Mario Kart DS – Retrospective

Released just two years after Mario Kart: Double Dash, the shortest gap between entries to date, there was no doubt that Mario Kart DS had a lot riding on its success. The chaotic, weapon-heavy races of the series’ Gamecube outing had alienated some of Nintendo’s audience and core titles were thin on the ground, but with a broad DS consumer base already enticed by titles like Brain Training there was a delicate balance to be maintained if Mario Kart were to maintain its popularity.

Mario Kart DS was to be a straightforward title, one that sought to take advantage of the DS’s improved connectivity and provide a “best-of-breed” entry without anything that might be perceived as extraneous gimmickry. Racers were once again driving solo, slipstreaming returned and was given a visual makeover, and the density of weapons fire was greatly reduced. Possibly the greatest demonstration of the game’s rebalancing is the remade Double Dash circuit Mushroom Bridge; all but one of that track’s many shortcuts and its speed boosts have been stripped away, leaving an experience that’s almost sedate by comparison.

Ooh, banana.

Yoshi Falls has tropical palm trees and a jungle drum soundtrack – a dino invasion of DK Island?

For some, it was a balance that had shifted too far. It was easier than ever to pull off drift boosts and thanks to the width of the new circuits, savvy players soon discovered that they could “snake” along straights, repeatedly drifting this way and that to earn boost after boost. As the technique spread across the internet, online matches became a stratified tussle with elite players cramming as many drifts into a single corner as possible, and bemused novices who couldn’t or wouldn’t follow suit being left inexorably behind.

With no number of blue shells able to disguise the frustration at opponents who were just plain faster than you, there were more than a few cross words to be had. Many of these were directed at Nintendo themselves, with demands to “patch the game” and eliminate snaking (and just as many demands to maintain the status quo) showing just how intertwined the relationship between developers and players had become in an online age. While the game was never updated – the DS’s online flexibility was far removed from the PCs and consoles of its time – it’s fair to say that the majority of Mario Kart DS‘s 20 million-strong audience were oblivious to the hardcore’s discontent.

Nor would snaking spell guaranteed success in single-player races, as the preferred racing order and rubberbanding returned once more. Mario Kart DS‘s single player was a thoroughly challenging affair after Double Dash, with blue shells and lightning bolts causing trouble for players even on 50cc races. While there were few unlockables this time around – the number of karts had been reduced and were now driver-specific – there were still secret characters for completionists to discover. More intriguing were the large number of single-player missions; familiar territory to anyone who’d experienced arcade racers like the Project Gotham Racing series. Players were tasked with bite-size challenges like racing through gates or driving backwards before being ranked on their performance and ultimately coming up against Bowser’s minions in boss battles. Despite having a significant amount of content, these missions were entirely optional and offered no larger reward – had they been presented in combination with full races, they could have provided the series’ first true solo campaign.

The white block has magic powers.

Mario 3 blocks and bricks line Figure-8 Circuit, which acts as a gentle introduction.

Not that solitary players had to content themselves with racing alone; most of the barriers to entry that had thwarted Super Circuit had been removed by the DS’s hardware; a way to exchange friend codes was all that was needed to battle opponents globally. The single-cart “download play” feature returned, too, letting players effectively demo the game to their DS-owning friends. With Nintendo’s online infrastructure in its infancy, there were a number of sacrifices – items couldn’t be dragged or spilled and twelve of the game’s courses simply weren’t selectable – but there was a definite joy in being able to finally test your Mario Kart metal against distant friends or forum rivals alike.

As had come to be expected, the title displayed a high level of visual and audio polish, with polygons wisely spent on the characters rather than the scenery. With no DS Mario offering as yet, the game chose Super Mario Bros. 3 as its motif – a decision that delighted older players and allowed for many tongue-in-cheek references, like the Angry Sun disgorging fire snakes into the twisting Desert Hills course. While several of the tracks were unambitious or rehashes of what had come before (Wario and Waluigi’s circuits in particular borrowed heavily from Double Dash) there were more hits than misses – the sharp angles of Delfino Square and Airship Fortress would go on to become fan favourites.

Dirty mush across the sand!

Upscaling retro courses would continue in future titles as Nintendo upped the driver count to 12.

Every Retro Grand Prix, meanwhile, was arranged nearly into an entry from each generation, with some faring better than others. While the Gamecube courses transferred remarkably well considering the DS’s reduced horsepower, the SNES tracks had been radically scaled up to provide a meaty race within a three-lap structure and lost much of their challenge and distinctiveness as a result. With the entire back-catalogue as yet unplundered, some of the returnees seemed questionable – the Shell Cup was mostly composed of starter courses while unloved entries like the N64’s Banshee Boardwalk padded out the later cups. Even so, with retro tracks now standard fare for any Mario Kart, it’s important to remember how impressive the remastering seemed at the time.

Taken as a whole, Mario Kart DS was an impressive if risk-averse entry, and received the critical acclaim it deserved, striking a better balance of racing and items than Double Dash and giving the DS a flagship title for its core audience. To assess the game’s legacy, one need look no further than its successors – it set the template for Mario Karts to come, with everything from its mixture of new and retro courses to the layout of its HUD being reprised in future titles. Even without analogue steering, anyone who returns to the title today will acclimatise easily, slipping back into a well-worn pair of driving gloves. With the closure of Nintendo’s WFC service it’s the first Mario Kart to be lost, at least in part, to time, but so much of its spirit survives in other titles it’s hard to feel too much loss. Mario Kart DS is dead – long live Mario Kart.

(Images taken from Nintendo UK )

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