Friday, December 09, 2005

Mario Kart DS

First things first- dont complain. I took a lot of time making this.

Mario Kart DS is the fifth installment in Nintendo’s clone-inspiring mascot racer. The development team regards it as a direct sequel to 2001’s Mario Kart: Super Circuit GBA, but they’re dead wrong. Longtime fans consider Super Circuit to be more of a remake of the original Super Mario Kart for SNES as opposed to a full-fledged installment. Mario Kart DS, however, is the best of the Mario Kart series in almost every aspect; and fans will notice a lot of slick elements amalgamated from all four prior titles. Not only that, but the latest installment packs a lot of new tricks up its sleeve. In terms of content, MK DS is by far the biggest installment in the series. You’ll find a lot to do in this game whether you’re playing alone or with friends. Gamers who never got into the series will love everything this game has to offer. Longtime fans will also enjoy this game but will have a couple of things to complain about.

The first characteristic fans will notice about the game is that it ditches the two-characters-per-kart factor introduced in Double Dash, and returns to the classic roots. Maybe that’s why the development team ties this game with Super Circuit and not Double Dash. Nonetheless, the spirit of the GCN installment is still present, as you can pick from various types of karts, each having a different feel when racing on the tracks.

Speaking of ‘feel’, Mario Kart DS’s controls are almost perfect. The absence of analog control for the DS hurts a bit, but it’s surprising how well the development team matched the controls with the GCN installment. Power Sliding your way through turns has never felt this good, for the jumping feature from the older games has returned. Performing mini-turbo boosts while drifting is great. Even though you’re not using an analog stick, you can feel the kart’s boost just like in Double Dash. Drafting, which was first introduced in MK64, is modified in this game so that it occurs frequently and not randomly. Players with big hands will find pressing the small DS buttons and alternating between left and right on the directional pad uncomfortable, but it’s nothing they can’t get used to.

Weapon handling in MK DS is very similar if not identical to that in Mario Kart 64. The rotating triple shells and rows of banana peels are back in business. Unfortunately, there are no longer character-exclusive special weapons as there were in Double Dash. Yet MK DS provides an interesting compensation; each kart has an "item" stat which indicates the probability of getting useful weapons instead of endless banana peels and green shells. Another returning move from MK64 is the ability to drag most of the weapons behind you as a means of defense. Double Dash’s defensive mechanism of dodging shells using well-timed power-slides has been completely eliminated in MK DS, which is a shame. Green shells travel slower than they did in Double Dash, which throws your aim off. Thankfully Red shells aren’t as dumb as they were in MK64, in which they occasionally ran into walls for no reason. Spiny shells are also a lot smarter in MK DS, making them 99% impossible to dodge. As in Double Dash, items can be sprayed over the track when the wielder gets hit. Stealing items, however, is performed through the ways of the old; you use a Boo to randomly snatch a weapon from unsuspecting opponents. What’s great about the Boo in this particular installment is that you can actually see it coming at you, so you have a small chance to get rid of your weapon before it is stolen. Overall, there is a bit of rustiness in MK DS’s weapon handling but it’s nice to see some Double Dash influences here and there.

Some of the cool weapons of the GCN game didn’t make it here (Bowser Shell, Fire Balls, Heart, etc.) but there are two new items in this installment which try and cover for the loss. Inspired by Double Dash’s Chain Chomp weapon, the Bullet Bill temporarily turns your kart into a high-speed rocket, cleaning out all opponents in the way as it speeds down the track.. The second weapon is the most interesting of all: the Blooper. This weapon covers your screen with black ink and forces players to use the bottom map-screen in order to navigate. These new weapons are interesting, but it would’ve been cooler if Double Dash’s arsenal was included in the mix.

Despite the absence of innovative DS features, the map functionality in the bottom screen is a very welcome element. The map portrays a synopsis of every single thing happening in a race. The exact positions of characters on the road and the weapons they currently hold, course obstacles, banana peels, fake item boxes, real item boxes, shells—everything you can imagine is shown on your trusty map. This is especially useful in multiplayer, since you can no longer cheat from your opponents’ screens a la four-player split screen of the console installments.

The single-player experience makes all the previous installments seem ant-sized. A lone-player has access to every single mode of play in the game, a first in a Mario Kart installment. The classic modes are still as good as ever, and fans will surely drool over the new stuff which will keep them busy for months. First and foremost is the Grand Prix mode, your basic point-based Mario Kart racing tournament. As in the previous games, you’re given three speeds: 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc. 50cc is slow and incredibly easy to play through. What’s great about the advanced speeds is that not only do you feel the sense of speed while racing, but the enemy A.I. is a lot more aggressive as well. Weapon handling, mini-boosts, drifting—you name it, the A.I. does it. Sometimes you’ll see the CPU karts fighting against each other for first place. Note the flaw which consumes computer opponents the last three places though; most of the time they’ll be fighting for their own positions rather than pushing onward. Despite this, the A.I. dishes out a good fight, especially in 150cc.

The course selection is huge! Eight cups and thirty-two courses, half of which are all-new, the rest being retro picks from previous Mario Kart games (four from each game). Newcomers to the series will be very satisfied by the variety, but veterans will no doubt nitpick on the retro track selections. Nintendo should have held polls on the internet regarding the fans’ favorite courses from each MK game, because it seems that their retro picks are not entirely what people were hoping for. The main problem with their retro picks is that they’ve—withholding a few solid choices—chosen the most bland and non-interactive tracks of each installment and slapped them into the game. The SNES picks are okay for the better part, but fans will hunger for the inclusion of the Vanilla Lake track(s). The 64 picks are inarguably poor. Banshee Boardwalk is the only great selection. Choco Mountain is an acceptable choice, but Moo Moo Farm and Frappe Snowland simply don’t cut it. There were a lot of cooler tracks present in MK64 like Kalamari Desert (train!), Yoshi’s Island (various paths and unknown player positions), and Koopa Beach. The GBA choices are somewhat weird but they grow on you fast. It’s strange that for the most part, the development team picked mascot-based tracks from Super Circuit instead of cool originals like Toy Land and whatnot. Still, Sky Garden fortunately made the cut, and fans will find this course the best retro pick of all. As for the GCN picks, they’re not all that wholesome either. Luigi Circuit and Baby Park are two of the simplest tracks ever and they shouldn’t have made it here. While Mushroom Bridge and Yoshi Circuit are excellent choices, fans will be mad because these tracks were butchered in a huge way. Remember all the awesome shortcuts present in these two tracks? Most of them have been abolished in this version for no logical reason whatsoever.

Despite the poor choices, you’ll surely be left with tingles of nostalgia as you race though these tracks in 3D. Once you play the SNES, N64, and GBA tracks in fine three-dimensional form, you’ll never go back to the old versions. The 3D makeovers on these classic tracks are very faithful to the original, although it feels differing racing on them due to the contemporary controls. Moreover, some retro tracks feel a lot more spacious compared to the original versions (possibly as a result from the 2D-to-3D conversion?). The only major thing left intact in these retro tracks are the 2D backgrounds, possibly because the developers wanted to keep the ‘old-school’ feeling. Conversely, changes in the retro tracks are mostly generic instead of affecting gameplay. New signs and billboards are the most obvious changes. Other cool stuff to see are the weather effects in Frappe Snowland and Luigi Circuit (GBA), the huge Cheep Cheep jumping out of the water in Banshee Boardwalk, and the rock slides in Choco Mountain.

The new tracks in the Nitro Cup are the cream of the crop. Most of the track designs and concepts are simply breathtaking. Fans of Super Mario Bros. 3 will love the Airship and Desert tracks in the game. Gamers yearning for something original will be impressed when they race through Waluigi Pinball. Super Mario 64’s Tick Tock Clock has finally became a track, and the clock concept is wonderfully integrated into gameplay. The new versions of Bowser Castle, Wario Stadium, and Rainbow Road rock; the developers borrowed design concepts from every single Mario Kart installment and added in a slew of original ideas to bolster the ingenuity of these tracks. You simply can’t go wrong with these frantic courses. However, one thing that should be mentioned is that the new courses could have had more cool shortcuts like in Double Dash.

Now that we’re done with Grand Prix, let’s talk about the all-new Mission Mode. As the name implies, you will be presented with specific tasks to perform in each mission stage. Some of them are straight-forward like collecting coins or destroying item boxes, but there are a handful of innovative missions like navigating in reverse or racing against a loose Chain Chomp. There are six worlds in all (seven if you count the secret one), and each world has eight missions and a boss battle. These boss battles are brilliantly-designed for a racing game even though most of them are simple to win. There are a few exceptions in which you must race against a boss to defeat it. These are especially challenging and will remind players of N64’s Diddy Kong Racing. It would have been great if you had to race against all the bosses. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to do something different in a Mario Kart game. Gamers who complain of how short and repetitive Mario Kart games are will be very interested in what Mission Mode has to offer.

Time Trials is another single-player mode fans love. Here’s where all the skill becomes apparent. Well-timed mushrooms and mini-turbo boosts, perfect drifting, flawless laps—this deserves to be seen! The new feature in MK DS is that you can send and receive ghosts via local Wi-Fi. It would have been cool if you could trade ghosts online, though.

Versus and Battle modes are mainly for multiplayer, but they’re also single-player-enabled this time around. Battle Mode for single-player is a long-overdue feature. Playing against 7 other CPU bots is a complete blast. The supreme experience, however, is playing against other gamers. Now what’s great about multiplayer is that you don’t need more than one game-card to play against friends. Up to 8 players can fully enjoy the Mario Kart experience using a single-card download. The downside is that only the card owner can play with the settings and choose his/her favorite characters. The others have to settle with Shy Guys as their racers. Single-card download can be accessed under “Simple Mode” and multi-card multiplayer is enabled under “Normal Mode”. You can also choose Normal Mode when you want to mix card-owners and non-card owners.

Versus mode is your standard quick match fare. You can keep track of scores as in Grand Prix. Settings also comprise typical content here. There’s a nice option to divide into teams, adding up all the points of each player at the end of the race. Battle mode is as addictive as ever.

The famous ‘Balloon Battle’ is back and ready to roll. Players expecting quick matches and small spaces reminiscent of those in Double Dash will not find what they want here, for battling has also gone the way of Mario Kart 64. Battle Mode arenas are large and in charge. The four new courses are brilliantly-designed (the best battle courses in the whole series), unlike a great deal of the courses in Double Dash. Returning from MK64 is the fan-favorite Block Fort arena and from Double Dash you have Pipe Plaza, adding to a total of six arenas. It’s too bad that there aren’t any small levels for your quick battle fix. Fans adjusted to Double Dash’s battles will be somewhat disappointed, but at least there’s one aspect present from DD; you can steal balloons using Mushrooms. The single and most welcome addition to Balloon Battle is the ability to manually inflate your balloons by blowing into the DS microphone (don’t use the select button you dork!). You have a stock of five balloons yet you can have only three inflated ones. This is such an excellent feature to an already-frantic mode. What’s cool about this feature is that it has a downside of having to sit still while restocking your balloons. If you’re in the wide open, then your opponent can take advantage of the situation and get rid of you before you manage to inflate a second balloon. Once you’re out of Balloons, you turn into a ghost with an unlimited supply of real item boxes. While not as cool as having fake item boxes or turning into a bomb ala MK64, it’s still very convenient instead of waiting around for the battle to finish. Being a ghost is especially helpful in Team vs. Team Balloon Battles since you can help your friends by directly providing them with weapons. As for the other Battle mode, Shine Runners, it’s repetitive and boring. Double Dash’s ‘Shine Thief’ is superior. You see, instead of tailing the player who holds the single shine and taking it from him Capture the Flag style, in MK DS there are multiple shines scattered throughout the course, and all you have to do is collect. There’s no frantic factor in that at all.

Finally, we can talk about MK DS’s most anticipated feature; playing online. One thing to make clear before moving on: online is just the sweet icing on this yummy cake we call Mario Kart DS. If you’re getting this game solely for the online features then you will be seriously disappointed. Keep in mind that this game is Nintendo’s first stab at online, so you shouldn’t expect an Xbox Live here. Now what’s cool about Nintendo’s Wi-Fi connection in Mario Kart DS is that it’s incredibly fun, free, safe, and easy to set up. Furthermore, Nintendo has managed to keep a stable frame-rate online with little to no lag. Sadly, a couple of sacrifices had to be made: a) only racing is online-enabled, b) only up to four-players can race, c) 20 out of 32 courses are online-enabled, d) you can’t drag items behind you for protection, and e) you can’t specifically pick your opponents, it all depends who is online and who isn’t. You can filter and/or broaden your search, though. You have the option of playing against friends (adding their friend codes to your DS), rivals, regional gamers, and worldwide. It would have been cool if online had a lot more features such as chatting or setting up a meeting room of some sort, but even with these shortcomings you can’t deny the fun you’ll have playing against other Mario Karters.

The graphics in Mario Kart DS aren’t a sight to behold, but they’re no slouch either. The greatest part of the graphics is the three-dimensional course designs. Lots of care and effort has been invested in these courses. The environments are filled with variety and color. Also, the draw distances are good for the most part, with minimal pop-ups. The backgrounds vary in quality. Some are great with the feeling of 3D and activity while others are bland and 2D-ish. Some textures are blurry when you’re up close. There are a handful of detailed 3D course obstacles present, yet unfortunately there are also sprite-based obstacles for no apparent reason. It’s puzzling to find 2D sprites in some courses while having superior, fully 3D objects in others. For example, one of the new courses has good-looking 3D Piranha Plants looming out of their pipes. These were also present in the Double Dash Yoshi Circuit, yet the MK DS version replaces them with simple 2D Piranha sprites without pipes. Only a few of these sprite objects really stand out (like the pinball in Waluigi’s course), but the rest aren’t that detailed. We may never know why the development team became lazy and never made all the objects 3D. Moreover, most of the weapons are sprite-based (except for the Bullet Bill and Spiny Shell, both looking fantastic in 3D), but this is understandable since the development team’s main aim was to keep the frame-rate stable, and with multiple 3D weapons flying around it would be impossible to avoid frequent slow-downs. The only problem with the sprite-based weapons is that they’re sometimes hard to make out in a course. Character models are in low-poly 3D and a bit on the blocky side. The kart designs, however, really stand out. The karts’ multiple tumbling animations are especially good. The character animation, while extremely limited, gets the job done. Effects are not bad. You’ll notice a couple of lighting tricks in tunnels and whatnot. Bomb and Spiny Shell explosions are neat, but not as impressive as the ones in Double Dash.

The music is typical Mario Kart material; catchy and fast-paced. The composer did an excellent job evolving the retro tunes for the DS, for these are the soundtracks which really stand out. Music for the new courses does have its moments, but most of it doesn’t stick to you like the classic beats. In other words, there is tedium to be found in some of the new music. Engine and weapon noises are colorful. The characters’ catchy phrases have been downplayed in MK DS and replaced with one-word shouts and grunts. Fans will miss MK64’s “I’m-a Wario! I’m-a gonna win!”

The replay value of this game is colossal! You’ll never get bored playing online or over local Wi-Fi multiplayer. The single-player game will take a while to complete, in turn unlocking new content including karts and characters. Moreover, the developers were kind enough to adapt Super Circuit’s grading system in the single-player Grand Prix and Mission Mode. You’re basically given a grade for each cup in Grand Prix depending on how well you perform, and that includes getting 1st place in every track, racing perfectly, and securing fast times. The mission mode also has the same grading system, but for the most part it leans on how fast you finish a mission. If you’re a perfectionist, it will take you a very long time to get a three-star rating on every single cup and mission. There’s nothing else to say about Mario Kart DS, one of the best games to grace Nintendo’s handheld yet. You would be a fool not to buy this game if you own a DS. See you online my fellow readers. I’ll be sure to kick all your green shells until they turn red!

With a game this great, we already know what the score will be!!
(that good)


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