Despite having little interest in racing, I couldn't stop playing Mario Kart DS back when it was new. It took the series a few steps forward into greatness and managed to transcend the mundanity of merely driving in circles (with all due respect to our resident racing game fanatic Jaz).
See, when Nintendo launched the game in the fall of 2005, it represented a watershed moment on several levels. For starters, it felt like a truly great, truly uncompromised version of Mario Kart despite being on a portable system. It walked back the entertaining but frankly weird additions Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for GameCube had made to the series, while nevertheless feeling far more robust than the previous handheld Mario Kart, Super Circuit for GBA. The fifth entry in the series, MKDS brought together the best elements of its predecessors and discarded their baggage.
Gone were the flat and uninspired tracks of the sprite-based games, the rubber-band AI of Mario Kart 64, and the loopy complications of Double Dash!! It offered great tracks, great balance, a wealth of customization options, and tons of unlockables. Not only did it stand as the finest Mario Kart to date, it also proved that Nintendo was serious about the DS as a platform: Here was a console-quality experience, and the fact that the graphics were on par with a racer for the original PlayStation didn't matter one bit. It looked great on the diminutive screens and, along with games like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Animal Crossing: Wild World, helped announce to the world that this kooky dual-screen handheld Nintendo had rushed to market was a serious contender. This was where DS's global domination truly began.
A big part of what made MKDS feel so momentous, and one of the best features of the game itself, had to do with the fact that it marked Nintendo's first foray into online multiplayer gaming. That was a big deal; online play had been a PC gaming commodity for a decade by the time MKDS rolled out. Both Sony and Microsoft had made online important elements of their then-current consoles (and poor Dreamcast shipped with a modem!). Even Nintendo had demonstrated some brute awareness that online play would eventually be important; the GameCube included an expansion slot that a broadband adapter could fit into. But that device basically became the price of entry to play Phantasy Star Online, and Nintendo's own first-party efforts had continued to regard the Internet with the same bemused confusion they'd been demonstrating since they produced the Famicom Modem back in 1988 and promptly did nothing of significance with it.
But Mario Kart DS showed the value in taking the slow approach. Yes, Nintendo was years behind, but their first attempt at going online was a home run. MKDS's online multiplayer wasn't perfect, but it was practically seamless, pleasantly stable, and the occasional lag and synching errors it suffered rarely seemed to affect the actual gameplay — an especially impressive feat at 150cc.
Even gamers for whom online multiplayer was the furthest thing from novel found MKDS a revelation. During the pre-launch review period for the game, when only a handful of journalists and Nintendo folks had access to MKDS, I could easily jump into an online game in session at pretty much any time of day. That's a testament both to the ease of matchmaking and of how addictive the game was; everyone who had a copy of MKDS was practically chained to it, day and night. Eventually, sometime after launch, people figured out how to hack the game to the point that it was largely unplayable online due to cheating and exploits... but for that precious first year or so, MKDS was spectacular.
It's still a fun little racer, but it's been almost completely eclipsed by its sequels. After the series lost its way a bit with Mario Kart Wii, both the 3DS and Wii U entries have proven to be top-notch, building on MKDS's strengths and adding plenty of new appeal. Unfortunately, the Wii U Virtual Console release of the game only calls attention to just how deficient MKDS has become in comparison to more recent releases.
The problem doesn't really have much to do with the game's age or graphics. Yeah, it's boxy and simple, and if you play it with Virtual Console's top "screen displayed on the television" mode, the visuals take on an almost artful degree of abstraction due to their low resolution and lack of anti-aliasing. But that's OK. So, too, is the fact that MKDS offers only digital controls; the karts are programmed so well that the fact they steer entirely with the D-pad doesn't have a particularly adverse effect on the action.
No, what drags MKDS down is that the Virtual Console version lacks any sort of multiplayer that I can determine. That shouldn't be too surprising given that Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection service shut down last year, but I suppose I was holding out hope that they'd have come up with some sort of ersatz substitute if they were planning to sell games whose appeal resided largely in their online features. It's not just that MKDS can't connect to WFC; the Wii U's DS emulator doesn't recognize wireless networks at all.
The presence of a live wireless play menu option and even the ability to jump into DS's wi-fi setup scheme on Virtual Console seems pretty baffling, considering its uselessness. You can go through the motions, but you can't actually follow through. U like Sony, Nintendo's never been averse to modifying Virtual Console releases to make them viable for re-publishing, as with the removal of brand names from Wave Race 64. So the fact they didn't dummy out the WFC menus feels like an especially bizarre oversight in light of all the care that's been invested into the DS "wrapper" for Virtual Console. You can choose from something like eight different screen arrangements to best complement the nature of the current game —MKDS works great with the race on a television and the touchscreen display on the Wii U pad, whereas, say, Yoshi's Island DS demands both screens on the same device due to the close relationship between play elements across the DS's screens.
Nintendo has declined to say whether DS Virtual Console was programmed by retro powerhouse M2 the way the Game Boy Advance and Game Gear emulators were, but between the crispness of the emulation and the tremendous consideration given the presentation of the games, it seems likely. So that just makes the dead-end online components of MKDS all the more baffling — not that I expected M2 or Nintendo to fake a replacement for WFC, but we definitely deserve better than an ambiguous warning at startup that not all game features will work.
If all of this sounds like a lot of complaining about a minor defect, you have to understand that wi-fi play wasn't just MKDS's killer app; it was the game's lifeblood. Whether local or online, racing against other people made MKDS what it was. Ten years ago, MKDS was the ideal way to play Mario Kart; it offered the ease of use of console multiplayer with the visual integrity (read: lack of split-screen) that only portable systems can offer. Stripped of that feature, it becomes merely a good Mario Kart rather than a must-play version. Wii U has Mario Kart 8, which decimates MKDS in terms of balance, variety, and options; and if you want a portable Mario Kart, you're better off with MK7 for 3DS.
It's still perfectly fun to play solo, mind you. The emblem feature is fun, and sorely missed in more recent sequels. For this review, I raced with a Game Boy emblem emblazoned on my kart. There was something appealingly Inception-like about using Game Boy as my icon in a DS racing game on Wii U, you know? And I still have a soft spot for some of MKDS's characters (Dry Bones was always my main back in the day) and courses (the original Waluigi Pinball is still the best!). But these appealing particulars can't make up for the fact that MKDS is only a mere shadow of its true self on Virtual Console.
The DS shell for Virtual Console offers a wealth of display options... though the close proximity of the drift button to the emulation menu is kind of a pain.
Without other players to race against, MKDS is fun for as long as it takes to unlock everything. Say... 10 hours.
Accurate to the DS original, which is to say a bit compressed-sounding.
On a television screen, MKDS looks like nothing so much as an artifact from a bizarre reality where Nintendo made games for PS1.
Is a masterpiece still a masterpiece if you chop out a huge component of its greatness? Is the Mona Lisa still a great work of art as a tiny low-quality JPEG? Does Star Wars still thrill without its soundtrack? Of course not, and neither is Mario Kart DS an all-time clasic without its multiplayer features. On Wii U, it's reduced to being merely a good racing game, one eclipsed by its own Wii U sequel. It's fun, yes, but if you're going to play Mario Kart on Wii U, why not just get Mario Kart 8?