Yes, Mario Kart DS is the office game du jour, helped by the growing number of dual-screen Nintys around various magazine teams. It has received largely positive reviews -- deservedly so as it's better than most of the derivative tripe on the shelves -- but few writers have made any detailed comparisons to earlier Mario Karts, particularly the SNES version.
Nintendo has had a topsy-turvy run with the Mario Kart series: following the remarkably fine-tuned SNES original, the company slipped up on Donkey Kong's banana skins and managed to make a mess of the N64 version. Gone were the taxing tracks and fabulous balance of driving and weaponry; in their place were tediously elongated courses and a massive leaning towards weapons. It was still good fun, but every SNES fan in the know agreed that Shigs should've had a few sharp words with his colleague Hideki Konno.
Then, Intelligent Systems, that bunch of miracle workers, got the series back on the right track with Super Circuit. They ditched the N64's pointless speed-boost-joystick-waggling nonsense (which made the game feel like Olympic Gold) and introduced a gamut of genuinely challenging courses. All was well in Mario Kart land. Nintendo took the game back in-house for the Gamecube release; I played it only briefly, but completed most of it in an afternoon session.
SNES Rainbow Road: No barriers,
tight turns, narrow stretches ahoy
And so we come to Mario Kart DS. In summary? A great racer, packed with characteristic Nintendo touches and innovations, but still lacking the zing that made the SNES version a timeless classic. Rainbow Road is once again a travesty -- a stretched-out, winding course with too many barriers and hardly any tough bends. Compared to the outrageously hard (but fair) no-barriers narrow-stretches tight-turns brilliance of the original Rainbow Road, it leaves a bad taste. Also, the frustrating invincible Blue Shell makes an unwelcome return, providing Mario Kart DS with the racing game equivalent of the 'unexpected falls onto deadly spikes' you find in shoddy platformers. In other words, a gameplay device about which you can do nothing, and that exists purely to compensate for a lack of difficulty elsewhere. Sigh.
Nintendo is usually very adept at challenging and rewarding players in bouts -- it's a shame they let this through. You can drive immaculately at 150cc on a difficult course, keeping ahead of the pack and working your socks off, and then... bang. A Blue Shell smashes you in the air, while three karts speed past you over the finish line. You're not being challenged, you're not being pushed to the limits of concentration and ability, like on the SNES -- you're just punished for driving better. In single-player mode, it makes the game rather tiresome, as you wonder whether it's worth all the effort only to be smacked in the face by an invincible weapon at the end.
This gameplay blooper also rears its ugly head in multiplayer mode, albeit not quite as annoyingly. But still, races are often resolved by a lucky lottery of weapons rather than ability -- there's nowhere near the same level of satisfaction you got on the SNES version, or other superb multiplayer romps like Wave Race. In Mario Kart DS, all too often a win feels like a fluke rather than an achievement, and a loss feels like you've been robbed of victory in the final few seconds, rather than failing because of bad driving. There's no mastery, no Zen-like concentration to focus intensely on the apex of a corner. Instead, you're too busy waggling the D-pad to get an awkwardly squeezed-in 'boost' feature, waiting for another Blue Shell to negate your efforts.
Players should always feel like they're responsible for what happens -- something Nintendo has traditionally got spot-on. Like in Mario Kart SNES, or Bomberman, or even Street Fighter II, your wins feel deserved and your losses bring acceptance that you've been outplayed. Mario Kart DS lacks this, sadly. Looking around the Net, long-time players of the Mario Kart series are expressing similar sentiments: it's a good game, but Nintendo still hasn't retrieved the gameplay aspects that made the original so perfect. We need expertly designed tracks that take weeks to master, we need the right balance of driving and weapons, we need focus on handling and cornering (rather than pad-waggling), and most importantly, we need the feeling of achievement back. We want wins to make us feel proud, and losses to make us feel like we deserved it.
All that said, Mario Kart DS still has plenty of good bits, and is well worth buying. But Shigs: please direct the next Mario Kart yourself, or at least place it in Intelligent System's crafty hands.