"There's never a moment while playing Mario Kart: Double Dash where you'll pause the game to catch your breath and question how you can be experiencing such a masterpiece. However, early reports of the game being a major disappointment are greatly exaggerated. The truth is that Mario's latest outing may not be racing perfection, but it's certainly worth your time. I can't think of a better purchase for the holidays."
Food is important, and so is toilet paper, and I was running low on both when I headed to Costco with my wife. But when I left, I had neither of those and instead clutched a copy of Mario Kart: Double Dash against my chest with trembling hands. See, despite an editorial I recently wrote saying that Miyamoto's most recent projects have mostly been flawed due to his scattered energies and a desire to innovate that sometimes kills the core design, there resides in me a belief that a Mario Kart game is going to be fun even if it is flawed. And as Mario Kart: Double Dash proves only too well, I'm right.
If you've been watching reports on the game's progress since the tepid response from journalists after the game's E3 showing, you are likely concerned. The courses are too wide, they said, the pacing too slow. Things aren't frantic enough. More recently, we've heard that there aren't enough rewards for playing, that without a bundle of unlockables, the latest kart racer starring Mario and friends is Nintendo's latest rent-only title. Well, the good news--the really great news, in fact--is that these complaints are just too dang picky. Mario Kart has its share of problems, but those aren't the ones.
So, then, what are the problems? Well, the most obvious one is course design. While I wouldn't agree with the sentiment that courses are too wide--they don't seem any wider than those in Mario Kart 64--I do think that there's something lacking. To put it bluntly, some of them are boring. The first few stages feel like the courses from the original Mario Kart, only they don't have interesting enough obstacles. You're just weaving between things, checking your watch as you go and wondering why things aren't more interactive. For the most part, though, things get more interesting later on. The Flower Cup has a bridge railing you can race along, for example, and the Star Cup is the pick of the bunch with an ice level, a crowded set of streets, a cool jungle jaunt, and a twisting island in the shape of a familiar green dinosaur. There are sixteen tracks in all, four of which you must unlock. The number might not seem so bad, but when you consider that only half of them are truly special, you're left with eight tracks of excitement and eight you'll likely choose to skip.
As before, the courses are divided in lots of four, in a total of four different cups. The names of the cups are the same ones you've seen in previous Mario Kart games, and frequently the names of the tracks, but the similarities end there. Obstacles have changed, and I'm still trying to decide if I like them better or less than those in Mario Kart 64. Instead of penguins, there are skating Shy Guys. Instead of a train through the desert, you'll race through crumbling ruins, avoiding whirlwinds, pits of sand, and bending cacti. In each area, you'll find something to remind you of a classic Mario game of old. There are the ice blocks from Mario Bros. and the fireball gates from Super Mario Bros., as well as pipes from which piranha plants extend (similar to those in Super Mario Bros. 3). Nothing really feels out of place. As you race through the five laps (or 3, or 7, or however many there are in the current course), you'll love the tiny remnants of Mario's past games.
Those remnants extend to the selection of drivers themselves, which is the most diverse the franchise has yet seen. There are the familiar characters (except for the mysterious absence of Toad), and then there are the newer ones like Waluigi and Baby Bowser. And yes, Koopa Troopa makes his triumphant return, driving as excellently as ever. This is definitely one of the best changes.
A related change comes in the form of the karts themselves. When I found out that the characters would be driving large, bulky karts instead of the miniature ones known from before, I was quite concerned. It turns out my fears were unfounded. Steering is as tight as it ever was, or as loose as it should be depending on the driver and kart. Despite the altered appearance, I had no trouble sliding my kart around corners then boosting forward, or dodging geysers of water and grubby dinosaur feet. In short, anyone who has played a Mario Kart title before will feel at home within five minutes. Not only that, but the karts add a greater sense of personality. It's terrific fun to see Waluigi and Wario cruise by in a Cadillac-style kart, then pelt them with a red shell and watch them flip. And as always, any pair of drivers will have several choices for vehicles (they have even more as you unlock them, too).
Of course, there's more than one change involving the karts. The game gets its title for one very simple reason: there are two characters in each kart. Once I realized that most of the core elements remained in place, I got interested in finding out how I could take advantage of this system to heighten the gameplay experience. After all, Nintendo is stressing the heck out of it, so it must be grand, right? Wrong.
When you first choose your racers, you can pick from the extended roster, then pick the car in which they will ride. Some racers are going to perform better with others, but you're not confined to teams. For example, you can pick that Mario and Bowser ride together in a kart, or you can pair Mario with Luigi for a boost in teamwork abilities. But there's no real requirement, and no crippling penalty for getting creative with your choices. The main thing you want to keep in mind is the skills of each individual racer and how that goes with the kart. Some players are better at knocking the others around, while others might have better cornering capabilities.
When the race begins, your primary character will be at the wheel of the kart while the other will be giving it a push from behind. Then you're off and racing against your opponents. When an item is collected, the person in the back is holding it. If you want to carry two items, it's then in your best interest to quickly dispose of that item, or to switch positions so the current driver is now free to use it on an opponent. Items are scattered quite generously throughout the course, so the game actually rewards you for throwing things all over the place.
Holding onto your stock has its advantages, too, of course, just as it always has. But there are risks. For one, you might race most of a course without ever getting that good item you crave. Or you might get hit by a lightning bolt and lose everything before you can use it. Even worse, your opponent might bump into you and grab it. Imagine carrying a stack of three red shells, then seeing Luigi ride up and snatch them just before you can use them. It can happen.
Because of this item system, the game takes on a frantic nature almost out of necessity. If you're racing on 50CC, you'll probably think that everything is nice, slow, and simple. And it is. Then there's 100CC, and suddenly everyone is passing you and it's a struggle to finish in a good position. This is the Mario Kart I remember and welcome.
However, the teamwork involved isn't nearly so prominent as Nintendo would have you believe. There's not a lot of strategy to it, just an extra button to press before you can use that second weapon (characters are switched with the 'Z' button). Sometimes it's hard to tell who is carrying what, and I've sometimes found myself flying over the edge of a track because I was intending to use a red shell but instead boosted into the stratosphere with a mushroom. Not good.
The idea of cooperative racing extends to multi-player. At first, I was sure this would work out splendidly. Turns out I was wrong. If you choose to race cooperatively, one player will be driving and passing back items for use, while the other player is mostly just sitting in the back, bored to tears. Although the back driver can help with power slides around corners and can work to steal items from other racers if positioned properly, neither of these roles is half as fun as just driving a whole kart is in other modes. The only time such a game is fun for the second player is when the kart is in second or third place with lots of opponents to pelt. If the main driver happens to be good and is leading the pack consistently, there's suddenly nothing to do. The result is that one of the two players is always miserable, either the player who can't seem to pilot his way to first place, or the second player is bored because all opponents are somewhere in the background. Overall, cooperative grand prix feels like something that shouldn't have even been included.
Another mode the game offers is one that you're already expecting, the versus race. In this, up to four players can race against the computer. The problem is that unless all four are playing--or at least three--this is actually quite a bit less thrilling than just two-player grand prix. There's just not enough action.
Another mode to consider is the battle mode. In the original Super Mario Kart, battle mode provided me with hour after hour of sheer enjoyment. Then Mario Kart 64 came around and suddenly the magic was gone. After the disappointment from the last time around, I approached battle mode this time around with caution. And, well... it's improved. There's nothing here to rival Super Mario Kart, but I do prefer the experience to the one provided on the Nintendo 64. The levels are less vertical in design, which I feel makes things more frantic. It's hard to enjoy yourself when you're always across the arena from your opponent, and this time around it's almost impossible to wind up in that sort of isolated situation. Though the GameCube stage takes that to an extreme, with victory handed to whoever gets luckiest that round, the other stages have decent enough depth to make the battle mode and its three variations a good diversion from the grand prix.
Of course, isolation is never a concern in Mario Kart: Double Dash. There's seldom a moment where someone isn't flying past. And amazingly, the system keeps up without allowing the framerate to significantly stutter. Movements are smooth even when two players are racing in grand prix and there's a large mass of polygons like a dinosaur stomping across the screen. The GameCube doesn't even blink. Perhaps this is because the visuals this time around aren't particularly impressive. When I looked at early screenshots, I was stunned by how polished everything looked. But when I play it now, I realize that Mario Kart: Double Dash is one of those rare games that looks worse in motion. It's still fun to look at, and I doubt the visuals will ever truly bore me, but it just doesn't impress me as much as previous games in the series did at their release.
Sound is also solid but overall not terribly impressive. Though there's good surround sound, nothing anyone says is all that worth hearing. Mario's shouts of excitement are much more subdued than we're used to, and there doesn't seem to be quite the usual level of ambience in general. Some will prefer this, but I didn't. Then there's the music which, well... let's just say I forgot it existed until just now. It's the same stuff you've heard for years, which means it accompanies the on-screen action perfectly without drawing attention to itself.
It's not just the music that's unassuming, though; it's the whole game. There's never a moment while playing Mario Kart: Double Dash where you'll pause the game to catch your breath and question how you can be experiencing such a masterpiece. However, early reports of the game being a major disappointment are greatly exaggerated. The truth is that Mario's latest outing may not be racing perfection, but it's certainly worth your time. I can't think of a better purchase for the holidays.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 20, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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