Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mario Kart DS (DS) Review

Yesterday we took a look at the Gamecube's version of Mario Kart. Now we're going to hop into the driver's seat of the DS installment. Tomorrow, Rank Up! returns featuring the Mario Kart franchise.

Let's Kick Asphalt

Ever since its birth in the early years of the Super Nintendo, Mario Kart has appeared on every Nintendo platform since with its competitive combat carting and wealth of multiplayer bliss. There's been three Mario Karts since the original, each bringing its own little variances to the formula, and Mario Kart DS appears to be the most revolutionary of the bunch. But can it keep up with its console predecessors?

Like most Mario Karts before it, you'll spend the most of your time taking on the computer in the Grand Prix mode. This is a series of cups spanning four races each with the winner being determined by who has the most points by the duration of the cup. Most Mario Kart fanatics would have been satisfied with just sixteen new tracks, however, Nintendo decided to beef up the amount of tracks by adding sixteen retro tracks-- that is, tracks from previous Mario Kart games. While the selection of returning tracks is debatable to some, there's no contesting that this title's Grand Prix will give you the most mileage because of them. And it's great being able to revisit old friends like Double Dash's Mushroom Bridge and Mario Kart 64's Banshee Boardwalk. As you complete each cup you earn new characters (bringing the total to 12 in all), karts, tracks, and higher speeds and difficulties to race with. And if competitive racing isn't your cup of tea, there's always the time trial mode to best your greatest times all by your lonesome.

One mission has you collecting coins within the time limit...

Aside from the standard GP and Time Trial fun, there's an entirely new set of challenges to test your racing mettle known as Mission Mode. This mode puts players in a variety of objective-based challenges such as precision-based coin-collecting and gate-passing exams. After completing a set of missions, you take on that level's boss. Yep. Boss battles... in MY Mario Kart?! You got it. These familiar foes ranging from a Big Bully to a giant Wiggler require you to either bash them off the arena or just beat them in a race a la Diddy Kong Racing.

...While another pits you against
Shifting Sand Land's monstrosity.

And what would a Mario Kart game be without a battle mode? A handful of new and returning arenas make up Mario Kart DS' Battle Mode which can be played with up to four players locally. The only difference between this battle mode and others is the gimmicky blowing into the mic to blow up deflated balloons-- the lifeline of Mario Kart battle.

Mario goes into uncharted territory-- online.

Well, of course Battle mode is offline. It's been like that in every Mario Kart game, and it should be no different because this game is completely offline, too, right? Right? RIIIIIGHT?!!

Wrong. Mario Kart DS launched the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and Nintendo's first foray into online gaming. While it's a welcomed addition and a happy feeling to know that Nintendo has stepped up from the nineties, the online system is bare-bones at best-- even for the time. You can play with anyone or with friends online. Anyone isn't recommended as you'll find people who use the boring technique anyone and their mom can pick up and not have any fun doing it in snaking, or you'll race against a sore loser who will disconnect at the first sign that things aren't going his, her, or its way. Plus, there's emblems that are displayed by your online name and on your kart. Yep, enjoy seeing cartoon depictions of penises and Hitler. What a duo! Whether you play with friends or with strangers, there's only twenty of the thirty-two tracks available to race on which is unfortunate. Though you can use Action Replay to play them online illegally. Races are chosen via election with the race chosen by majority vote or (when it's a tie) randomly. Which goes to another hitch in Nintendo's online plan-- friend codes. The only way to play with a friend online is for you and your friend to exchange codes, your sixteen digit proof of existence in Nintendo's online kindergarten. Regardless of Nintendo's online infancy, Mario Kart DS is still the most complete kart racer to date, and the inclusion of online is just another spice to Mario Kart DS' souffle.

The newest Bowser's Castle is one of the best yet.

Those familiar with Mario Kart's mechanics will be able to instantly settle into a groove, wiggling the D-pad on corners and turns to power-slide. Even newcomers can sit down, learn the ins and outs of Mario Kart DS, and find their own niche in the game. Two screens mean two points of view. The top screen is your standard hud while the bottom screen acts as the race standings as well as map which can be zoomed in or out to give you a sense of items dropped on the course. And without items, Mario Kart just wouldn't be Mario Kart. There's a few new ones in addition to the already known invincibility Starman, red and green shells, banana peels, and boost-inducing Mushrooms. There's a bomb (or Bob-omb) which is used for the first time by someone other than Wario or Waluigi, that you drop behind you and hope someone gets caught up in its blast radius, a squid (or Blooper) that gushes out black ink all over your opponent's screen, obstructing their view, and a Bullet Bill which basically puts you on auto-pilot while it plows over racers ahead of you. The new items are fun, and they keep that addictive sense of balance that MK is infamous for overall.

Banshee Boardwalk is an old haunt from Mario Kart 64.

One of my favorite parts of the Mario Kart series are the incredibly designed courses, and Mario Kart DS isn't any exception. While there are some boring ones (mainly the first two Mushroom Cup races, Figure-Eight Circuit and Yoshi Falls), the ones that stand out are numerous. Riding across the gears of Tick-Tock Clock, racing through the intense action of a pinball machine, or driving through the hallowed, haunted halls of Luigi's Mansion-- there's so much variety and some great themed tracks. As aforementioned there's sixteen returning tracks which should fill that gap of nostalgia that many Mario Kart faithful were needing to fill. While the choices aren't the best, there are some that bring back fantastic memories.

The graphics hold up pretty well for a DS title.

At the time Mario Kart DS was one of the most graphically impressive DS titles available, and while it's been surpassed by other titles such as Metroid Prime Hunters and Final Fantasy III, the graphics still hold up remarkably well. The online infrastructure which was considered ancient then is still pretty unremarkable. Regardless, Mario Kart DS, at this time, is not only the best Mario Kart to date, but it's simply one of the best kart racing period.

[SuperPhillip Says: 9.5/10]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (GCN) Retro Review

I'm in a racing mood this week apparently. I was once again revisiting Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, and I wanted to go more in-depth with the game this time around. I wanted to examine why I like the game so much, and share it with SPC readers in a review. Here it is, a new review of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the Gamecube.

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun.

The Mario Kart series has been around for almost two decades now with its great combination of accessible and deep gameplay. We've seen Mario race in true 3-D in Mario Kart 64, take the fun to the small screen in Super Circuit, and now partner up with two characters in one kart. Is pulling double duty a good idea, or is it just double trouble?

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! gets its name from the new feature implemented into the gameplay. This time around it's two players per kart offering up new strategies and more items to watch out for. One character drives up front while the second character is in charge of using items in back. At any time both characters can switch positions to unleash their item at rival racers.

Aside from the traditional array of items, each character in Double Dash!! has their own special item to exclusive to them. This special item is picked up the same way normal items are through item boxes strewn liberally throughout the various courses. Each characters' item is different from the next, and no item is particularly more powerful or beneficial than the next. Sure, there's several that you'll pick a character just so you can use them, but there is no cheap character in this regard. Mario and Luigi have a series of fireballs that when chucked, spread out and burn opponents caught in their path, Peach and Daisy have a heart shield which defends them against any three items, Donkey and Diddy Kong have a giant banana peel that when slammed into, breaks up into three smaller peels, Wario and Waluigi have Bob-ombs that create a large explosion when they go off, Yoshi and Birdo have homing eggs that when they break launch three items out of them, the pair of Koopa Troopas, green and red have triple shells that they automatically get, both homing and regular, and Bowser and Bowser Jr. have giant Bowser shells that bowl over anyone foolish enough to cross paths with them.

He isn't using that banana for the potassium!

Much like each character has a different item to utilize, every character is categorized in one of three weight classes: light, medium, and heavy. As you can select which kart you'd like to use, this makes a world of difference. Light characters accelerate the faster while heavy characters can bump light and medium karts off the road with ease. Two light characters can only use a light kart, but partner a light character with a medium character, and they can use a medium kart. Partner them with a heavy character, and their only choice is to use a heavy kart. The karts much like the characters have their own personalities to them. You'll find karts shaped like Yoshi, Birdo, Bowser, and shells, Wario's purple convertible, Waluigi's speedy racer, a stage coach turned into a kart, and many more. It's fun to complete cups since you'll never know what you'll unlock next.

The grand prix mode is the main attraction in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! There's four cups in all featuring four races each, and there's four cart classes total. These determine how fast everyone's karts are and the difficult of the AI opponents. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is a different than past and present Mario Karts as the rubber-band AI is practically nonexistent. You'll face off against your occasional flying blue shell of doom that attacks the players in your first, but if you get a sizable lead, which is possible even in the higher difficulties, you can easily keep it. Opponents won't catch up to you from out of nowhere like past games. As cups on the various difficulties are completed, you unlock new karts, tracks, and even new characters making the total number of races and characters 16:20 respectively. The coolest new addition is the All-Cup mode. This pits you in a competition on all sixteen tracks in a random order save for Luigi Circuit which is always the first track and Rainbow Road which is always the last. The whole cup takes anywhere from fifty minutes to an hour pending on the difficulty, and it's a blast to play through, wondering which of the incredible tracks will be next.

Mario and Yoshi-- together again!

As stated, there's sixteen tracks in all, and Double Dash!! has some of the most creative and fun tracks in the entire series, arguably so. The Mushroom Cup features tracks with simple curves, medium dangers, and shorter tracks while the Special Cup is host to sharp turns, perilous pathways, tracks with no railings for safety, and much longer tracks. Tracks are littered with hazards and obstacles from Goombas patrolling Mario Circuit to Qataquacks parading around Peach Beach. One race you'll be aboard a luxury cruise liner while another you'll be zooming through a busy Mushroom Kingdom city at night. Some like Baby Park are complete chaos as it's seven short laps around an oval track with items flying to and fro. Laughs will be had for sure. Overall, the tracks are varied, colorful, fun, full of interesting shortcuts (though no exploits like Mario Kart 64's Rainbow Road and Wario Stadium), and there's seldom a stinker in the bunch.

Apart from the Grand Prix mode which will make up the most of your time, there's also a time trial and battle mode. Time trial is as it sounds where players race on tracks with the only foe to worry about is the clock. Each character gets a mushroom, an item that gives characters a short boost of speed, to work with in order to access otherwise impossible shortcuts. Battle mode pits up to four players in an arena where the goal is to eliminate everyone. Each player gets three lives or balloons. When hit by an item, a balloon goes away. When all balloons are gone, that player is eliminated. There's also a bonus mode called Shine Sprites where the object is to collect Shines, the main collectible in Super Mario Sunshine. These modes are enjoyable, but there's no option to play with computer-controlled players unfortunately.

Literally bowl players over with the Bowser Shell.

The basic gameplay of Double Dash!! is relatively unchanged from previous Mario Karts. You can get a starting boost at the beginning of races, you can get boosts from wiggling the control stick back and forth while in the middle of a power slide, you can grab items, and switch positions on the fly. Switching characters is done by hitting the Z button while initiating a power slide or drift is done by holding down the left or right shoulder buttons. Unlike past Mario Karts, your karts do not jump when the start a power slide. This make tick veteran players off at first, but it's easy to come to grips with and master.

The visuals of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! are exactly what you'd expect from the series-- vibrant, colorful visuals that look good in still-form and in motion. There's never a case of slowdown, and everything's locked at an adequate framerate. Character models are animated wonderfully, and environmental touches on tracks from the tide coming in to trees swaying back and forth are pleasant. It's always hilarious to see a player hit with a powerful item, and the player in back gets dragged behind in comedic fashion. The soundtrack is composed by the pair of Kenta Nagata and Shiobu Tanaka, the former who did work on Mario Kart 64. The music is suitably bouncy, memorable, and fun to listen to. It may be too cheery for some, but it definitely works. This version of Rainbow Road's theme is undoubtedly the best.

Multi-player is the big selling point of Double Dash!!

Your mileage with this arcade racer will vary depending on whether or not you have friends or family to play with you. Otherwise, the amount of single-player content is about the same as past Mario Karts, only this time with the occasional unlockable goody. Multi-player is truly where this game shines with up to two players being able to participate in Grand Prix mode. They can compete against one another or share the same kart with one player driving and the other assigned to using items. It takes true teamwork to come out on top in later races, and it's a testament to how multi-player in this edition of Mario Kart truly shines.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! creates a perfect mix of single-player thrills and multi-player mayhem to make a recommendation to almost anyone. With the most characters to choose from in series history, unlockable karts and characters for the first time, a bounty of beautiful and well-designed tracks, and gorgeous visuals to accompany everything, Double Dash!! races past all past console versions of Mario Kart, and steps on the podium with the gold trophy.

[SuperPhillip Says: 9.5/10]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Motorstorm: Arctic Edge (PSP) Review

While the PSP may not have won the handheld war, it certainly boasts an impressive catalog of games. The Motorstorm franchise is the second Playstation 3 series to make the jump to the PSP. Resistance was the first, and LittleBigPlanet will be the third. Does Motorstorm translate well to the PSP, giving it another great game in its library or does it fall through the ice? Here's the review.

Ice, Ice, Baby.
All screenshots by SuperPhillip.

Winter is just around the corner. Days of shoveling the driveway, icing the sidewalks, and falling on your ass over a patch of ice are just ahead. While some may not look forward to such days, the lunatics in Motorstorm: Arctic Edge make a living off of speeding through hazardous wintry conditions day in and day out. Does the latest Motorstorm have the edge over other PSP racing games, or is it skating on thin ice?

The main mode where you'll spend all your single-player time, with only you and your copy of Motorstorm: Arctic Edge keeping each other company, is The Festival. Progression in this mode works just like it did in past entries. You earn points by competing in various races and challenges. Getting on the podium, first, second, or third place awards you with points. Earn enough points, and you'll unlock the next rank where new and tougher challenges are unlocked. There are eight ranks in total, and while the first few ranks have you facing off against less aggressive opponents, by the fourth rank things get an absurd burst of challenge. One rank you'll be ahead of the pack by ten seconds while the next you'll be duking it out against incredibly intelligent and worthy opponents. It's a bizarre jump in difficulty that may put off players at first, but with enough time invested, you'll persevere.

Snow time like the present to put the pedal to the metal.

There are three types of racing challenges in Festival. The first is your typical race against nine other computer-controlled combatants. Two other challenge types are unlocked through completing races under a strict time limit and staying in first place for at least ten seconds at any time during a race. Doing so unlocks speed races where the goal is to drive through all the checkpoints before time runs out, and races where you earn points by being in first for as long as possible. The eliminator races from Pacific Rift are long gone, so there's only these three types of races to hold players over.

Go all Outrun as you go from checkpoint to checkpoint.

This isn't a problem because there's also twelve tracks to hold players over as well. It's almost twenty-four tracks since all races can be run forwards and backwards. I was worried that there wouldn't be enough variety in the track locales due to the game being located in the Alaskan wilderness. Thankfully, there's enough terrain and types of tracks to keep things fresh. Each track are littered with multiple paths to take. Depending on the vehicle you choose, there's a right path and a wrong path to take. For instance, a motorcycle shouldn't rev around paths with high snowfall whereas a large vehicle like a snowplow shouldn't go anywhere near high jumps. Players will spend a lot of time learning each course, plotting the perfect racing line depending on which vehicle they choose.

Twelve tracks dare to be conquered.

There were eight vehicle types in Pacific Rift. Arctic Edge triples the amount of vehicles, and as races are won, points are accumulated, and rankings are achieved, new vehicles open up. There's still eight vehicle classes from all-terrain vehicles to monstrous dump trucks. Depending on the vehicle, the stats are different from handling to acceleration. While there's twenty-four vehicles, there's three different types in each vehicle class. This time around vehicles can be custom-tailored as you see fit. Don't like the fender? Swap it out for something else. Don't care for the paint job? Change it up to your satisfaction. You can save vehicle templates and choose them from the vehicle select screen.

Aside from The Festival, there's a time trial mode that not only holds records for individual tracks, but it also holds records for both directions of all tracks and records for each individual vehicle. That's 12 X 2 X 8 = Thank God I'm not a math major. In addition to time trial, there's online infrastructure mode which pits you against human opponents worldwide. Up to eight players can compete in one race. Your online tag is tied to the Playstation Network, so if you have a PSN for your PS3, you can use that to hop online and race with ease. Also, while you're in the middle of racing you can pause the game at any time and hop into photo mode. You can take snapshots of the game, save them to your SD card, and upload them to your computer. Now you can catch all of the visceral carnage Arctic Edge has to offer in still form!

Race alone or with friends.

Motorstorm is a racing game at its most very basic. There's no items, there's no weapons-- there's just you, the track's twists and turns, and a motley crew of other racers to contend with. If you need to speed up, you can use a boost. However, use the boost too long, and your vehicle will overheat and eventually explode in a blaze of embarrassing glory. By running through a patch of thick snow or pool of water, you will cool your vehicle down. To win, it takes a smart racing line, knowledge of the course, mastery of the boost system, and a little luck (i.e. not crashing). As for controls you can opt to use the shoulder buttons to brake and accelerate, or you can choose to use the X and circle buttons. You can also choose whether or not to use the PSP's analog nub to steer or the d-pad. It's amazing how the controls of the PS3 game were emulated so well to fit the PSP's lack of buttons.

Three's a crowd, but six is a hootenany.

The package of Arctic Edge is top-shelf material without a doubt. The game is a nice looker and runs at a steady framerate. There's cool effects such as snow and mud splashing onto the screen, and the crashes are full of ragdoll physic fun. The soundtrack is your typical mix of hard, punk rock and techno. You can use your own music, but the requirements necessitate a certain bitrate that makes the entire thing obnoxious. This is especially due to the fact that another game with custom soundtracks, WipEout Pulse, had no such limitations. Regardless, it's a cool feature to have if you can get it to work most of the time.

Motorstorm: Arctic Edge is a phenomenal portable racer. The developer successfully took everything from the console versions of Motorstorm and translated them perfectly to the Playstation Portable. Despite it's uneven difficulty, the single-player mode will last you days with plenty of content and races to conquer, and the infrastructure mode will keep players coming back for more long after winter's gone. If you're a fan of arcade-style racing games, Motorstorm: Arctic Edge won't give you the cold shoulder.

[SuperPhillip Says: 9.0/10]

Interested in Motorstorm? Check out Motorstorm: Pacific Rift.

Motorstorm: Arctic Edge (PSP) Screens

I've been having fun with the photo capture tool that comes with Motorstorm: Arctic Edge for the PSP. I've taken some shots from the in-game engine, and I hope you'll enjoy them. Stay tuned for a full review of Motorstorm: Arctic Edge coming later in the day (after some rest).