November 14, 2003

Article at 1UP

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! Review

Games just don't get any more fun than this.

Hit Points
- Combining the best of Super Mario Kart with Mario Kart 64.
- Grand Prix is fun, but multiplayer is where it's at.
- LAN play is unfortunately crippled.

You have to pity the developers of this game, because the legacy of Super Mario Kart is a daunting one. Many still consider the SNES original the best game in the series, and with precision digital control combined with tight circuits you can see why. Super Mario Kart relied more on pure racing skill than its successor, Mario Kart 64, which brought in more frequent weapon pick-ups and upped the emphasis on battles. That was an inadvertent consequence of the switch to 3D; freed from the restrictions of the SNES' Mode 7, the team went wild creating long tracks with wide, sweeping bends that were perfect for combat. Unfortunately, they were also somewhat bare and simplistic. The marathon N64 iteration of Rainbow Road compares rather poorly with the electric SNES interpretation, with its wildly flashing lights concealing the complete lack of barriers guarding the hairpin corners. Never mind dodging shells, finishing the race itself was hard enough.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! sits neatly in the middle of the two, combining both heavy fighting with a good dose of proper racing. Mind you, most of the innovation here -- the titular "Double Dash!!" -- is in the weapons system. You can now pick two racers and a kart (you're restricted to one of the light, medium or heavy classes based on how big your biggest character is, because Donkey Kong would never fit in a baby carriage). One of the players is the driver, and the other the "gunner," firing off weapons. Only the gunner can pick up weapons from regular item blocks, and if you hit Z you can swap the driver and gunner. The key here is the addition of character-specific weapons. Each set of characters has their own special attack -- Mario has his fireballs, Bowser a giant green shell -- and by picking the right combination, you can dictate your attack strategy. You can also "hold" an item by picking it up as a gunner and then hitting Z to move him into the driver's seat. It's a fantastic addition to the formula that adds a bit of depth and a lot of fun to proceedings as you frantically switch gunners in order to pick up just the right weapon.

There's a great deal more racing going on, too, and a lot of that is simply because the tracks are much, much better. They bear resemblance to souped-up N64 tracks, but in execution take cues from Super Mario Kart instead, packing in tighter circuits with more twists and shortcuts. Shortcuts? Yes, shortcuts are officially back ("glitches" are a more appropriate way of describing Mario Kart 64'sshortcuts), and they're pretty tough to use…but with maximum payoff if you risk all and succeed, which is the way it should be.

There's a lot of originality in the design, from racing up, down, across and through the decks of a swaying ship to Donkey Kong's incredible track that sees racers charge up a mountain, get shot out of a giant cannon to a volcano on the opposite side, thunder down the volcano's steep slopes and switchbacks, and cross a rickety wooden bridge to the other side. Even the simpler tracks are wonderful rides: Baby Mario's theme park track is a simple oval that is guaranteed to be your most chaotic race, and while a track in the shape of Yoshi sounds gimmicky, it is instead a hideously tricky circuit full of sharp corners. And that's without factoring in the roadside distractions. Unlike Mario Kart 64, environmental hazards are part of the race: Bowser statues shoot fire, roadside piranha plants snap away at passing drivers, and in one circuit Goombas wander freely across the road. It should be said that there are a couple of so-so tracks (Dry Dry Desert springs rapidly to mind) but the balance is overwhelmingly positive.

Did you know?: Early rumors said Double Dash was under development at NOA's NST division, but it was actually produced by a team inside the EAD department in Japan.

It helps that the control has been tightened from the N64 version. It doesn't feel as "floaty" when you powerslide anymore, and the karts don't exhibit the same awkward and sluggish cornering as before. The new powersliding system incidentally is the same as the old one (wiggle the stick until the exhaust turns blue), but the defensive mechanisms have changed slightly. You cannot hold an item behind you anymore as a shield, and a trio of shells no longer orbit the car as a roving shield, so you have to take out incoming fire manually. You are alerted to any attacks from the rear with a little screen marker, and you have to lay an object in the path of the attack to stop it. You can also shake it off with some excellent driving (again, a feature of the original). The overall balance is fantastic and the game is a joy to play. It's incredibly satisfying to come sliding around a bend while swapping characters around to get out the defensive item to fire back at a homing red shell while you let go of the powerslide to activate a little boost.

Speaking of good driving, one of the infuriating things about Mario Kart 64 was indeed the so-called "rubber band AI." In layman's terms, it refers to artificially speeding up those who are not in the front of the pack so that they stay competitive at the end. Double Dash!! thankfully does away with it generally, and if you are racing the race of your life, you will pull away and you will beat the opposition by a wide margin (or even lap the backmarkers). If anything though, it does make Double Dash!! an easier one-player game.

Of course, you shouldn't even be playing it as a one-player game. As much as the Grand Prix has to offer, Mario Kart has always been about multiplayer mayhem.Alongside the usual drill (Grand Prix for two players only, versus races and battle mode for two-to-four players) are a couple of tweaks to the formula. The first is a co-operative mode, where one human controls the driver, and the other controls the gunner. It's fun in a simple sort of way, but cumbersome because both players must agree to hit the button at the same time to switch positions or execute powerslides. If racing isn't your thing, though, there are now two new Battle modes alongside the regular balloon deathmatch (last man standing with a balloon wins): Shine Thief, a take on Capture the Flag, and Bob-omb Blast. Bob-omb Blast is the weaker of the two, resembling the regular battle a little too much, while Shine Thief is engaging and addictive. Once someone grabs the Shine, a countdown from 60 starts, with the clock stopping the instant the Shine Thief gets hit and drops the Shine. If you're holding the Shine when the clock hits 0, you win. Shine Thief plays rather well with the new battle arenas, which are flatter and smaller than before, though anyone preferring the multi-level mayhem from the N64's Block Fort will probably be disappointed here. The GameCube arena in particular is rather simple; it's a flat surface with no obstacles anywhere on it.

Still, the whole game is generally pulled off with the same sort of graphical panache as Super Mario Sunshine, with bright and colorful environments surrounding the action. The animation of the riders is particularly impressive (if the polygon counts are nothing to shout about) and it only adds to the general wacky atmosphere by having Mario holding on for dear life with one hand and nonchalantly juggling mushrooms with the other. Multiplayer races see a reduction in trackside detail, though it rarely affects the race itself.

There are also a few unlockable extras to uncover, from a bevy of new karts to even a few hidden courses and characters. You won't get as many extras as the likes of Smash Bros., but it's a big step forward from previous games…and the final unlockable cup is arguably worth the price of admission alone.

And then there's the much-maligned LAN feature. It might not be for everyone, but there is the potential prospect of 16-player Mario Kart for those who have the means to exploit it (and does anyone out there honestly believe that's a bad thing?). Unfortunately, it's a crippled by some mind-boggling omissions. You cannot choose characters or karts. You can either select a random track or specify one, but after one race you're bumped out to the LAN menu again. There's no way to set up a set of tracks and no results table. It's unfortunate, because of Nintendo's networkable titles, this is the one that people will actually bother to set LAN parties up for.

Ultimately, it's a blemish on a minor feature in a fantastic game. By bringing the N64 sequel's formula closer to that of the original, it's effectively what Mario Kart 64 should have been. Of course, this means it does borrow heavily on past titles -- character-specific weapons aside, everything else is the same, though some old favorites like the feather and ghost are gone -- but when the end result is this much fun, who cares? Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is a joy to play, a frantically manic experience with enough depth to satisfy veterans without turning off newcomers and a multiplayer favorite. Just play it and try not to have a good time with this one.

Score: 9.5/10

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