More than two years after the launch of the Gamecube and after having received some delays like most hotly anticipated Nintendo titles the latest installment in the Mario Kart series has finally arrived. With Mario Kart: Double Dash!! the idea is to provide new excitement for kart racing fans everywhere but is it a good game? Yes. Is it flawless? Hmmmm...Most Mario Kart fans will naturally start playing the game without taking a look at the manual. ThatÃ‚'s what I did and I and won every single race of the three grand prix's in the 50ccm class. Mind you, the manual isnÃ‚'t a completely useless as it provides some details on character specials and the tweaked sliding system. Perhaps the most important feature detailed in the manual is the driver information.
Initially the player can access 16 drivers with two more pairs available to be unlocked. You will always choose two characters - any combination you want. One of them is the driver and the other one takes care of the items. During a race you can switch the positions anytime simply by pressing the Z-button so that your driver now handles the items and your item thrower gets behind the wheel. Take note that the choice of characters affects your choice of vehicles. If you have a heavyweight like Bowser on your team you can only use the set of carts that is capable of carrying him no matter what weight his partner may be. Usually the big characters are the ones with high top speed but slow acceleration. The light weight class karts reach their top speed faster but are slower overall and open to tackle attacks from the bigger drivers. You'll unlock some more karts for each weight class as you make your way through the Grand Prix series.
The items to pick up during a race feature classics such as the green or the red shell which can be used shoot down your opponents or dropped on the track behind you. The red version works like a homing missile while the green one flies off straight ahead and bounces off obstacles. Of course it wouldn't be Mario Kart if there was no banana peel available to be placed at choke points and send your rivals spinning. The mushroom provides a short boost which can be immensely helpful for some short cuts. The star ups the speed of your go-cart and makes you invincible for a few seconds. The lighting strike shrinks down all your enemies while removing their items, slowing them down and making them vulnerable to getting crushed by the normal-sized karts. The blue shell will track down whomever is currently in the leading position and bomb him/her and every driver nearby. Finally, there's a decoy box which resembles the "?"-box but works much like a banana peel.
Items are accessed by collecting "?"-blocks. The actual selection procedure is 'semi-random'. This means that if you're in the 7th or 8th position you're more likely to receive lightning strikes, mushroom triple packs or stars. If you're leading, chances are you'll get green shells or banana peels. In addition to the items mentioned above there are also special extras available that depend on your co-pilot. Mario/Luigi can shoot/drop fireballs, Bowser/Baby Bowser can fire off a huge spike shell which will clean the track ahead of them while Wario/Waluigi can throw/drop a bomb which causes quite an explosion. Not to be left out, Peach and Toadstool can get a shield which will protect them and absorb items. These special items are where the pilot/co-pilot feature really kicks in.
Your racing performance depends on an efficient combination of two drivers. Choose wisely and you'll have a nice advantage. You've probably noticed that picking two identical drivers such as Mario and Luigi might be a waste as both of them have the same special item. If you would to like have access to Koopa's special item but drive a high top-speed kart simply team up with Wario, Donkey Kong or Bowser! Add in the fact that there's more than one kart to choose from per weight class you can see that there's a number of combinations to toy around with.
Another useful tactic to note is that the co-pilot can only hold one item at a time. Keep switching the driver/co-pilot positions cleverly and your vehicle will have two extras at the same time, extending your tactical options considerably. In that case the primary item happens to be the one the current co-driver carries. Once you deploy one of the extras the driver/co-driver will switch places automatically which provides easier access to the second item without requiring you to do it manually. So thatÃ‚'s the Ã‚"doubleÃ‚" in Mario KartÃ‚'s Ã‚"dashÃ‚", letÃ‚'s move onto the single player portion of the game.
If you don't have any friends around you can choose between Grand Prix and Time Trial modes. The Grand Prix mode contains three challenges, each containing four racing tracks. As usual there are three difficulty levels one can select; 50ccm, 100ccm, 150ccm. 50ccm is the slowest and easiest way to compete with the CPU racers while 150ccm is obviously the fastest and trickiest single-player experience Mario Kart: DD will throw at you. Of course - and this shouldnÃ‚'t come as a surprise to Mario Kart experts - there's also a Special Cup to be unlocked once you master the other three cups in the 100ccm class. That makes 16 tracks altogether.
There isn't a lot to explain about the Time Trial. Your driver combo has two mushrooms to be used throughout the race against the clock. Fortunately you can save the ghost driver if you managed to break an old record which is especially helpful if you have a friend you're competing with for the best time. Each ghost eats up five blocks on your memory card.
How does the single player mode play? Mixed. Time Trial is definitely quite motivating, especially since you can exchange ghost drivers with your friends via memory card. Some tracks look rather uninspired but the Special Cup ones compensate for that. At least partially. The Grand Prix mode, however, is a mixed experience. You will get frustrated sooner or later and there are two main reasons for that.
Higher difficulty is partially achieved through cheating AI. For instance, if you shoot down a CPU cart or if it drives right into a banana peel/trap it seems to speed up again too fast even if it's a heavy combo involving Bowser. They definitely speed up faster than you would if you were to use the same vehicle. Now you might want to say that it's been like this in the previous Mario Kart games too, which is true, but I didn't fall in love with their Grand Prix modes either. Just because it's been done before doesn't mean they couldn't have made that better now. I don't mind fast/clever AI drivers as long as they're being affected by the same physics I am. On the upside it should be noted that your CPU opponents are not following you as if you were a magnet this time around. It's been handled like that in previous games but in Double Dash!! itÃ‚'s possible to get away from your competitors. Also, they're not immune to the tackle attacks performed by heavier karts.
The next issue is the almost-random lucky wins you need to achieve sometimes. You can be (and in 150ccm you should be) a very good driver but there are elements you simply have no influence on. You see, some tracks feature moving obstacles. Many of them can be avoided from a distance (such as a dinosaur) while others depend on timing, like the rolling rocks on Donkey Kong Island and the pipe flowers in Wario's Arena. The point that the AI faces the same problem doesn't really ease the frustration when you run into one of these things have to perform an enormous, time consuming effort to evade. Sometimes you have no chance to avoid these things and itÃ‚'s easy to lose your position in the final round of a race.
Another almost unavoidable is if you're shot down with a blue shell (which can be fired from anywhere) in the last round in 150ccm. When this happens you can might as well restart the race (and probably the whole Grand Prix) immediately because you almost instantly lose at least two or three positions and it's nearly impossible to compensate for that. On a course like Baby Park - an oval featuring some extras - the outcome often appears to be like the result of a lottery. In the original Mario Kart you had a lot more control over what's going on and any major mistake that occurred and cost your victory was usually a mistake you made.
What it boils down to is this: some of the elements that make the multiplayer part so entertaining are inappropriate in the single player version unless you have a very different take on how challenge should be provided. It might have been more enjoyable had only one of the above issues been in the game. Combined they can result in unfair moments. To me the higher difficulty levels of the Grand Prix mode were more of an annoyance that I went through to unlock content rather than a game mode to be enjoyed. Now that I've achieved what I wanted I don't plan to play that part again. Fortunately, there's some lasting single player value for me in Mario Kart: DD thanks to the Time Trial mode.
Nintendo games are usually very well designed in terms of usability but Double Dash!! is missing a simple "Restart Grand Prix" option in the pause menu. It needs one so badly. It is possible to beat the 150ccm Special Cup despite all the flaws mentioned above but it'll take you an enormous number of attempts. Every time you want to restart you have to go through the title screen -> menu -> character selection -> Grand Prix selection procedure again. It may sound like nitpicking but once you play the game in 150ccm you'll see what I'm talking about. Also, almost all modern racing games provide some sort of time information at checkpoints or at least at the end of each round to display how many seconds you're ahead or behind your closest opponent. It's a standard feature. Or so I thought until I played Mario Kart: Double Dash!! which forces me to look at the minimap to see the gap. This is a pain in the ass and a rather deadly distraction as it requires you to shift your eye focus. Thankfully, it's not being handled like this in the Time Trial mode.
Another important element not present in the game is some kind of rear mirror or option to look at what's going on behind you. You'll get to see a little icon whenever there's a red or blue shell approaching, which is ok, but a rear mirror option would make evasive actions or dropping banana peels a LOT easier. There's also one more from the 'lost in history' department: you can't 'hop' anymore. Quite a shame since the option to jump promoted a risky driving style and provided an excellent tool to save your vehicle in 'edgy' situations or take advantage of shortcuts. If you happen to be an avid Mario Kart player like I was, you'll occasionally drive right into the abyss as a result of trying to take a corner in a rather hazardous way just to remember that one cannot jump in this Mario Kart title.
Well, all that doesn't sound overly cheerful, does it? Thankfully the multiplayer makes up for it.
Multiplayer is where Double Dash!! truly shines. You can play a single track or a whole Grand Prix against up to three other friends on your Gamecube. You can even go up to eight or sixteen players altogether under certain other circumstances, but I'll comment on that later on.
If you're lusting for a more action you might want to go for the battle mode. The Balloon Match works similar to the versions of Mario Kart. Each player has three balloons and your goal is to pop other playerÃ‚'s balloons by attacking them. You can also steal balloons from them through boost or sliding attacks. The Insigne Mode features a special item. If you make it to get the insigne you have to keep it for a certain amount of time while all the other players will be after you, trying to steal it. The Bob-Omb mode replaces all common extras with bombs which can be either thrown or dropped. No big surprise here, you have to hunt down your opponents while trying to stay away from the explosions. Altogether there are six battle arenas available, two of which have to be unlocked in the Grand Prix mode.
Wait, that's not all. Double Dash!! incorporates a coop-mode where two players can control one kart. One of them is the driver and the other one manages the items. Of course, it's possible to switch anytime during the race. It might sound a bit weird at first but there's definitely some fun potential in this mode, making the game more enjoyable if you prefer playing with instead of against your girlfriend/boyfriend/whomever. It also comes in handy when there are two skilled players and two newbies around because 2 vs. 2 coop might be more fun than pure 'deathmatch' for the new players.
We've tested all multiplayer modes and I can wholeheartedly recommend Mario Kart: Double Dash!! as a party game. It's incredibly entertaining and definitely better than the N64 installment. It's likely to have even more of an impact with LAN play. A feature probably implemented by Nintendo to compensate for the lack of online modes. Up to eight players can battle each other if you hook up several Gamecubes. You can even go up to 16 players if you decide to go for aforementioned coop mode.
There are several options available. Connecting two GCs and having four people playing on each is one way to do it or connecting eight GCs via hub so that each player has his/her own screen. I doubt many are going to get to see something like this except at some expo booth though. Everyone needs to have a broadband adapter or else you'll find yourself staring at the ethernet cord and wondering what to do with it. Only a rather small faction of the Mario Kart owners will be able to enjoy the LAN support and Nintendo is partially to blame for that. The general lack of online or LAN support in Gamecube games makes purchasing a broadband adapter for a single game about as appealing as consuming an unsavory meal just because you'd like to eat the pudding that's handed out afterwards. Even if you're willing to make that investment, you'd also have to convince the other Gamecube owners to do the same.
Finally, a few words on the technical aspects. The music is as you would expect it to be in a Mario game but you're going to be too busy to pay attention to it while playing anyway. Double Dash!! supports Dolby Prologic II and like most modern PAL games Mario Kart: DD allows you to choose between 50/60Hz support. The graphics are comparable to Super Smash Bros Melee: detailed character models but the rest resembles a Dreamcast game. The character animations are quite amusing and you can't help but smile when the co-pilot is nearly falling off the kart or cheering after a successful attack. The screenshots, taken from Nintendo's website due to the lack of screen capture options, naturally look even worse and don't communicate the charm of the animations or the nice view distance.
While the overall game might not look mind-blowing at first sight, it must be said that the frame rate is smooth when four players battle each other via split screen. Mario Kart 64 suffered from a notable frame rate drop when playing in this mode so itÃ‚'s nice to see some improvement. Probably the most impressive aspect from a tech standpoint is that there are basically no loading times. It's not an overstatement to say that it plays like a cartridge-based console game. You select a track and the very next second you're playing the game. This might not sound very significant but it really adds to the overall experience.
What's left to be said? Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is a worthwhile experience. The shortcomings are outweighed by the entertainment provided through Time Trial and the multiplayer element. I'd say you can't go wrong with this one unless you know for sure you're never going to get to play the multiplayer part. Also, if you disliked the previous Mario Kart titles, chances are you're not going to like MK: Double Dash!! either. Maybe you'll enjoy the Cup mode more than I did. Personally, I prefer a title like Burnout 2 whenever I feel like playing a Grand Prix.
Don't be confused by the fact it took me approximately 439 paragraphs to elaborate on the elements I didn't like that much. I certainly don't regret buying this game as the time trial battles and multiplayer sessions are guaranteed to provide me with hours of fun well past the writing of this review.