Mario Kart DS is a combat racing game in the Mario Kart series for the Nintendo DS. If you want to know more of the basics of Mario Kart in general then I’d recommend checking out my Super Mario Kart or Mario Kart 7 reviews first. If you think you get the idea already, then feel free to just proceed with this one. Trust me, there’s not a lot to know before jumping in, so don’t worry too much.
Mario Kart DS is actually the second handheld installment in the series that released after the GameCube’s Mario Kart: Double Dash and before the Wii’s Mario Kart Wii. And it might sound silly to say so, but… well… it certainly feels like it. The way racers operate feels a lot like a mixture of the two, and the presentation even has splashes of Mario Kart 64 in it. As with most of the games, there are a few modes to pick from when playing Mario Kart DS. The main attraction is the Grand Prix. This has two grand prix options. The Nitro Grand Prix has four cups consisting of four tracks each for 16 all new tracks to race on. The Retro Grand Prix has four cups consisting of four tracks each for 16 remakes of tracks from previous installments. So you get 32 tracks to race on in total. The Retro Grand Prix cups actually take one track from each of the four previous installments for equal representation. They are visually a bit different, but the designs all seem more or less faithful to the originals. And of course the goal is to race against the computer opponents and win all of the races to win each up overall. There are three main difficulties of 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc. Each one is faster than that last along with sporting some more aggressive AI competition. You can unlock various things by completing the different cups on different difficulties. Typically only the first two cups in each grand prix of any given difficulty are available until you can get a gold trophy in them each, which will unlock the next and beating that in the same fashion will unlock the final one. Beating them all will open up Mirror Mode, which still flips the tracks horizontally like in Double Dash and keeps the speed at 150cc, but it also sports some even more aggressive opponents. You can also unlock new characters and karts through these methods as well.
You start with 8 characters, each with their own inherent racing stats, and can select between two karts, which also have their own stats on top of that. So you’ll need to consider speed, acceleration, weight, handling, drift, and items for your stats. The more you win, the more racers and karts you unlock to further cater to your racing style. If Grand Prix sounds too time consuming or restricting at the moment then you can simply select VS to play the same kinds of races with greater freedo, because you have some extra options. You can choose the engine class of the vehicles from 50cc up to Mirror, but you can also independently select the difficulty of the computer racers. You can set the courses to be freely selected, played in order, or chosen at random. You can set the rules at free to simply go for as long as you see fit, set a certain number of races, or set a certain numbers of wins in order to determine the end of the session. You can even turn on teams, which will place half of the racers against the others and determine a race’s winner based on their cumulative points.
Maybe you just want to admire, explore, and master the tracks without all the distractions. Well then time trials is the mode for you. Simply drive around the tracks trying to get the best lap time and overall race time you can, which will be recorded on your game pak. You start off the races with two mushrooms which you’ll have to use wherever you find the boosts most fitting. But hey, sometimes all you want to do is rough up some Mario characters with all manner of Mario-themed items.
Battle mode has you covered. Like in previous games, you are put into arena levels and mainly trying to bop every other racer before they can bop you first. There are two types of battles in this game. The first is Balloon Battle, which is very similar in concept to the one found in Mario Kart 64. You’re trying to hit other players to knock out their balloons before they can do the same to you. When all of your balloons are gone, you’re out. The last man standing wins the battle. You can still only have a maximum of 3 balloons at a time as usual, but in this game you only start with 1 inflated. To inflate the others you need not be holding the A button and then blow into your mic or hold the select button. So you actually have MORE balloons in this one, but they aren’t all handed to you. Even if you have some uninflated balloons leftover, losing all of your currently inflated ones will mean you’re out. The other game type is called Shine Runners. In this mode there are shine sprites (the iconic collectible from Super Mario Sunshine) scattered throughout the stage. You simple drive over them to collect them, but if you get hit with an item then you’ll drop some. Every so often a timer comes up and ticks down. Once it hits zero it eliminates those with the fewest shines. This happens over and over until only the winner is left. Just like with VS mode, you can change up the options. Though obviously you cannot select an engine class and the only rules are for victory are setting a number of wins or just leaving it open to your own free decision.
If that’s not enough for you, why not try out the all new Mission mode. In this mode you can pick from 6 different levels of missions. Each level consists of 8 missions. These can be all kinds of things using the various courses and mechanics in different ways. Some are more like training your skills, like doing so many power-slides or driving through rings. Some are more unique, like using items to hit so many enemies or going through courses backwards. You’ll get a ranking depending on how well you do. The ranks from worst to best are C, B, A, 1 star, 2 stars, and 3 stars. After beating all 8 missions in a level, you unlock a boss fight, which uses some manner of the mechanics to defeat iconic bosses from Super Mario 64 DS. Your overall level ranking will be determined by the lowest ranked mission in each. Getting all of them ranked up to at least 1 star will unlock a bonus level of missions as well.
What about multiplayer? Heck, it just wouldn’t be a Mario Kart game without some good old fashioned multiplayer goodness. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to try it out. As far as I know, the online functionality that was shut down on the Wii and DS renders it unplayable for online play. It might still have some workaround with the 3DS, but I have no idea how to do it. It certainly isn’t simple if there is one. I believe you can also do local play, which I imagine would still work… but I had no one to try this out with so I can’t really get into how it plays as a multiplayer game. It probably is good, based on the gameplay, but there’s no way for me to say for sure. Other than that, and being able to check your racing records, there’s only a few other options to look at. You change the audio to surround, stereo, or headphones. There’s a locate friend feature, but it looks like it only works with online so don’t bother. You can change your nickname as it appears in the game and also there’s a somewhat complex emblem creator. You can choose to turn it on or off, but it allows you to basically draw your own emblem pixel by pixel in a grid and then you’ll get to see it plastered on the karts you drive, usually covering up the generic, character-related symbol.
I have to say, I ended up really enjoying this game. I certainly liked it more than I expected to. The visuals are nice, especially considering the platform this is on. They look a bit like N64 visuals at times, which obviously is favorable to me, but they’re also a bit more bright and crisp than that. Still, the game runs very smooth. The music is also quite fitting for the series as well. What I really like are the tweaks to the gameplay. The game went back to having one racer per kart, brought back the hopping mechanic, and removed the idea of characters getting specialized items. Everyone is playing with the same set of tools, so it feels more balanced and traditional. But the speed, the control, and the weight of the game make it very fun to play. You can get some good items to help you out in these varied and interesting tracks, but if you don’t know the turns and how to take ‘em, you’re probably not going to come in first place. It ‘s always nice to have the fun and spectacle balanced with solid gameplay mechanics and genuine skill. They even tweaked a few technical things. I noticed far less blue shells here than in Double Dash or Wii. I also noticed that red shells seem to be a bit more balanced. They will follow the track to seek out very distant targets and are still stoppable, but it’s now more of a skill to stop them. Holding a fake item box behind you won’t save your ass anymore unless you can lay it at the right time to block the shell. And sometimes the shell can be launched more towards the side of someone or come into them at an angle when they turn, effectively sidestepping the item they have glued to their rear and hitting them anyway. Plus, you don’t want to hold onto items too long because if you get hit then you’ll drop it and effectively waste it. So there’s a lot to keep you active and in the game at all times rather than promoting cheap victories or completely unstoppable leads. The red shell is also pretty interesting in battle mode or just plain team based gameplay. By the way, I really do like the idea of team gameplay to make it feel like a cooperative experience. See, the red shell doesn’t seem to discriminate. If you fire one off in the direction of your teammate, chances are pretty good it’s going to seek them out. So you have to be careful and skillful with your red shells. They’re not a noob’s best friend anymore. Speaking of the battle mode, I think the new Balloon Battle mechanic of blowing up balloons is interesting. You have to pick when and where to try and inflate your balloons or else you might end up just losing more in the process, but you still get invincibility frames to make a getaway before you’re just bombarded all in one shot. It’s a neat twist. Shine Runners is also cool because it promotes aggression as well as evasion at the same time. You won’t win just by sitting in a corner away from all the action in this one.
This is actually the first time in a Mario Kart game that I’ve actually felt like changing my karts and my racers actually made a difference. I had to try out different characters and karts for optimal stats for the given cups. Sometimes I had issues with making turns, so I focused more on handling. Other times I just couldn’t keep up with the pack, so I went more for speed and acceleration. And it wa actually fun switching between these different methods to do my best in the races. It was interesting and a nice change of pace for me. Oh, and the retro tracks are nicely done in a way that doesn’t feel like they were totally revamped but still clearly made to function with this game’s mechanics. I think the thing that makes this game unique and worth getting even today is the mission mode. I love how it just plays with the Mario Kart mechanics to do different things. It’s great for solo play and can even help hone your skills a bit. I’m still stunned they managed to make boss battles with the Mario Kart mechanics. They’re quite challenging but they totally work. This is definitely the mode that will challenge you the most and keep you coming back for replays trying to get the best ranks possible. If nothing else looks that great in comparison to other Mario Kart titles, get it simple for the mission mode. It’s awesome.
I don’t really have much for gripes in this game. I guess the AI rubber banding is still a bit unfair, but I really only noticed it in the mirror mode. The lack of online support these days is disappointing, but what can ya do? I don’t really care for time trials in general, but I guess it’s okay that it’s there. I think the ranking systems are a bit odd, though. They’re tough to understand. Why switch between letters and stars? Why not just do all letters or all stars? Also, what exactly is the criteria for getting these ranks? Sometimes I’ll end up placing first with a poor rank, but then finish a different cup lower down with a better rank. I don’t know if it’s based on points, time, general performance, or a combination of them. Some explanation would be nice. The way it is now it just feels like it’s random. It’d be super helpful in the mission mode especially so I know what to aim for exactly. The Balloon Battle mode is cool, but it also lacked a proper explanation. It DID tell me to blow into the mic to inflate balloons. It did NOT say I needed to be still when doing so, nor did it mention I could hit select to do it instead. I mean, do you really want to be the dipshit blowing into their handheld when you’re playing in public? I hear it’s faster to do that, but you also have to consider how well your mic registers your volume. It may be safer to plan around a fixed inflation rate with the select button. And if you lose in a battle match, the entire thing just ends. You don’t get to watch it play out, it just randomly assigns a result afterward and feels like the game only relies on you rather than being an experience independent of the settings. The option to watch or skip would be nice, if for nothing else than to give the illusion of the result being natural. I guess I can’t comment much on the controls because… well… I played it on a 3DS so I used the thumbstick to steer. I tried using the D-pad, but it felt awkward when having to stretch my hand way up to hold onto items with L. On an actual DS, it might be better because of a more centered pad, and perhaps I’d like that pad more in general than I do the 3DS one. However, I do think that, while I enjoy how it plays and controls, I could see people arguing about the fact that it really doesn’t take advantage of the touch controls. You can switch your view from a map view to a overhead display by tapping the bottom screen, which can help you see incoming racers and items, but other than that there’s really not much that the DS itself has to offer specifically. So I guess you could call it a little uninspired in that regard.
Still, there’s not much to complain about with Mario Kart DS. It’s well-designed entry in the Mario Kart series that’s still nice to play on the go and offers a unique mission mode if nothing else. There are plenty of tracks, modes, and hours to enjoy with this rather affordable game. If you have a DS or 3DS and want to play a solid Mario Kart game on the go, Mario Kart DS is a damn good one with some unique things to offer and a reasonable price point. It’s easily worth the 15 to 20 bucks you’ll most likely find it for. If you’re a Mario Kart fan already, it probably wouldn’t hurt to spring for 25 for how much you’ll get out of this one. It may not be the most impressive installment in the series, but it still has something unique to offer on top of being solid in other aspects. Mario Kart DS… is… it….. look, it’s good, okay?