I have been waiting for Mario Kart DS to be released since I bought my Nintendo DS last November, so I might get a little carried away with this review.
For the uninitiated, Mario Kart DS is a go-kart based racing title which features characters, locales, sounds and items based on the Super Mario realm of gaming. Mario Kart has been a staple of Nintendo's racing line-up since the Super Nintendo back in 1992 and every Nintendo console since then has had a great version for its system.
Now, if you are one of those who think that great graphics and an exclusive soundtrack is what makes a good video game these days, think again. Though simple in game play, it holds a myriad of advanced features and techniques that must be mastered if you want a chance of placing in the top 3 spots in the higher difficulty settings.
So lets take this racer for a spin, shall we?
There are several options to choose from in 3 overall game types: Single player, Multiplayer and Nintendo WFC.
From Single player, you can choose from old favorites such as Grand Prix, Battle and Time Trials. In Grand Prix, you must race in 4 different locales and rack up points to be the overall leader. Battle places you and your computerized opponents in an arena with balloons over your go-karts and items in the arena to burst your opponent's balloons. Time Trials pits you against yourself, as you race to achieve the fastest lap time on a track. After every lap, you will have a ghost image of your fastest lap time for you to race against and beat to gain an even faster time.
In addition, a new Mission mode tests your go-karting expertise with skill-based tasks that unlock new mission leading to a boss battle. The increasing levels of difficulty will definitely bring out the advanced go-kart racer in you.
So, you say, you have heard most of this before from the previous Mario Kart games. If you haven't, you might be saying that these modes are found in other racers. What makes Mario Kart DS worth my time and money?
Simply that this iteration seems to not only have taken the best parts of the previous Mario Kart games, but it also leverages the innovations brought about by the Nintendo DS console itself.
For instance, remember the Battle mode I described earlier? In the previous Mario Kart games, your racer started with 3 balloons. When they are gone, you are out. In Mario Kart DS, you initially start with 1 balloon, and have several in reserve that you blow up, literally. You blow into the DS's microphone like you are blowing up a balloon, and voila! New balloons will inflate and appear, (yes you can push a button if you don't want to look too silly, but it really does get you into the game.) The Time Trial ghost images you made and saves can be sent to friends and challengers through the console's wireless capabilities, so others can try to beat your best time and vice versa. The bottom screen acts as a map, but also alerts you to hazards and item weapons on the map. This map can show the whole course or can zoom in on your racer simply by touching the screen. Add a new drafting mechanic which can make close finishes even closer, the return of the hop slide, (yes go-kart veterans, it is indeed back!) unlockable racers, go-karts and courses and you have a new race in your hands.
So you're probably saying to yourself, "Wow, that's a lot of cool stuff that Mario Kart DS can do wirelessly." And you would be right. But that's not the coolest thing wireless trick Mario Kart DS can do. That's where the last game type, Nintendo WFC, comes in.
WFC stands for Wi-Fi Connection, and when selected, will start you on your way to playing over the Internet against other go-karters. Nintendo wanted to make a safe and easy Internet gaming experience, so they created the WFC to be able to detect wireless networks and connect to them given the correct permissions. They make it safe by not allowing voice communications over the Internet enabled play. They also created a friends list for finding buddies on the Internet that you want to race against, which was made safe by making a dual-authentication scheme. If I want to add my editor Chad to my list of friends, I must first confirm that I actually want Chad's name on my friend list, (which I do,) and add him to my list. Chad will get a notification and must authorize that he wants to be on my list. Kind of how some instant messaging applications adds to lists of friends. This way, you will never have anyone you don't want or know on your list without your consent, and wont have to worry about verbal profanity that sullies some current Internet enabled games. Sharp.
The ease of finding a wireless network, especially if you have one in your home using a wireless router, is built into the WFC setup. It will search and automatically configure itself if your wireless network is unlocked. If it is locked, just add your network's key and you are on the Internet. This feature makes getting online easy ... sometimes.
Unfortunately, one of Mario Kart's strongest possible points might be its weakest. In reviewing this, I have been exposed to 15 wireless networks, including 2 that I have personally setup and locked with a security key at work and home. The rest were unlocked networks acround my work and home neighborhoods. While the setup would find each of these and other unusable networks easily, I could only connect to 4 of the 13 open networks. I could not connect to either of the 2 locked networks that I created. Being a networking tech, I find this unusual. If I was someone who had little knowledge of wireless networking, I would find this frustrating. Nintendo's new wireless homepage (www.nintendowifi.com) has valuable resources on getting your WFC enabled games connected to the internet, and their support and information is clear enough for most users to use and comprehend. They even have a list of wireless routers that are and are not compatible. So, while your mileage may vary, my personal wireless connection rate was 26.6%. Basically, 1 out of every 4 wireless connections that I tried worked.
A few weeks back, Nintendo partnered with wireless hotpot provider Wayport (www.wayport.net) and fast food chain McDonald's to create wireless hotspots across the nation that WFC-enabled DS games can connect to free of charge. Yes, I said free. While not every McDonald's may be Wi-Fi enabled, most cities should have a few that can be found by going to Nintendo's Wi-Fi (www.nintendowifi.com) or Wayport's web page and looking for the hotspot in your area. I was waiting for a bus this past weekend and was across the street from a McDonald's. I turned on Mario Kart DS to see if they had the hotspot online. Sure enough I was not only able to connect but was able to get one quick race with a Nintendo of America employee in Washington before my bus arrived. Quick, easy, painless and free Internet connectivity is what Nintendo WFC gaming is supposed to be about, and I like it. This was a MASSIVE difference from my tests with connecting to a home network. Every single McDonalds that I have passed during my review period has allowed me to connect to the WFC easily and flawlessly, even from across the street.
All Internet enabled games on wireless handheld systems should be this easy to connect to; I think Nintendo has definitely paved the way with this partnership.
Oh, in case you were wondering, the game play while racing against my opponent on the other side of the country was as smooth as glass. As a matter of fact, a bystander was looking over my shoulder while I was racing, (nosy NYC commuters,) looked around and asked where my "friend" was that I was racing. I answered, "Seattle". He was stunned. I quickly explained the McDonald's hotspot access, and he was dumbfounded ... not only by the fast, smooth game play, but by the free Internet access. I have raced with 3 other opponents many times, as 4 is the maximum number of racers for WFC Internet races, and I have never once experienced any lag or stuttering in performance from the game play. It was just superb to play.
Not only can you choose from your friends to race against when you are playing on the WFC Internet, you can choose from rivals, who are chosen racers who are in the same skill threshold as you. This ensures that you wont get left in the dust by a veteran racer if you are a beginner. You can also choose from regional opponents within North America or see how you really fare by taking on opponents worldwide. Racing against opponents in Germany, Canada and Washington was exciting, fast-paced and just what the DS needs.
I'll say it again: Internet connected gaming is the way of the future for handheld console systems.
The final WFC option available is the Nintendo Wireless USB Connector, a small USB wireless adapter that will connect to your broadband (DSL or cable) Internet connected Windows XP computer and allow your WFC enabled game to hit the Internet by way of your PC. It is about the size of an adult thumb and requires you install the software onto your Windows XP computer. After the software is installed on your computer, you simply tell the WFC game to look for that adapter instead of a wireless network. I had this setup running very quickly and was racing online inside of 90 seconds, and not just because I am a tech geek. The setup was very straightforward, and very easy; if you can install software and plug a USB device into your computer, you can do this.
Right now, the downside is that the only place to purchase this is online at Nintendo's website. Based on the demand for this product, this may change and be offered in retail stores, but that's the news I was given at the time of this review. With the ease of seting up the Wireless USB connector versus fighting with my home network, I hope Nintendo releases the Wireless USB Connector to retail. At worst, it's another option for the gamers to use.
So to sum up the WFC connectivity options:
To sum up Mario Kart DS: it's this season's "Killer App" for the Nintendo DS. It has the solid game play, easy to use controls, intense cartoon-combat racing action that Mario Kart veterans have been waiting for while still being very accessible to newcomers to the genre. Add smooth, fast paced Internet competition to the mix, and you have no end to the challenges that await you. Unfortunately, some of those challenges might involve setting up your personal wireless network to work with Mario Kart DS. Still, with other ways available to go easily online and turbo to the top of the leader board, new tracks along with tracks from previous Mario Karts and plenty of single player goodness to unlock, Mario Kart DS, rated E for Everyone, should be at the top of every DS owner's purchase list this holiday season.
By Alejandro K. Brown