On the journey to Glasgow to visit TrackMania DS's development team, Firebrand, I couldn't see how it was going to work. TrackMania - until now an exclusively PC game - is reliant on a couple of key features: speed and immediacy. The DS just didn't seem like it could be a natural home for this.
TrackMania is simple: racing physics-defying cars around the sort of courses an 11-year-old would build with an infinite supply of Hot Wheels tracks. But what makes it great is the instant restart. It's all about beating set times (or in the Platform levels, completing courses with limited restarts), and messing up on a single corner will likely lose you the Gold. So you hit a button, and with almost psychic speed you're back at the start, or most recent checkpoint. Were there to be even a second's pause, it would quickly become a frustrating exercise. That your car is reset before your finger is off the button means you'll never escape the just-one-more-go factor. But surely the DS can't do that, either?
Well, stand on your chairs and wave your arms, it can. It really flipping can. Unless Firebrand does something spectacularly stupid in the last couple of months of development, it's nailed this. My scepticism fell away like an oversized pair of trousers, leaving me feeling particularly embarrassed in my metaphorical boxer-shorts. First, it's fast. Second, despite being 3D on the DS, it doesn't look rubbish. And third, that instant restart is every bit as instant as the PC's.
Firebrand is making a name for itself in the DS driving market (okay, partly thanks to no hint of competition so far), with the well-received Race Driver: Create & Race, and the very recently released (and even better-received) Race Driver: GRID. TrackMania DS uses the same engine - something Firebrand has honed and refined for this latest outing - but it very definitely feels part of TrackMania's family, rather than Race Driver's.
The approach taken for the visit to the Glaswegian offices was a smart one. On arrival, we were each given a DS with a cart of the game, and sat down to play it. Producers, coders and designers came in and out of the room, we asked them questions, chatted with them, but mostly played the game. Back from lunch, with no real agenda for the afternoon, everyone sat down, picked up their DS, and carried on playing. Occasionally we'd look up and acknowledge whoever was talking, but mostly we played the game. It's a strong indication it's a game that will work.
Why might it work? You'll be surprised how much is squeezed in there. There's three zones - Stadium, Desert and Rally - and each feels very similar to the PC's version. The only immediate difference was Rally's wonky old cars feeling slightly more forgiving through corners, but this is more than made up for by TMDS's much more treacherous tracks. There's five difficulty levels, and five completely original tracks in each, for all three zones (75 tracks, maths fans).
Then there's fifteen Platform tracks (where you have to complete the ludicrous course in as few restarts as possible), and fifteen Puzzles (which use the track creator and limited tiles to find a route from start to finish). And so, yes, there's a track creator, which uses the stylus to let you drag and drop, or 'paint' tracks on a 20x20 grid (the PC had 32x32, which proves too much for the DS), with room for creating 59 tracks of your own (but they intend to make it 60, because "59 is a stupid number"). There's a shop, for buying locked tracks, more building pieces and new skins for cars, bought with money won from play. And on top of this there's local Wi-Fi play for up to four players - more on that below.
And why might it not work? Well, despite the surprisingly successful transition, the DS does present limitations. Certain things do become conspicuous in their absence. Firstly, it doesn't record your ghost. Firebrand explains that it pretty much got this working, but it was proving too big for the cart size they were intending to use. Very recently the devs discovered they were going to get a larger cart after all, but it was too late to put the ghosts in. If there's a sequel, they'll be there, but not this time. Secondly, and most crucially, there's no internet play.
The local Wi-Fi games are promising. There's a range of modes: Hotseat (up to 8 players on one DS), single-cart play which offers a demo mode to scroungers of a few Stadium tracks, and then four multi-cart options. There's Championship mode, where you all attempt to score points, a Rounds mode, a limited-retries mode, and the standard TrackMania online game where everyone has a few minutes to put in their best time on a single track. All four cars appear on screen, and at this point in development seemed fairly solid.
But sadly, you have to be in the same room. Firebrand says this comes down to the limitations Nintendo puts on its WFC access, but it's definitely something they'd want to come back to if making a follow-up. Mario Kart manages it, so it seems to my simple brain that it should be possible. Of course, its absence means the regional competitive nature of the PC's TM is completely gone, with no online high-score tables and no central repository for user-made tracks.
Get near enough to someone with a copy, however, and you'll be able to share the tracks you've made. But, well, this seems like it might be a little underused.
I'm doing my best not to review the game here, but it's proving tricky. It's out in October, and Firebrand is still tweaking. But so far, my fears are disproven. The 3D manages to escape that awful, chunky blurring that spoils so many DS games. The draw distance genuinely bemused me, as I failed to spot anything popping up in the farthest backgrounds. The speed is spot on, and while the handling didn't quite feel as perfect as the PC's, there's time for that to change, and it seemed pretty damned good anyway. The physics are there, which even Firebrand didn't think it would manage. And best of all, they aren't planning to waste our time with touch-screen controls. A working prototype was developed for the engine, but as Firebrand boss Mark Greenshields delicately puts it, "If it's crap, it doesn't go in." You could always tell it was a gimmick, he explains, and there was no good reason to distract anyone from the superior button controls.
So, it's safe to prepare you to be excited about this one. Short of a grotesque act of madness in the next two months (the likes of which I can't imagine), Firebrand appears to have aced an astonishingly complex task. If anything, it could expand people's awareness of the capabilities of the little flip-top machine.