By Robert VerBruggen
Nintendo took a far bigger gamble with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the GameCube -- one that paid off immensely, as MK:DD is quite arguably the best game in the series.
The most striking innovation, as the title implied, was that two different characters sat in each kart. This was important because of another new feature -- in addition to the standard items, each character had a special item only he or she could get. True, some could be annoying (Bowser's humongous shell, Donkey Kong's gigantic banana peel) or simply counterproductive (Wario's bomb, when shot ahead, is timed to blow up right as the shooter passes it, and when Baby Mario lets a Chain Chomp pull him ahead at breakneck speed, the metal dog too often leaves him hurtling toward a cliff).
However, this added a whole new dimension to the gameplay. It added strategy as well; the character in the back of the kart handled the items, so if a certain character's item worked better on a given track, the player could keep that character in the rear seat.
The game also allowed players to select different karts in each weight class. This went far beyond a graphic replacement -- the karts had markedly varying abilities. It also forced players to learn characters in the various weight classes, because as they unlocked new and better karts, they had to pick properly sized characters to fit in them.
The new tracks, 16 plus a mirror mode (the same tracks, with right turns replaced by left ones and vice versa), played splendidly. One of the more complex was Yoshi Circuit, a road that looped in insane curves to form a from-the-sky image of the eponymous friendly reptile. Oddly enough, another of the more intriguing selections was Baby Park, a very short, simple, tight, seven-lap oval. It posed two questions: How close can you make a right turn (left in mirror mode) without running into the wall, and how reliably can you execute the power-slide speed boost? The new Rainbow Road featured some devilish curves, though not as many as the SNES one did.
Nintendo followed Double Dash!! with Mario Kart DS, a nice-looking and well-playing handheld title. It features 16 new and 16 "retro" tracks (the franchise is getting good at milking old material for new money, and the upcoming Mario Kart Wii is set to do the same). It's a step backward in that it allows only one character per kart (also as MKW is set to), but players can still select a variety of karts for each character, and the game adds "mission mode" -- a series of mazes, one-on-one races, and other assorted challenges.
It also continued in the spirit of inventive, fun, and amusing track design -- in one standout, racers drive through a giant pinball machine. We can only hope the Wii game can keep up this level of ingenuity.
CCC Freelance Writer