Walking along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on the way to Nintendo's pre-E3 press conference last month, I stumbled across Mario Kart. Not the game, either, but rather an actual cart selling, well, actually I don't know. It was closed. But the cart itself was either an incredible coincidence, a fan who had no idea what was going on in the hotel behind him, or, I like to think, a canny bit of salesmanship from a man who, judging by his marketing gumption, quite probably could have done bigger and better things with this life.
It was also, arguably, the most original thing "Mario Kart" had to offer this year. And yet that's not a bad thing! This one is the first proper 3D Mario Kart game on a handheld, has a mixture of new and old tracks and tricks - like the return of shoulder-button hopping - and will let you play multiplayer games wirelessly with people on several continents, for free. Sometimes it's okay to be unoriginal - as we discovered with the underrated GameCube Double Dash. And with canny salesmen on the Walk of Fame.
(Actually, does anybody know what that cart actually sells? Was it actually planted there by Nintendo? Or sponsored? Why do I care so much?)
Mario Kart on the DS, then, which still needs a proper name, is a handsome beast that I very much want to own, but its new tricks are largely subtle or technical. The addition of wireless multiplayer, of which more later, is headline stuff, but doesn't demand all that much in the way of word-waggling from yours truly. Which leaves the split between screens, which works rather like the SNES version, oddly. Here the racing action is on the top screen, and the player placing and a pair of overhead views are on the touch-screen, with one showing it off in full and another zoomed in, highlighting power-ups including shells in motion.
This I like. One of the things I've often felt about reaction-based games that centre on the DS' top screen is that they don't heighten the tension by forcing the player to look down. Here it's advantageous to do so. That has the potential to add another layer of "EEEEEEEEEEEE!" to pivotal moments in each race. Intensifying the pangs of excitement is clearly something worth celebrating.
Meanwhile, the rest of the game's pretty easy to talk about because there's such a wide frame of reference.
Graphically, it sits somewhere around Mario Kart 64 in terms of detail levels, but comfortably borrows the odd knickknack from the Cube's Double Dash as well - all the while maintaining a very solid frame rate. Kart detail is quite impressive, with characters visibly steering and wheels visibly turning, some nice screeching tyre effects and Mario and co. leaning into corners. The screenshots make it look a bit blocky, but seen on the smaller DS screen the resolution is quite sufficient for it to look very handsome - and it's unquestionably the most convincing racing game I've yet seen on the enigmatic handheld.
Controls are much as you'd expect, except perhaps oddly the acceleration button is A, which is on the right of the diamond, rather than B, which obviously (though not logically sits at the bottom. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference; you just have to angle your thumb to press B to brake and up to Y to fire your pick-up weapons. The shoulder button hops, and by hopping as you turn into a corner you can of course power-slide your way around it, letting go at the optimal moment to straighten up. Hopping, which many missed in Double Dash, also gives license to minimise the speed-sapping effects of puddles, streams, mud-slicks and the like. It's all very responsive too.
I've now played through a pair of single-player cups and dabbled with wireless multiplayer, kicking Charles "The Voice Of Mario" Martinet's arse (of which more in a moment). The single-player cups in the versions I've played are split between new and old content. Four tracks of new, four drawing upon SNES, N64, GBA and GameCube. The latter, first, brings Mario Circuit 1, probably the most iconic of all Mario Kart tracks, back to life. Remember the cross-the-gravel shortcut, which you soon realised wasn't as fast as toeing the racing line, and then chuckled about because everybody on GamesMaster or GamesWorld or whatever it was used it anyway? Purposely pixellated graphics bring it lovingly back to life. Meantime the N64, GBA and Cube inclusions demonstrate the DS's versatility - with jumping gofers and chumps on chains no problem for engine or frame rate.
Obviously gauging the quality of the new tracks will take longer than a trade show demo can offer anybody, but they certainly made an impression - particularly the relatively simple circular offering with its mixture of boost pads on the outer racing line and slippery waterfalls on the unprotected inside daring you to opt for the optimal, and the ghostly mixture of haunted woods and dark mansions with some neat hairpin power-slide moments and those dancing piranha plants.
Other things it'll take time to make up minds about: the weapons and the computer-controlled opposition. Weapons-wise, I've seen and fired multi-bananas and shells that orbit my kart, invincibility stars, lightning blasts, bombs and of course green, red and - yes - flying blue shells. All of which sprout forth from those N64 and Cube-style spinning question mark blocks on the track. AI-wise, the jury's still out on elastication, but it's interesting to note that Donkey Kong and Princess Peach were both making use of the start-line boost, and it wasn't always easy to end the race in first. Being a tosser, I did, but I also managed a couple of thirds, and rarely did I get to the front until the end of the second of three laps at the earliest.
All of which leaves me to talk about wireless multiplayer. It's been much heralded - not least of all by me, given that I've done two "of which more laters" in the space of the last 1,000 words - and deservedly so. At E3, Nintendo had Charles Martinet and Some Woman both of whom were purportedly in different US cities playing wirelessly with those who made it to the front of the queue. Although I lost to a chap who used to run a Shigeru Miyamoto website shrine (can't really complain, eh?) whilst facing the lovely lady, I came back later and showed Charles who was boss. Although he thought my impression of Mario was a bit rubbish.
More interestingly [and actually relevantly -Ed], the wireless racing with four and even eight players was devoid of connection issues, frame rate loss or any obvious lag. Okay, so, I'm not utterly convinced our opposition wasn't lurking in the Convention Centre somewhere, but if this is the quality of networking we can really expect under optimal conditions - worldwide - then Nintendo deserves a pat on the back and a hearty "Wa-hoo!"
With the game due out by the end of the year, hopefully it won't be too long before we get a chance to verify this independently. Something I'll verify for free though: Mario Kart DS is, in fact, Mario Kart running on the DS. And running very well. Now to see how it holds up over time.
Mario Kart DS is due out this Christmas on Nintendo DS.