When it comes to speed and precision driving, most people don't think of karting. Centered on souped up lawnmowers with tiny rubber tyres and the ability to spin at the slightest hint of oil on the track, karting's more like the wacky races than Formula 1.
Still, karting remains the place where the next wave of Schumachers and Buttons test their mettle. And it's a good thing they don't have to go up against Mario and his friends. In the Mushroom kingdom, karting is more like dangerous dodgems, with competitors happy to barge and bash each other out of the way. Then there's the power ups. Floating boxes positioned throughout each track, they give you random abilities such as boosts, or more aggressive one such as homing shells or banana skins, which will knock the opposition into a spin.
It's a dog-eat-dog world – thank goodness Pablo Montoya isn't a bonus character! Instead, you start of with the selection of Mario, brother Luigi, Princess Peach and other Nintendo faves. Each character comes with a kart that has certain characteristics, whether faster acceleration or the ability to pick up better items. Whichever type fits your style of driving, the one thing you have to learn is the ability to drift. More like rallying than karting, drifting around corners enables you to skid without losing speed. If you waggle the movement pad mid-drift, you can even get a short speed boost too.
Apart from that trick, playing the game is pretty simple. Choose a character, choose a kart, choose a track and then get on a race against seven other computer-controlled players. Battle through the other racers (and everything they throw at you), win the race after three laps, and then win each four race championship, and you'll unlock new tracks and new characters. Replay each of the 32 tracks at different difficulty levels. Play the tracks again as time trials. There are also some mission-based mini-games and a couple of deathmatch-style Battle modes.
But Mario Kart DS isn't only a single-player game. The first of Nintendo's globally enabled wi-fi games, it's also a true online game.
Assuming you've set up your wi-fi connection properly (and check out our How To Guide, if you're having problems), playing Mario Kart DS online is relatively straightforward. There are four options. You can choose to play against anyone in the world – the global option – which has more players but is generally unplayable, as the lag means your opponents float all over the track. Better are the continental option (less lag if less players) or the rivals option, in which the system tries to select opponents of roughly the same skill level, so it takes longer to organise. Finally, if you have their code numbers and they're online too, you can directly select your friends.
There are plenty of reasons why the online multiplayer option isn't everything it might be, however. The main one is, instead playing against a maximum of seven opponents, with the Internet you're limited to maximum of three. It completely reduces the capricious power-up element of the game, because there aren't enough players launching attacks to keep the race winner a surprise until someone actually crosses the finishing line. Equally, only 20 of the simplest tracks are available, and with only four racers, the best player is often miles ahead by the second lap and will then go on to win all four races in each online package.
And that's assuming there are four players in the first place. It's often the case the system can't find another three players, sometimes leaving you to race off against just one. As for the number of times a game will crash mid-race, or your opponents will switch off their DS because they're about to lose – it's just not funny.
So all-in-all, playing online isn't very enjoyable, which is a striking thing to have to say about a game designed to highlight Nintendo's online experience. Hopefully as more people get the chance to play Mario Kart DS online, things will get better. Also in time Nintendo presumably will improve its wi-fi connection, ensuring games are quicker to launch and crash less often.
But in its current state, it does make this a difficult game to review. Without considering its online features, Mario Kart DS is a well presented, cute racer, a contender for an 8 out of 10. But with what often seems a half-hearted, and sometimes even half-broken online mode though, the overall enjoyment level is definitely pulled down a notch.Mario Kart DS is on sale now.