Retro Review: Mario Kart DS

A look back at one of the greatest kart racers ever.

Let me get this out of the way first: Mario Kart DS is my favorite Mario Kart game of all time.

Yes, I have a high sense of nostalgia for Mario Kart 64, and perhaps I have spent more hours playing Mario Kart Wii, but in my honest opinion, Mario Kart DS represents the culmination of all things great about Mario Kart, adding to it several outstanding new features that have remained series staples ever since. Since its release almost a full decade ago, Mario Kart DS has managed to sell over 23 million copies and turn the Mario Kart franchise into one of the most successful brands in video game history.

My first experience with Mario Kart DS extends back to my primary school days. Many a lunchtime was spent obsessing over the game’s multiplayer modes, a testament to the addictive quality of Nintendo’s constantly evolving karting franchise. Whether I was racing around tracks with my buddies or battling it out in the game’s revamped Battle Mode, I always seemed to have a great time while playing Mario Kart DS, and the system’s new download and online play options made sharing the experience with friends all the more easier.

The core of Mario Kart DS remains largely the same as its predecessors. Racing still involves doing laps around unique Mario-themed locales as you and your opponents attempt to fling items and obstacles at each other at a delightfully chaotic pace. Basic strategies as drafting and power-sliding return in this entry, though the latter of which is infamously known to be easily exploited into a new technique known as “snaking.” Customizable karts also return from the GameCube entry, as well as the whole crew of Mario characters that we all know and love… plus R.O.B. the robot, who somehow also made the cut.

Perhaps the biggest new addition to Mario Kart DS is its retro cups: 16 additional tracks that were pulled from past Mario Kart games and remade to fit the new game’s play style. This ups the track count to 32 – nearly double of what most Mario Kart games had before. Returning to these new tracks was no doubt a blast, but many of the newer tracks were also equally as memorable. My favorites include Luigi’s Mansion and Tick-Tock Clock, both of which were eventually remade into retro tracks themselves in Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8 respectively.

Mario Kart DS also featured a brand new single-player mission mode that asks racers to complete a series of challenges before fighting a boss battle in a unique arena-styled map. While this mode is relatively short and limited in scope, it was good to see Mario Kart doing something different in order to keep the single-player experience interesting. Unfortunately, while Mario Kart Wii retained the mode in the form of downloadable tournaments, Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8 forewent any similar mode in favor of focusing on the improved online aspects of those games.

Speaking of online, Mario Kart DS is the first Mario Kart game – and the first DS game for that matter – to use Nintendo’s new Wi-Fi Connection service to implement online play through any Internet connection. For the most part, it ran fine until hackers found their way into the game and destroyed the experience for everybody. Some people would also call out “snaking” as an illegal exploit, though I ultimately managed to master it myself, allowing me to swiftly beat most of my opponents anyway.

While Mario Kart has always been known for its high-action racing experience, I have personally spent just as much time, if not more, on Mario Kart’s Battle Mode. For many, Mario Kart DS is seen as the last time Battle Mode was any good. In this mode, players launch items at each other in a last man standing arena match. Lives take the form of balloons, and players can blow into the DS’ built-in microphone to extend the number of lives they have remaining, but only a limited number of times. Once you are eliminated, it is game over for you, though you can still drive around and watch as the rest of the players duel it out.

At the end of the day, I will remember Mario Kart DS most for my multiplayer experiences with it. I remember going on a school trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles one day, and about half a dozen of us were huddled at the back of the bus playing Mario Kart pretty much the entire way through. It was one of the best gaming moments I have ever had, and highlights just how special the Mario Kart franchise has been for me.



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