Version tested: DS
Nothing has any right to run at 60 frames-per-second on the Nintendo DS, let alone a racing game, and even more let alone a racing game that puts as much emphasis on speed and scale as TrackMania, so it should be no surprise to learn that Firebrand's DS conversion only rarely does. What is surprising is that it gets so close to a constant 60fps, and remains thoroughly playable throughout.
It's not for a lack of detail, either. Most 3D racing games on the DS look and feel like you're skating on fuzzy Duplo in an earthquake, but TrackMania DS is crisp, with only a few blocky textures and a slightly dodgy skymap to complain about and excellent collision detection. The draw distance is immense, even by home console standards, but there's almost no texture pop-in or geometric pop-up on the horizon. It's the best 3D engine we've ever seen on the DS.
As important as the graphics, though, is simple and lag-free control, and Firebrand gets that right as well. There's no stylus nonsense here, just A to go, B to brake and the d-pad to turn. This makes the cars, of which the Scottish developer grabs three of the PC series' best, feel exactly right, whether it's the silly, understeering open-wheel racers, the lurching rally Beetles or the wobbly middle-ground desert saloon. Each one has a particular environment: the open-wheel has stadium courses, rally cars zoom around castle battlements leaping between drawbridges and scooting across hilly greenspace, and the desert car runs along tarmac roads pocked unsympathetically with massive holes, in amongst lazy brown mountains.
Another reason TrackMania works on the PC is the choice of game modes, and the DS version again picks three of the best. The basic Race mode is a simple time trial complicated by ludicrous Scalextric hairpins, ramps and loops, while Platform levels are obliquely routed, full of mentalist jumps and inclines that command precise levels of preserved momentum, and the only goal is to reach the end at all. Puzzle levels, which made the series' name, provide a few track pieces and tell you to build a course efficient enough to achieve the target time.
But the single uniting characteristic that makes it all work on the PC, and makes it so compulsive, is the instant reset. Hit a button and you're back to the last checkpoint. Hit another and you're back to the start. It has to respond instantly, and if there's one thing about the DS version that nails on Firebrand's TrackMania credentials, it's the fact that when you hit X to return to a checkpoint, or hit Y to return to the start, you're there again before your thumb's even made it back to the A button.
Anybody, then, who has played and love TrackMania will find the conversion dazzling, and the content doesn't let you down either. There are dozens of tracks for each game mode, many of which recall the peaks of the PC TrackMania's fiendish level design, and that reset button gets a gruelling workout as you refuse to let anything go without a gold medal. Alright, maybe the occasional silver, but you hate yourself, and vow to go back later. Unlocking medals also accumulates Coppers to spend on stuff at the shop: skins, track parts, and advanced levels for each environment.
But once the novelty wears off, a few problems emerge. You can see for miles, but you can't always see what you need to see, like the angle and relationship between a pair of distant platforms, and this is a problem in Platform. Whereas on the PC you often mucked up because you forgot part of the script, or the game ambushed you, on the DS you muck up because you had to guess, and by the time you've executed the perfect run, reducing the number of checkpoint resets to zero to secure the gold, you're often sick of the track in question.
The track editor is also slightly disappointing. It's a fabulously versatile tool given the technical restrictions - you can't quite make levels as epic as you could on the PC, and you can only save 60 to the cartridge - but there are too many discrete taps to do basic drag-and-drops, and it's difficult to gauge the relative heights of track pieces. The absence of internet access also means that you can only share tracks locally. The lack of online extends to multiplayer, too, which only works over normal Wi-Fi.
However, while online may be an opportunity missed, overall TrackMania DS delivers, and whether you're a fan of the series or a total novice, the slick, compulsive fight to gather all the game's golds will have you plugging away until you've exhausted its content. What's more, it's that rarest of things: a DS game with amazing graphics.
8 / 10