are their unique game elblems which you can design yourself using the games simplistic painting program, alternatively you can choose from a number of ready-made emblems.
This game has some great graphics and great sound to add to it's addicitive gameplay and huge lifespan. All tracks, characters and karts are highly detailed and many of the games effects are some of the best the series has seen. You won't find many framerate issues here either, from what i 've experienced of the online portion i've had no problems here either. This is undoubtedly one of the best installments in the series and a welcome addition to what is already an impressive line-up for DS owners. If you are a fan of the Mario Kart franchise then this is as good a time as any to purchase a new handheld.