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Mario Kart DS (DS)

With Super Mario Kart for SNES, Nintendo brought a new change onto the racing scene. Certainly, we'd seen many kinds of racing games over the years, but Super Mario Kart was definitely something different. While the goal, as with any racing game, was still to be the first to the finish line, in Super Mario Kart, it wasn't just about being fast, but about shooting shells and banana peels at your fellow racers, jumping and sliding around on the track, past all sorts of obstacles, racing your way to the finish. Mario Kart 64 for N64 continued in this tradition, expanding on one of the things that felt a bit lacking from the original in its course design. While most of Super Mario Kart's tracks where a number of quick laps around a short course, Mario Kart 64 focused more on a lengthy, and detailed, course design. This was followed up by Mario Kart: Super Circuit for GBA, and Mario Kart: Double Dash for GCN, both of which brought their own particular twists and style to the series, as well as many new courses. Now, however, we have Mario Kart DS, which may well prove to be the best of the bunch.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Mario Kart franchise in general, it's a racing game featuring Mario, Luigi, Princess, and many other Mario characters, pitted against each other in a kart race. As mentioned above, however, it's not just about a straight race to the finish, as there are a number of items which play a significant part into the gameplay. It's not just about being fast, but also about finding the right spot to place a banana peel so that someone will slip over it, or hitting the racer in front of you with a shell just as they're about to cross the finish line. It's not just about holding down the gas button and bending through turns, each race is a detailed adventure through a number of fun and interesting tracks.

The main mode of gameplay is the Grand Prix more. Here, one selects from different cart speed values (the higher speeds being more difficult), and later from a selection of Cups, each cup consisting of four courses. At the end of each course, points will be awarded based on the place one finished, and once one has gone through all of the courses, the one with the most points is the winner. The other thing one has to select when starting up a race is a driver and cart. Without giving away too much detail or spoiling anything, you will have a number of characters from the Mario games to choose from, with some more to discover later. Once you've selected a driver, you will then select a cart. Each racer has their own unique carts (with their own particular designs), and each cart has ratings in a number of different categories. One might choose a cart with a higher top speed but slower acceleration, or a cart with the better handling, or whichever set of statistics best fits one's racing style.

The courses in Mario Kart DS are a spectacular blend of the old and the new. The cups are broken down into two sets, the "Nitro Grand Prix" (new courses), and the "Retro Grand Prix" (courses from previous games). For the courses in the Nitro Grand Prix, Mario Kart DS has its own large set of new and unique courses, designed just for this game. In the Retro Grand Prix, the cups are made up of a selection of courses from the SNES, N64, GBA and GCN Mario Kart games. Racing through these "old favorites" in this new game is definitely very enjoyable. For anyone wanting something new and different, however, the courses in the Nitro Grand Prix are just as spectacular. Courses from both sets consist of a variety of terrains and styles. One will be racing through beaches, towns, airships, gardens, ice and snow, and many other different types of areas. The courses from the previous games fit together great, and the new course selections go along perfectly with the feel of all Mario Kart courses.

The graphics in Mario Kart DS are absolutely spectacular. Not only are the courses well designed, but, there are many little touches here and there which really add to the overall feel of the course. Every part and piece of the course looks beautiful, and fits together great. Also, the background designs of the courses are marvelous and, while one won't have much time to look at them as one is racing, really provide some nice scenery for the race. As well, the music of the different courses all fit them perfectly. The new courses have new songs created just for them, which fit the feel and add to the action. The classic courses from the previous Mario Kart games feature the songs from those versions, which all sound beautiful through the DS's speakers, and really help to bring back the memories of the first time one raced through those courses. Even if one hadn't played the games those courses were included in, however, the Mario Kart series in general has always had some great music, so, the songs from the previous games are still welcome additions to this one.

When racing, the top screen is your main racing area. Here, you have your view of the course, the lap number, your position, and the item you are holding. The bottom screen is used for the elapsed time, a full list of the positions of the 8 racers, and a map of the course. There are two different map displays that one can see, one which is fairly close to the action and the other which is panned all the way back to see the whole course, and one can switch between these two displays simply by touching the screen. Having these particular elements of the display down on the bottom screen is really helpful, clearing off the main screen to get a good view of the action, while still having the other information available at hand for when one needs to use it. The close-up course map is very useful for both seeing what obstacles lay ahead, and for trying to line up banana peels or shells to drop on the people behind you. As well, there are a couple of new items which have been included in this game, one of which is a Blooper who will drop oil on the main screen of other racer. When one has oil on their screen, one can still see around it, but, needless to say, racing like this is rather difficult. The other method one can use when this problem arises, however, is to look at the bottom course display to judge one's position. While it doesn't give you the full view that the top screen does, it's certainly enough to race with. Little touches like this definitely make one feel that both screens are an intricate part of the action. Another thing that's new, is the ability to "draft." What this does is, if you're close behind another player for a period of time, you'll get a burst of speed that will allow you to move past them. The other side of this, of course, is that beind so close behind another player makes you vulnerable to a banana peel or shell, which are much easier for the player in front to use with the display on the bottom screen. These are all new factors which will have to be taken into account, and are all very enjoyable.

As well as the main Grand Prix mode, the single player of Mario Kart DS features a couple more selections. There is a Time Trial mode, of course, to try racing in a particular course to try to get a new best time, or just for practice. Then, there's a Vs. mode, where one can adjust a number of settings for a race. One can set the difficulty of the computer karts, course selection, rule set, and arrange the karts into teams. In a team race, the points earned by the finishes of all members of the team are added to a total, with the winner being the team with the most points. So, if one is in 2nd, and a team member is in 1st, one might not want to hit them with a red shell, because doing so might cause them to fall back to 3rd, and the team will lose points. Just different little twists like this to the racing action are very fun. A new mode that has been added is a Mission mode. Here, one goes through a number of missions with different goals. The goal might be something like "collect coins" or "perform a number of power slides in one lap" or "drive through a course backwards" or different assorted things like that. While many of these goals are fairly straightforward enough to complete, you're also given a grade on how quickly you accomplish it. So, you'll definitely have a good challenge going through trying to do these quickly. As well, there is a very large amount of these different challenges. So, making it through all of these is still a fairly lengthy, and fun, thing to do.

Also making a return are the Battle modes. Here, one has the option between Balloon Battle and Shine Runners. In Balloon Battle, your goal is to hit your opponent with items, causing their balloons to pop. The last person remaining with balloons is the winner. In Shine Runners, the goal is to collect Shines around on the course. One can also steal other players Shines. Players with fewer Shines will be eliminated over time until a winner is left. One can play multiplayer locally with either every player having their own copy of the game or with the Download Play option if some people don't have their copy. Players without a copy of the game will be limited in their choice selection, but it's still great to get more people in on the action. So, all you need to get a nice battle going is a group of people with DS systems. If one doesn't have others around to play, however, one can play the Battle mode against computer opponents as well. Not quite the same as playing with friends, but, it's still fun. Plus, it gives one the chance to get some practice in for when one does have others to play against.

Then, there is the one feature which really makes this Mario Kart game stand apart from all the others: Online play. The DS system has been capable of more than just a simple local wireless connection from day one, but, there hadn't yet been any games which made use of this feature. Mario Kart DS is the first of what looks to be a nice lineup of games which plan to take advantage of this. When setting up the online play of Mario Kart DS, the system sends out a signal looking for any compatible wireless devices in the area. This can be anything from the wireless router you already have in your home for use with your computers, a wireless hotspot in a location such as a restaurant or coffee shop, or, if neither of those are options, there is a wireless adapter which one can purchase to plug into one's computer to set up a wireless signal to the DS. Regardless of which option one chooses to make use of, setup is quick and easy, and once set up, works seamlessly without any additional thought to be paid to it. Connecting for an online match is just as easy as connecting to your friend sitting right next to you.

One has a number of different ways that one can choose to search for opponents. One can search for players from the entire world, one's country, players of a similar skill level, or players from one's Friend List. When setting up Mario Kart DS, one is given a Friend Code. This string of numbers can be exchanged with friends, and they add your code and name to their game. Once a person is on your friend list, you can choose to search for any available friends online to have a match against. One can do this randomly just to see who is on, or, of course, one can simply tell someone to go on and search for you, you'll go search for them, and you'll find each other. Even playing people from across the world, the play online is perfectly smooth. Regardless of what option one chooses, whether racing against people one knows or new opponents that one has never faced before, the thrill and challenge of racing against other people (when other people may not be available in the same room to play against) is something different, something special, which is just hard to capture with computer opponents. Even beyond the simple element of the human challenge, if one has friends online, people one is always talking to about video games, it's great to finally have a chance to "meet up with them" in an online game of Mario Kart.

Even ignoring the online aspect of it, if one is a fan of racing games in general, and especially if one is a fan of the previous Mario Kart games, this game is a spectacular selection. It has all the charm and feel of the previous games, while adding its own special touch to the series. The exciting racing, the fun items, all the different characters are all there as one would hope they are. The selection of new courses is wonderfully designed and offers something fun and different. The inclusion of courses from previous games is a spectacular idea, and it's great fun to go through them, either experiencing memories from before, or just enjoying them as the addition of some more exciting and interesting courses. Everything is here that one would hope to find in a Mario Kart game, and it's all done to perfection. There are many things to see and do in the game, challenges to complete and races to run, that it will keep one busy for quite some time, even if one has no one else with whom to play. Beyond that, the online play part of it definitely makes it a must-purchase. If one has the ability to go online, it's really an experience that simply can't be passed up. The opportunity to play a game against friends that you've previously only talked about games with is spectacular. Even as one completes all the different tasks and challenges this game has to offer, the constant draw of the challenge of playing against a countless selection of real people online is going to keep one continually coming back to this game. It's an experience that shouldn't be missed.

Gamplay: 10/10
Graphics: 10/10
Music: 9/10
Length/Replay (single-player): 9/10
Length/Replay (multi-player/online): 10/10
Overall: 10/10