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Mario Kart DS

Ellie goes hands-on with Nintendo's classic karter.

Let's not muck about, Mario Kart is the best series of racing games ever. Yes, better than all those super shiny ones with beautifully polished cars and incredibly realistic driving physics and tarmac made up of individually rendered pieces of gravel designed by people who have made it their life's work to recreate interminable stretches of motorway to absolute perfection and gone half blind in the process.

You can keep all that. We want red shells and green shells, power slides and turbo boosts, tracks with silly names and characters with mushroom-shaped heads. Is that too much to ask?

No, says Uncle Nintendo, it most is certainly not. You can have all that, and what's more you can have some new power-ups, too, and 16 new tracks as well as 16 old favourites, and unlockable characters, and battle modes, and time trial ghosts, and - why not - you can even design your own emblem to stick on the front of your kart.

Oh, and you can also take it all online and race against people from all over the world, or just your mates if you'd rather. For free. And without any hassle. How's that?

That, sir, will do nicely. For all the knocking Nintendo gets - accusations of being too "kiddy", or of churning out endless titles of the Mario Party/Football/Tennis/Curling variety and so on - you can't say they don't know how to make a good game. Nor can you say that they don't recognise a good game when they see it, and they generally follow the line of if it ain't broke, don't fix it - just chuck a load of excellent new stuff in on top.

Back to basics

This is the basic character line-up, but there are plenty more to unlock.

But let's start with the basics and the stuff that will be familiar to Mario Kart Fans. For single players, there's a Grand Prix with four classes - 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and the unlockable 150cc "mirror" class, where tracks are reversed. Then there are eight familiar characters to choose from, with more to unlock (such as Waluigi, Princess Daisy and R.O.B.) as you progress.

It doesn't matter which character you choose, but it's important to get your kart selection right. As in Mario Kart Double Dash!!, stats for each kart's speed, acceleration, weight and so on are shown - but now there's also an "items" category. The higher the items stat, the better power-ups and weapons you're likely to get - but don't worry, the game's still finely tuned so that you'll get better power-ups the further behind you are and vice versa.

There are loads of karts to choose from, and you can also customise whichever one you select by designing your own emblem using a simple paint programme. Note that this is open to Pictochat-style abuse, especially since there are two different shades of pink.

Once your character and kart are sorted, it's time to choose your cup - say hello to our old friends Mushroom, Flower, Star and Special. These offer a total of 16 new tracks, many of which are based on old classics - it's good to see a new iteration of Rainbow Road that makes you feel just as sick as all the others.

Then there's the Retro Grand Prix, which also has four cups - Shell, Banana, Leaf and Lightning. Highlights include Mario Circuit 1 from the SNES game, Choco Mountain from the N64 and Sky Garden from the GBA. But whichever your favourite Mario Kart game, you're sure to find some of your favourite tracks here.

Turbo powered

So what of the actual gameplay? Well, lots of familiar elements are back - you can get a turbo boost by pressing accelerate at precisely the right moment during the countdown to the start of the race, for example. And just like in Mario Kart N64 and GC, you can get a boost by pressing the D-pad as you slide.

There's also a new slipstreaming feature. If you keep right up behind an opponent for long enough (you can tell if you're doing this correctly as little sparks will fly) you'll be rewarded with a burst of speed which will give you the power to zoom past them, laughing in their STUPID FACE.

During races the action takes place on the top screen, while a map is displayed on the touch screen. Helpfully, you can zoom in and out at any time by pressing the X and Y buttons - so you can get a general overview of how the race is progressing, or take a more detailed look to see just how much of a lead you've got.

The weapons and power-up system works just as it does in previous Mario Karts - you pick items up by running into boxes, and then they're displayed in a little box at the top of your screen. You can tag items like banana skins and shells to the back of your kart by pressing and holding the left shoulder button, protecting yourself from attacks in the process and leaving you free to pick up another object.

As well as familiar items like trick boxes, lightning strikes and ghosts, there are new weapons such as the blooper - a flying squid that squirts ink all over the screen, making it hard to see where you're going and avoid obstacles. The touch screen map comes into play here as a useful navigational aid.

Then there's a bomb which you can lob ahead of you, where it will explode into a big fiery dome thing. But our favourite has to be the power-up that turns you into a giant bullet and sends you speeding round the track on auto pilot, taking out anyone who gets in your way. Hurrah!

Time for a change

Who says women aren't good drivers? Oh. She's in seventh.

If you fancy a change from Grand Prix mode, you might like to have a go at Time Trial. We've never much seen the point of racing round a track on your own with no weapons and no one to hit them with anyway, but things are made more interesting by the fact that you can save time trial ghosts and exchange them with other players wirelessly. Plus, if you reckon you're extra good, you can race against unlockable "staff ghosts". That should bring you back down to earth a bit.

Alternatively there's the Mission mode - there are six levels to work your way through here, each with eight missions and a boss stage to complete. Objectives are things like driving through a series of numbered gates, collecting a load of coins, racing round tracks backwards and so on. Do badly and you'll get a boring old letter grade, do well and you can earn up to three shiny gold stars.

It's all good fun, but not quite as much fun as the excellent Battle mode. There are two variations on this in Mario Kart DS, the first of which is Balloon Battle - and this time round there are a few twists.

For starters, you begin the battle with just one balloon attached to your kart instead of the traditional three. But fear not - look at the top right corner of the screen and you'll see that you've got a further four balloons in reserve.

So how do you attach them to your kart? Well, first of all you need to find a safe place away from enemies where you can keep still for a second or two. Then you can either press the select button to inflate a balloon, or - the quicker, and arguably more entertaining option - you can blow furiously into your DS's mic. Superb.

Once again, the touch screen displays a map, along with information about the number of balloons each of your opponents have. As you might expect, this is very handy for picking your targets and ganging up on people.

There are six battle arenas to choose from - MK fans will recognise old favourites Block Fort and Pipe Plaza, but the new environments are excellent too. Especially the arena that's set on a giant Nintendo DS floating through space, and the Tart Top arena - this sticks you on the top of a huge cake, garishly rendered in those nauseating Nintendo pastels. The only way to get power-ups is by zooming up the speed ramp on the tower of cream in the centre of the cake, and trying to hit a box as you soar over the cherry in the middle. Look out for blobs of cream splatting across your screen if you bump into stuff, too. Inspired.

The same selection of tracks is available in the second Battle mode, Shine Runners. Here you have to pick up shines that appear randomly around the arena - the touch screen comes in extra handy here, since they appear as icons on the map. An icon also appears over characters when they have a shine, and if you get hit, you lose the lot. All this is going on against the clock, and once the timer hits zero whoever has the least number of shines is out of the battle.

Multiplayer mayhem

Three red shells FOR TEH W1N!! Sorry. This is what happens when you play games online.

So that's the range of options available to the single player - but as any Mario Kart aficionados will tell you, the fun really starts when other people get involved. In Versus mode you can race against up to seven opponents via Wi-Fi, adjusting various event settings to suit. There's even a team option so the playing field is levelled out for weaker players who are facing off with, well, the likes of us.

You only need one game cartridge for Wi-Fi play, but if you're game sharing you can only race as one character - Shy Guy - and you can't change the race settings. Along with straightforward races, you can set up multiplayer Balloon Battles and Shine Runner matches.

Of course, you don't even have to be in the same room as your friends to play Mario Kart multiplayer these days, thanks to Nintendo's much-hyped Wi-Fi Connection service. Follow the simple on-screen instructions to hook up to your wireless router, or invest in a Nintendo USB Wi-Fi dongle if you haven't got one, and then choose who you want to play against, up to a maximum of four players.

If it's a match with mates you're after, you'll need to swap your Friend code - a 12-digit number unique to your DS - with your opponents first. This can't be done in the game, so you'll need to actually communicate with them in real life, unfortunately. Your DS can only store a maximum of 36 Friend codes, but this isn't a problem for us since we've only got about 3.6 friends.

If you're even less sociable and have no friends at all, you can choose to race against random opponents from your global region or the whole wide world. There's also an option to seek out players of a similar skill level as you so you can avoid pointlessly easy races or shameful defeats.

Cast your vote

Sadly, you can't opt for online battles, just races, but they're fun enough as it is. There are 20 of the game's 32 circuits to choose from and track selection works on a democratic basis: each player picks their favourite course before the race begins, and the course with the most votes is automatically selected. If you all vote for different tracks, the game picks one of your selections at random. We discovered that you can subvert democracy by waiting until each of your three opponents have made their choice and then cast your vote for whichever of their selections you prefer, if you're feeling cheeky.

Gameplay is pretty much the same as in the single player mode, with the exception that you can't use the left shoulder button to hold items at the back of your kart - which means you can't use them for protection, and you can't pick up another weapon while hanging on to the first one, either. Another difference is that player names are displayed above their characters at all times, along with their customised emblems.

But for the most part, it's familiar stuff - the same selection of weapons, the same basic gameplay mechanics, and the same scoring system where at the end of four races, points are tallied up and the winner receives a shiny trophy.

Unfortunately our beta copy of the game didn't work with Wi-Fi Connection, so we weren't able to give the online mode a thorough going over for lag issues and the like. However, we did get the chance to play online at the Nintendo Europe Summit in Frankfurt last week, where we "represented" against a load of other journalists located in the US and Canada.

We're pleased to report that there didn't seem to be any problems with lag, and that there was no hassle in getting the DS to go online. But for an in-depth analysis, you'll just have to wait for the full review.

What we can tell you, without a doubt, is that Nintendo has done a superb job here. All the stuff fans love about Mario Kart is present and correct, and the new additions - from the new weapons to the online multiplayer mode - enhance the classic formula brilliantly. Even if you've been playing Mario Kart for years, even if you think nothing could surpass the genius of the SNES version, even if you went right off the whole thing after playing Double Dash!! - you're in for a treat.