Check out our video review:
The Mario Kart series began in the early nineties and it’s one of those franchises that I expect to see on each Nintendo system. At this point, I always expect four major Nintendo titles for each new home console. A new 3D Mario, a new Smash Bros., a new Zelda and a new Mario Kart. Mario Kart: Double Dash was a breath of fresh air for the series. The developers experimented with the formula and tried some new things and the result was an excellent game. If we exclude the first arcade game, the next Mario Kart would be the second portable game in the series. Developed and published by Nintendo, Mario Kart DS was released for the Nintendo DS in November, 2005. It was released for the Wii U Virtual Console in April, 2015 and that’s the version I played for this review. Although the online services have been discontinued, it’s worth noting that Mario Kart DS is the first game in the series to support online play.
Mario Kart DS has a lot going for it. Besides being a portable title, it has the best vehicle handling up to this point, numerous game modes and features online multiplayer. The character roster has been reduced from Double Dash and Shy Guy is exclusive to players using the DS Download Play. Mario Kart DS retains the traditional single-driver vehicle elements and snaking is one of the most important mechanics in the game. If you want to be really good at it, that is. On the Wii U, you can choose how both screens of the DS are displayed and on the actual DS, itself, the bottom touch screen proves to be extremely helpful. It will show you an overhead view of the courses and even items.
All of the mechanics we have come to love and expect are here. You can accelerate, brake, hop, drift, and perform drift boosts or mini-turbos. Chaining mini-turbos together lets you snake around the courses and proves to be extremely beneficial in higher engine classes like 150cc and Mirror. Each character comes with multiple vehicles and as you progress through the Grand Prix’s in each engine class, you’ll unlock more cups, characters, and vehicles. Now for the best part. Nintendo finally nailed the vehicle handling. The characters are still split up into different weight classes and each vehicle handles differently and has different stats in speed, acceleration, weight, handling, drift, and items. But I actually felt like I had complete control of my vehicle for the first time in the series. I never felt like I was sliding whenever I made a turn or performed a maneuver.
As expected, the meat of the single player is the Grand Prix mode. Winning cups is how you unlock more content and you are ranked at the end of each cup based on your performance. There are two Grand Prix’s. The Nitro Grand Prix which includes cups consisting of all new courses and the Retro Grand Prix which includes cups consisting of courses from previous games. You can try for record times in the Time Trials mode and unlock staff ghosts to race against and DS is the second game in the series to let you set up a quick race. You can configure different aspects like the CPU difficulty, how the courses are chosen and even enable team racing. For some odd reason, you can’t select the CPU opponents and you can attack your own teammates which can be annoying.
Another cool thing about Mario Kart DS is that you can actually play through the Battle mode in single player. It comes with two game types; the classic Balloon Battle and Shine Runners. The gameplay in Balloon Battle is basically unchanged except now you can blow up additional balloons by holding down a button or blowing into the mic. In Shine Runners; the objective is to collect more shines than your opponents and getting hit will release one of your shines. It also plays out in an elimination type of format. After so much time, the opponent with the least amount of shines is eliminated. The Battle mode comes with six stages, two of which are from previous games.
Mario Kart DS introduces the Missions Mode. This mode consists of multiple levels, each of which include multiple missions and a boss battle. Unfortunately, the objectives are not varied so the mode becomes repetitive quickly. There’s only about a handful of objectives and a lot them aren’t very challenging. Earning a three-star rank in some of them can be tough but actually completing them usually isn’t very difficult. You’ll have to drive backwards, collect coins, race opponents, destroy things and most missions can be completed in under two minutes. There’s also no real incentive to play through this mode. Other than meeting the requirements to unlock the final level, there’s nothing to work towards. The entire mode feels like an afterthought and many missions just aren’t that fun.
The racing is where it’s at in Mario Kart DS. The traditional engine classes return with 50cc being the slowest and easiest and 150cc and Mirror being the most difficult. 50cc in particular feels extremely slow to the point of crossing over into the boring territory. Luckily, the speed and action pick up in the higher engine classes. Scattered around the courses are Item Boxes and driving into them will grant you items that can be used against your opponents. All of the classics return and new items include Blooper, Bullet Bill and Triple Banana. There are no special items this time around but the Bob-omb returns and is now standard. Blooper is pretty useless against actual players that know what they’re doing. It squirts ink on the screen which is supposed to temporarily obstruct your view but it’s really not too hard to stay on course. It’s great in single player because it always causes AI opponents to slow down. Triple Banana is basically the Banana Bunch from Mario Kart 64 except with only three bananas. The Bullet Bill item will automatically boost you up the positions, knocking away opponents. It’s quite useful if you’re not doing well.
Interestingly enough, Mario Kart DS is kind of a taste of what’s to come. The item balancing is all fucked up and the game basically puts a hit on you if you’re doing well. I say “a taste of what’s to come” because if you think DS is bad, just wait until you get to Mario Kart Wii which might just be the most unbalanced game in the series but we’ll get to that when we cover that game. Rubber banding is definitely present and the AI are often relentless with Spiny Shells, even in 50cc. In the lower engine classes, it’s not that hard to win races if you have the mechanics down. And these engine classes are great opportunities to practice drift boosting and snaking. Regardless of the engine class, it seems like if you’re in first for too long and driving well, the game will try to put a stop to that by hitting you with several items and it’s always obvious when it happens. It’s not uncommon to be assaulted by a ridiculous chain of attacks. You can hold certain items behind your vehicle again, however it no longer guarantees that you’ll block incoming shells. In fact, Red Shells often hit the side of your vehicle. In 150cc and especially Mirror, the AI is extremely aggressive. The opponent in first can get a big lead so you’ll need to master drift boosting and snaking. If you’re not boosting frequently, there’s a good chance you’ll lose.
I can honestly say I enjoyed most of the new courses in Mario Kart DS. There are shortcuts to find and take, jumps, boost pads will give you bursts of speed, you’ll have to avoid hazards and obstacles and each course varies in theme and style. You’ll have to watch out for balls on the Waluigi Pinball course, an Angry Sun will drop fireballs on the Desert Hills course, cars populate Shroom Ridge, and Bullet Bills will come flying at you on the Airship Fortress. DS’s iteration of Rainbow Road is kind of similar in its aesthetic to that of the Rainbow Road in Double Dash, complete with a lack of barriers in certain sections. But since DS gave me better control of my vehicle, it’s not as nerve wracking to race on. As for the retro courses, I can’t say the developers chose the best ones but most of the selection is good. They chose two of my least favorite courses from 64 – Choco Mountain and Banshee Boardwalk, but also one of my favorites from that game – Moo Moo farms. There’s four cups for each Grand Prix and in the Retro Grand Prix, there’s one course from each of the previous games in each cup.
Visually, I think Mario Kart DS looks great for a DS game and while it doesn’t look terrible running on the Wii U, being blown up on a big screen does expose the game’s blocky and pixelated 3D presentation. Regardless, it’s a colorful game and considering the hardware it’s designed for, it really doesn’t look that bad. The music, on the other hand, is unremarkable. You will get to listen to some classic tunes and catchy new ones here and there but many of the new songs are just not that great. Engines will roar, the boom of a Bob-omb exploding is loud and the sound of an incoming Spiny Shell can fill you with dread if you’re in first, on the last lap and close to the finish line with opponents up your ass. On the technical side, I noticed some stutters here and there but it wasn’t often and I encountered no major issues.
I had a great time with Mario Kart DS. I got it way back when it was still in its prime and I put a lot of hours into it back then so it was fun to revisit. At this point, I expect each new game to be enjoyable but also cheap or unbalanced in some way but I honestly forgot how bad the item balancing was in DS. It doesn’t reach the levels of cheapness of Mario Kart Wii but it can often feel noticeably cheap. However, one thing DS has going for it is that skill can trump all of the game’s attempts to stop you. If you can master the drift boosting and snaking, it doesn’t matter how many Spiny Shells are thrown at you or how many times you get shrunken down by lightning, you can easily speed around the courses and win and earn those three-star rankings. Finding the right combination of character and vehicle is key and once you have the mechanics down, you can easily overcome any bullshit the game throws at you during races. Not being able to race through the Grand Prix mode with another player kind of sucks and I was disappointed to see that several characters from Double Dash didn’t make the cut but the newcomers are alright and I like the variety of vehicles and courses. DS comes with a lot of content, especially for single player so it should keep you occupied for a while. I do think the Missions mode is a neat concept but it was terribly implemented. It feels like it was thrown in at the last minute which is a shame because they could have done a lot more with it. Regardless, there’s plenty of other things to enjoy about the game and, luckily, nothing significant comes out of the Missions mode so you can skip it altogether if you want.
I would absolutely recommend Mario Kart DS. It plays well, there’s a lot to do, it’s a lot of fun and you can take the experience with you on-the-go. The vehicle handling has finally been perfected and skill will always lead you to victory, at least in single player. Even today, Mario Kart DS still holds up and its mainly due to the gameplay. I, personally, think it’s one of the best games in the series and one of the best for the system. Definitely check it out.