Gamestyle Archive intro: it seems an apt time to put a Mario Kart review into the Archive given the recent current generation title hitting the market. What can I say about Mario Kart? Alex was a huge fan and when we were down in London at the Nintendo games show wanted any snippet of information about the game and how it played. I think at this time he was also doing a site specifically about the game itself. Enjoy.
Published: November 2003
It’s been the longest six months we can remember; from the first shots and details in late April to the finished game landing on our doorstep just last week, it’s been one wild ride, and joyously dragged out – some twisted quirk of time seemingly warping every second into an hour. However, two (very sore) blisters and one broken Wavebird later, we’ve finally completed the latest in the celebrated Mario Kart series, and unlocked all there is to see. And we’ve loved every minute of it. Those old enough to remember the first shots of the game will have no doubt been with us for the duration of the title’s development, or at least the portion of it that was made public.
Whilst Miyamoto-san hinted at special, as yet unseen features to the genre some time back, no one expected that to mean the now-familiar two characters per kart mechanic. Message boards were full of screaming zealots demanding the game be exactly the same whimsical ride that had come before; one character, one kart. And presumably represented the same group who complained about Zelda’s new look (but have since quietened down). Because the overhaul works – better than you’d have expected it might. Screenshots and previews are great, but nothing can convey the skill-set and tactics required to successfully master the dynamic new playing style.
In much the same way that N64 Tetris allowed the player to tap R to ‘save’ a block, Mario Kart: Double Dash!! unlocks the ability to switch the two characters around – one driving, one in charge of weapons. With this new notion, weapons can be stored (by switching the weapon-wielding character at the back to driving duties for a while) and then brought out again at any given opportunity. It’s deeper than that, of course; each of the 16 default characters (all familiar to Nintendo regulars, except perhaps Baby Luigi) is charged with one of eight special weapons, and although the normal item blocks remain, there’s a slim chance that players will be awarded that characters’ special – a more devastating, destructive item that (with skilful use) will often determine the outcome of a race. Team character is forged, then, with these special weapons in mind – do you go for all-out attack with Mario and Luigi’s fireballs, or opt for a more balanced partnership with Koopa’s triple shells and DK’s giant bananas? The two choices determine the available karts – larger characters can only fit into the larger karts, and normal Mario Kart statistics apply here; greater top speed is often offset by lower acceleration (although later unlockable karts balance these out somewhat). The differences are less pronounced than in previous Kart games, so it’s really more a case of selecting the characters for their special weapons rather than the karts you’ll get to drive. Naturally, there’s a wide selection of tracks to drive in, too – spread over four cups (the fourth is unlockable early on), there’s the usual Luigi and Mario circuits, the obligatory slippery ice level, and some other familiar favourites.
Whilst the selection on offer doesn’t deviate too much from earlier Mario Kart games (some even use the same names as they did in Mario Kart 64), the driving model has completely changed; offering a much tighter control method, cornering is far more precise. And whilst counter-powersliding still rewards you with a small boost, it’s easier to pull off, even on the straights – something you’ll need to be doing when tackling the course ghosts in Time Trial mode. Which is where the game really starts to shine; the normal Grand Prix mode is all well and good, but you’ll probably see the end of each speed class (50, 100 and 150cc engines remain as normal) within the first weekend. Time Trial, however, will last months (if not years). Not only does each course have a ‘time to beat’, but once beaten the Staff Ghost is unlocked, who more often than not will make a mockery of your previous attempts (for some considerable period). They are tough – easily as tough as those in Nintendo 64’s F-Zero X – and Nintendo have made no allowances for those not willing to invest the time to beat them. Practice, practice, practice – and we’re glad of the challenge.
Elsewhere, the game features an extensive Battle mode option, with three main modes (a capture the flag-like Shine Thief; an all-weapons blazing Balloon Burst; and the best, a crazy bomb-filled mode where every weapon is explosive and widespreading) and at least four courses. Whilst another couple are unlocked during the normal Grand Prix play, there’s plenty of variation here if you want to just grab three friends the moment you unwrap the cellophane. A great co-operative Grand Prix mode (two human players per kart) and the usual Versus modes round off the package, which will keep Kart fans busy for months – and that’s without mentioning the LAN play and potential online play via PC tunnelling software.
Graphically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While the whole thing shifts incredibly smoothly at a comforting 60 frames a second, there are few graphical flourishes (noticeably, just depth-of-field blurring and some heat haze on the desert course), and coupled with the rather simple Karts and character-modelling, the display is rather unassuming. It’s clean and crisp though, and we’d certainly prefer the smooth framerate to a jerky one, but next to Mario Golf, Yoshi and Co. look a little bit ‘last-gen’. Textures are also hit and miss; some wall and track textures are very high resolution, while others are laughably blocky. Aurally it’s a similar story – the music tracks don’t stand out as much as one might have liked, and few are memorable after switching off the console. They are well-produced though, but obviously in MIDI (rather than the traditional music found in other titles).
Sound effects are again crisp and well-engineered, with some trademark Nintendo noises thrown in (think: green shells) amongst the newer voices and weapon effects. It’s all solid enough, but it’s a shame you can’t lower the music in relation to the sound effects. There are other niggles, too. There’s no widescreen support, which might not be a problem for some but it’s frustrating after having experienced the full 16:9 panoramic splendour of F-Zero GX, for example. The game is also frustrating, especially at first, when you’re constantly bombarded with weapons from all sides – there’s certainly too many item boxes on the tracks for comfortable driving-based play; all the emphasis is on weaponry and when to use them. Thankfully, Time Trial remains purely skill-based, aside from some track-based nuances such as random spinning fireballs and the like. Don’t be put off, though – even with these cons, the game is still quite brilliant. It unmistakably screams Nintendo!!, and if that’s a good thing to you then you’re going to be in heaven.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is nicely presented (and there are no load times at all), it’s packed with pure playability and has enough ‘whimsical’ substance to last just as long as the others. Fans of the previous games will relish the new challenges on offer, and anyone new to the series will no doubt have a whale of a time in multiplayer alone. As for Gamestyle – having beaten Grand Prix (and unlocked some familiar Mario Kart faces and tracks) – we’re sticking to Time Trial, so we’ll see YOU on the TT ratings page!
Gamestyle Score: 9/10