Nobody ever thought of the idea of putting their favorite video game mascots in go karts until Nintendo came up with the idea. Super Mario Kart was the first racing game for the Mario series and had quickly become a classic among Nintendo fans, including the Mario Kart games ahead of it years later. Would Mario Kart DS be able to hold the high expectations of its fans?
Mario Kart DS does not do anything drastically different from the other Mario Kart games and in this case, it's a good and bad thing. For starters, you still pick different characters and karts before starting a race. Though this time, each kart has their own stats and handle differently from other karts, so strategy is a plus here. The Grand Prix is nothing different. In this mode, you pick a cup that has a set of tracks to race on. Finishing in better positions will get you more points. Most of the cups are hidden and require completion of previous cups to unlock. However, this needs to be done for every engine class, which makes it very boring to repeat several times. There are 32 tracks in all. Half of these tracks are new for the DS Mario Kart game while the other half are rehashes of older tracks from the previous Mario Kart games. If you never played the older Mario Kart games, then the retro tracks will be fresh to you, but if you had played the older games, then you'll know how the tracks work and get bored quickly.
The controls are very simple to learn and are pretty much the same since the Mario Karts before it. Drifting around turns with the R button lets you maintain your speed and pressing left and right alternately while drifting lets you do mini turbos. Items have not changed at all, but two new items appear for Mario Kart DS. The Blooper item sprays ink on the top screen, hindering the view of the other players. The Bullet Bill, similar to the Chain Chomp item in Mario Kart Double Dash, launches players at top speed and plowing through other races while on auto-control. The problem with items is that they are completely unbalanced. Players lagging behind will generally get the powerful items more often and when that is combined with 3 people or more, it can seem quite unfair. The AI will always pull out the good items on you while you hope and pray you can get the same help when you are losing. Expect to see Spiny Shells and Thunderbolts at least once per race while racing with the AI. Speaking of the Thunderbolt, the game totally nerfs the effects of it. Instead of everyone staying shrunk for a fixed amount of time, players regrow based on what position they were in when they got hit. Players that are behind will grow back quicker while winning players take longer to regrow.
Mission mode is a new mode for Mario Kart DS. You pick different levels to play on with predetermined characters and meet objectives like collecting coins or beating someone in a race. Each level has a boss stage that you fight against, which is basically a harder objective. The bosses are all reused from Super Mario 64 DS. While the missions are fun to play on, beating them all does not affect the game in any way, so it is nothing more than a fun diversion. The quicker you beat the missions, the better ranks you get.
VS mode is a simple race with either friends or AI, but now you have races in teams. Tracks can be either be chosen by players or at random. VS mode can be played alone with AI now, which can be a good alternative to the Grand Prix. Matches won can be determined by either number of points accumulated or number of races won.
Battle mode also makes a return, but has undergone some slight changes. Balloon Battle is the same as it has been in the past Mario Karts; pop everyone's balloons before yours is popped to win. This time, you only start with one balloon and have 4 reserve balloons. You can inflate your balloons by either blowing into the mic on the DS or holding the select button. Blowing into the mic inflates balloons faster. Shine Runners is basically a hoarding match. Players collect shines that appear on the field and try to hold on to many of them as they can. Players with the least amount of shines are eliminated when the timer is up. Battle Mode is now playable in single player with the AI, which is a welcomed change. Battle mode reuses two battle fields from the previous Mario Kart games while the rest are new.
Playing with other people is very simple and fun, whether they have this game or not. Players who have a DS but don't own Mario Kart DS can download the game onto their DS from players that do have the game. The only problem with download play is that the players without the game are forced to use Shy Guy as their character and the track selections are extremely limited for everyone. If all players have their own games, then everything is open to them. Despite these problems, the game is fun and it is more fun with more people.
Mario Kart DS also introduces Wi-Fi play, which is playing the game over a wireless internet. Players connect by either their own routers or through a Wi-Fi USB connector provided by Nintendo. Only a DSL or Cable connection will work with Nintendo's Wi-Fi. Dial up and satellite does not work. Once you are connected, you can race people by one of four ways. Rivals sets you up with people who have similar skills to you. Regional sets you up with people in your country. Worldwide puts you with players around the globe. Friends lets you race with people only on your friends list. When you play online for the first time, you can see your friend code. Friend codes are used for racing against people only on your friends list. However, both parties need each other's friend codes registered in order to race against each other. Unless you have friends offline, you'll be looking around message boards and forums to exchange codes with. You cannot obtain friend codes from a random opponent during online play, which really stinks. Online play only allows 2-4 players in a race and only 20 tracks are available, which are voted by the players per race. Also, some items do not appear on Wi-Fi and they cannot be dragged behind you. This is most likely to prevent lag, but more tracks could have been added.
There are a few things that prevent the game from reaching its full potential. For starters, the items are unbalanced as mentioned before. Players lagging behind get the powerful items too often, which can totally screw you over if you are in the lead for most of the race. It seems to pay off more to stay behind everyone and then blast through with items instead of staying ahead and trying to block all the attacks you receive. The AI only makes it worse as they hit you with items frequently that can't be avoided sometimes. The tracks are also lacking. With only half of the tracks being new and the other half remakes, you will get bored quickly. Mission mode is a waste since it does not unlock anything new. This could have been removed and been replaced with more tracks to race on.
Wi-Fi play is far from perfect. When opponents are picked for you, the game picks random people. One race, you could race someone who stinks and the next race, you could race someone who is too powerful for you. The Rival set up says it pairs you up with people with similar skills to you, but is very vague about it. It could be determined by your win/loss ratio or maybe your rankings in the Grand Prix. On top of that, the Rival system is broken since several times, I was paired up with people with over 3000 wins while I barely had over 100. The friend codes are cumbersome to record and having to rely on the internet to find more friends to race against is not a good option. Another big problem with Wi-Fi play is no chatting features. This was probably done to prevent incidents between players offline, but sometimes, we want friend codes from other players we just raced against or want to ask for only specific racers to race against instead of being picked at random by the game. Also, 4 racers max and 20 tracks is not enough. I'm sure 24 tracks and maybe 5 or 6 max players could be handled by the DS. Also, Battle Mode is not in use for Wi-Fi, which hampers online play even more.
Despite these annoyances, Mario Kart DS is must for any Mario Kart fan. Very simple to learn and play and with online play, you'll always be seeking new opponents to race against. Mario Kart DS does not try to change anything, which is a good and bad thing, depending how you look at it. If you never played Mario Kart before, the DS version will be a good game to get into. However, if you do not have high speed wireless internet or friends to play with, this game may become boring very quickly with the game's limited modes.