If you've ever been the proud owner of a Nintendo system, or have at least befriended somebody with one, odds are you've encountered a Mario Kart game at some point. The popular racing series, which first appeared on the Super Nintendo in 1992, lets you race your favorite Nintendo characters against each other in karts that can be armed with such devastating weapons as banana peels, opponent-seeking red shells, and opponent-shrinking lightning bolts. The series has evolved steadily with each iteration, up to and including 2003's Mario Kart: Double Dash, which retained most of its predecessors' features while introducing a new team-based mechanic that saw each cart manned by both a driver and a gunner. Mario Kart DS, then, might seem like something of a step back for the series in that it more closely resembles the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 games than the GameCube version; but, as the first game in the series to boast integrated online play, it also represents a major step forward.
Balloon battles are back, and better than ever.
Like previous Mario Kart games, Mario Kart DS features a number of single-player grand prix competitions that comprise four races each. Mario Kart DS includes a total of eight grand prix competitions for a total of 32 different races, many of which aren't available until you beat those that you can select from the outset. Four of the grand prix (or 16 of the races, in other words) are all-new, while the remaining four are composed entirely of classic circuits taken from the SNES, N64, GameCube, and GBA iterations of Mario Kart. The tracks include everything from simplistic figure-eight circuits and beach courses to street races that task you with avoiding traffic and racing around a giant pinball table. Grand Prix competitions can be contested in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc classes, and as you progress through them you'll notice an increase not only in speed, but also in the aggression of your opponents.
Before you do any of that, of course, you'll have to decide which of your favorite Nintendo characters you want to race as. There are eight characters with two karts each available the first time you play, but as you progress you'll unlock lots more. When selecting your racer, there are a number of different factors that you'll want to take into consideration--the speed and acceleration of your kart are the most obvious, but you'll also want to bear in mind your weight, handling, and drift attributes, because the differences between the various karts are quite noticeable once you take them out on the circuit. The final attribute that you might want to take note of is "items," which has a significant bearing on the quality of the power-ups that you receive during the course of a race. If you choose a character with a very low items score, for example, you're very often unlikely to get your hands on a blue spiky shell (it never fails to take out the race leader) or the new Bullet Bill power-up (which temporarily transforms you into a Bullet Bill and flies you past opponents on autopilot).
The new Bullet Bill power-up is one of three new items in Mario Kart DS, all of which complement rather than detract from the existing arsenal that many of you, no doubt, know and love. So, in between dropping banana skins for opponents behind you and firing shells at opponents in front of you, you might now find yourself launching an exploding bob-omb, or releasing a blooper (one of those flying squids) that squirts ink onto the screens of every player in front of you. The effectiveness of the blooper varies depending on how the ink lands on the screen of your opponent, and also depends to a large extent on how well your opponents are able to drive while the DS's top screen is covered in black ink. Driving after being "blooped" is made much easier by the presence of a top-down view of the circuit on the lower screen, which is actually good enough that you could play the game using only that if you really wanted to. The map screen not only shows your location on the circuit, but also the locations of power-ups, traps, and opponents. A column down the left side of the screen also lets you check on the race positions and current armaments of your opponents, which often makes it well worth a look toward the latter stages of a race.
Missions and boss battles are a welcome addition to the Mario Kart mix.
In addition to the aforementioned single-player grand prix mode, Mario Kart DS boasts an unusual mission mode that tasks you with performing a variety of objectives against time limits. A number of the game's 54 increasingly difficult missions require you to pass through numbered gates in the correct order or collect coins as you race, for example, while others force you to use the game's boosting mechanic on corners, or drive around circuits backward. The mission mode is arranged in six groups of nine missions each, and each group ends with a boss fight that needs to be beaten before you can progress to the next. The boss fights in Mario Kart DS are quite varied, and task you with things like beating a boss in a race, knocking a boss off a platform using turbo boosts, or hitting a boss's vulnerable points with green shells. The missions not only make for some enjoyable challenges, but also improve your racing techniques by forcing you to focus on different aspects of your game individually.
The forgiving handling of the carts makes Mario Kart DS is an incredibly easy game to pick up, but there are also plenty of advanced techniques that you can use to give yourself an edge. Drifting around corners, for example, lets you negotiate even the tightest of hairpins without decreasing your speed, and if you repeatedly move the D pad left and right while drifting, it's even possible to gain a boost of speed by inducing a miniturbo. Timing your start perfectly will also give you a high-speed advantage off the line, and you can also gain a significant boost by drafting (tucking up behind) opponents who are beating you.