Mario Kart is back on track.
It's quite a relief to know that Mario Kart got a proper release after the atrocious Double Dash. Everything in Mario Kart DS follows the formula of success introduced in the SNES days. Even though Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64 still stand as the best releases on the series, and that hardly is ever going to change since the formula has been overused and a revolution is unlikely, this might be the best Mario Kart game aside those two. It's good to know that the two-characters per kart gimmick is out, it added absolutelly nothing gameplay-wise and was downright boring.
The gameplay is similar to Double Dash's, but this game puts the player more in control of the kart than the GameCube installment. The controls feels more responsive and less loosy. The Mini-turbo system is back and works much like it ever did in the console days, by drifting you first reach a blue smoke, then reach a red smoke which will culminate in a boost. The boost has received an upgrade and now works almost like a mushroom boost. Another opportunity to gain speed comes from the new system of wind resistance, if you're behind some other kart and manage to stay in a straight line behind it, there won't be resistance of the wind making the kart gain speed. If done during a certain period of time, a larger boost is unleashed greatly helping to pass the opponent ahead.
One of my main complaints about Double Dash was the lack of imagination when designing courses. Sure, they were full of little details, cannon blasts up mountains and many other ways to jeopardize the driver's safety while playing or simply to make the course a little more glossy for the eyes of the player. They ultimately added final arrangements to artistic design than the actual track design. Mario Kart DS also has a share of those gimmicks, but the track designs feel improved. Still, no one dares to mess with the first track of the first cup, always having that "8" shape since Mario kart 64. The expected designs are present in the form of a castle for Bowser, the Rainbow Road, circuits for Mario and Peach and so on.
New tracks worth mentioning are the Luigi's Mansion course, which was designed after the GameCube hit. The Delfino Square as a road circuit through Delfino Island. Waluigi Pinnbal recreates a pinball where the players must descend and reach the finish line. The Tick Tock Clock circuit designed after the iconic Super Mario 64's fourteenth course. Another surprise are the cups formed only by a selection of retro tracks. There are 4 cups with new tracks and 4 more composed of tracks from old games. All prior Mario Kart games preceding the release of Mario Kart DS got tracks into this new installment, be it from the SNES release or the GBA one. A god set of tracks if you ask me, all properly remade.
A new mode by the name of Missions is available and is a welcome adition to the Mario Kart series. The player basically has many levels with several different missions in each of them, after completing each mission the next one becomes available and after completing each level the next one gets unlocked. There's a boss battle at the end of each level. The challenges are many, they range from hitting every Goomba in a course in a certain period of time to hitting King Bomb-omb with bombs until he's defeated. They are rarely based on racing and when they are there's always a dividing factor involved. Let's just hope it comes back in future releases because the idea is awesome.
The multiplayer is a no-brainer, no Mario Kart would be the same without it. In Mario Kart DS you can play with friends locally by download play if only one has the cartridge; or by a more complete game system if everyone owns a copy of the game. The online play debuts and doesn't fail to meet the requirements of a good online game. The community though is pretty hardcore and takes karting to a whole new level. After all, no one said it would be easy, and if you want to excel at karting online playing is a great way to do it, worthy opponents are sure to be found. Up to 8 players are supported in both local and online multiplayer.
Other modes that aren't new to the series make a come-back. In Balloon Attack the player must hit the opponents to take them out of the game. The usual items are used for such objective. What's actually new is that you have 5 balloons total and two of them aren't available right away, as always, the character has 3 balloons over his head but only after one or more of the initial 3 balloon burst they can be replaced by the other balloons. What's actually funny is that if you want to replace the balloon you must blow the microphone on the Nintendo DS. A nice touch. In Shine Runners players compete to see who holds more shines at the end, by hitting your opponents they lose shines giving the perfect opportunity to raise your own.
I understand Mario Kart. It's a hardcore racer nor does it strive to be. It's almost a party racing game where multiplayer shies the most and the satisfaction of star-sprinting your way through cpu/friends-controlled karts can be compared to that of winning a race. It's a game primarily focused on fun and a more reckless way of seeing racing, as someone can stay in last place for the whole race and get a star only to start climbing your way to the top and win at the last second. I get that, but some points must be made.
A grading system exist in Mario Kart DS where the player is awarded by a crescent score depending on how well they did. It goes from E all the way to 3-stars. It's fine, Mario Kart: Super Circuit had that. The problem is that the requirements to reach these standards in GP mode--not actually in mission Mode since it's pretty clear you must simply do it faster--are pretty obscure. It must go beyond time since the races also rely on luck, sometime a player will finish a clean race with it flowing naturally, but sometimes the first place gets bombed by blue shells, rays, red shells and other items.
It's ultimately frustrating really. You can't know for sure what needs to be done but can imagine. Even though what's apparent to be the case feels too dependent on luck rather than skill. And there lies the problem. Replaying GPs waiting for CPU's mercy to hand you the merit is beyond frustration. If they kept a clear way to measure the requirements and made it the least dependent on luck possible would certainly make it a little more attractive.
Mario Kart DS may not be the best Mario Kart but that's only because the best Mario Karts are the ones that had the opportunity and the honor of being the first to taste the beloved formula. Now the formula is overdone, a shame. It doesn't revoke the fact that Mario Kart DS is a great game, and probably the best handheld Mario Kart ever done. Be it with its undeniably fun multiplayer or by going solo. The new Mission mode adds playing time and makes a great debut. As the first Mario Kart game online and knowing Nintendo's policy on online games, Mario Kart DS does surprisingly well. Definitely recommendable to anyone fond of the best Mario spin-off series ever.