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Mario Kart DS

Mario and friends race over the finish line with the best Mario Kart game yet. Gentlemen, start your engines!

What you have here ladies and gents is simply the best Mario Kart game ever made. Of course, as opening statements go, that's probably a fairly contentious claim, which means we're going to have to justify for all we're worth further down the page. Excellent.

Generally, we're of the opinion that Mario Kart never really transferred particularly successfully into that mythical third dimension. When the clamour for a sequel to the SNES original was met with a follow-up in the form of the N64 game, the initial thrill of all those polygons was quickly overshadowed by the realization that a lot of the simplicity and immediate satisfaction that made the original title so much fun was lost. In there place, Nintendo seemed to fall into the trap of wielding their polygons for the sake of it, rather than as a means to enhance the Mario Kart experience.

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The tightly-focused tracks were replaced with long, meandering, unimaginative and often-times tedious courses (Rainbow Road, anyone?) and the move to analogue control made for some curiously bland driving, without the frantic split-second adjustments the limits of the SNES' d-pad necessitated. What's more, despite rectifying several of these mis-steps (including the tightening of the track roster), the GameCube version merely served to dilute the pure arcade thrills of the original further with unnecessary rider swapping that ultimately proved more of an annoyance than a genuine gameplay enhancement.

For us, the best version of Mario Kart until now was the slightly neglected GBA version, which managed to retain all of the classic elements that made the original such a success without burdening the player with anything more than what they actually wanted - new, smartly crafted courses to master and kick friend butt across in multiplayer. Oh and the fact it contained all of the original SNES tracks was just a very happy bonus.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
So after that brief diversion through history, it's back to the present day and the arrival of Mario Kart DS. You'll probably be thankful to hear that all that waffle up there did have a point. You see, we reckon the new DS version is the first time that Nintendo has successfully managed to marry all this new-fangled polygonism with all that old-skool dynamism. Alongside the ever-present urgency tied in with constant d-pad adjustments, the sixteen Grand Prix courses on display here (not including the sixteen "Retro" tracks culled from all four previous versions of the game) are some of the most tightly-focused, inventive and downright FUN tracks the series has ever seen.

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Case in point, Waluigi Pinball sees your revving roster of racers careening around a rollicking twist of track, dodging passed tumbling pinballs on the way down to the table proper. The course featuring a hazardous arrangement of bumpers and flipper waiting to propel unsuspecting karts backward, setting you back those ever critical seconds - and that's not even mentioning the high-speed thrust up the launch chute that starts off every lap either.

There's also the ingenious Airship Fortress, designed around the airship levels from Super Mario Bros 3, featuring a similar selection of twists and turns through crumbling stone passages. This time around you're charged with dodging huge Bullet Bills and flying through the sky on the back of a giant cannon blast, much like the Donkey Kong course from Double Dash. Even the series-staple Rainbow Road strikes it right, throwing in enough eye-popping loop-the-loops and teeth-clenching wall-less tight turns without ever sailing off into the meandering flabby contrivances of previous versions post-SNES.

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