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Mario Kart Double Dash

Mario Kart Double Dash is often looked on as the black sheep of the series as it introduced many new elements that were not fully embraced by the fans.  Let’s face it, innovating within the kart racing genre (or racing games in general) is damn near impossible as their mechanics are pretty well set.  Which is why it isn’t needed so long as the core mechanics are well done, which in the case of Double Dash fully applies.  Mario Kart Double Dash is an excellent racing game and one that is still fun even in light of superior games in the series.

The roster of characters has significantly expanded from 8 to 20 with plenty of new faces to the series.  Baby Mario and Luigi, Diddy Kong, Wario and Waluigi, Bowser Jr, Birdo, Daisy, and Toadette join the cast.  As big as the Mario universe is it seems kind of stupid that they would simply resort to chibi versions of the main cast to expand the playable roster.  Unfortunately many of these additions seem redundant although they do tie in with the game’s big new feature that of tag team kart racing.

The big new feature presented in DD are two man teams for every kart.  Players choose two characters, one for driving and one for using items that can be switched off at any time.  Depending on the pairing of characters you’ll have access to three different karts rated in three categories: speed, acceleration, and weight.  It’s isn’t as deep as you would expect as they generally fall into three groups; high top speed but low acceleration (heavy kart), fast acceleration but middling speed (light kart) and your typical average racer.  There’s no bonus from trying to match up Donkey Kong with Baby Mario for instance or other similar matchups which would have been cool.

The real interesting perk of character choice comes in item usage.  The list of items has nearly tripled since there character specific power-ups for everyone on the roster.  The Mario Brothers pick up a row of fireballs that bounce along the length of the track while Bowser has a gigantic turtle shell that is hard to avoid.  It’s fun to mix and match characters based on what items you’ll potentially have access to.  It also prompts you to take advantage of switching positions since both characters can hold one item but only the one riding Dutch can pick them up.

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The track design is both interesting and more of the same.  There’s a nice mix of longer and shorter tracks that experiment with the number of laps.  A track such as Baby Park is a simple circle that lasts all of 30 seconds but is 7 laps long with a heavy emphasis on weapon usage to earn your position.  Mushroom City is reminiscent of Toad’s Turnpike except fully realized, with more traffic and multiple pathways to the exit.  But for every one of these there is a Dry Dry Desert that feels far too plain and more like rehash than something new.  There’s nothing inherently wrong that of course, but it swings from some wild extremes. All of the Special Cup tracks are excellent and will require plenty of practice before you’ll earn that gold cup.

The intolerable rubberband AI from Mario Kart 64 has been toned down significantly, if not outright removed.  That was the one element that ruined the single player mode of that game and now it’s satisfying to gain the lead and actually keep it using skill.  You’ll still have to deal with the fact that items weigh in favor of the ones in the lowest positions but I’ll gladly take that over artificial bullshit.  The improved handling also helps make the campaign more enjoyable.  The power slide is more integral to winning on the higher classes and the game does a good job of easing you into its use.

Battle mode has been the series biggest draw suffers from the same highs and lows as the single player.  Here the wealth of new items truly begins to shine with a few creative game modes like Bob Bomb Blast but the game is slowed down considerably to accommodate the smaller arenas.  Which is also the other let down, the arenas are completely lacking in exciting design and are mostly relegated to generic square boxes.  They could have done more with the system’s power to create some elaborate battlegrounds that could have added a strategic element.

In light of the insane amount of unlockables Super Smash Bros. Melee was packed with this installment of Mario Kart feels lacking in comparison.  After you’ve earned gold in the first three cups you’ll unlock the Special Cup, which houses four of the most difficult courses in the game.  Beyond that there are a few karts, characters, and battle mode tracks to earn.  Beyond 150cc class is Mirror Mode, which reverses the course layouts.  I’ve never been too big on mirrored tracks in racing games but will admit that for certain games it really does feel like a new set of tracks.  The most extensive end game addition is the All-Cup Tour.  This puts you in one long grand prix featuring all 16 tracks in the game, with all but the first and last tracks randomized.

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The blurry textures and ugly rendered character sprites of Mario kart 64 have given way to a vibrant full 3d world that is absolutely beautiful to see in motion.  There’s a level of bustle and activity to each course that is pretty exciting to watch and at the time of its release there were no other games that could match its vivid color palette and sense of design.  It also ran at a perfect 60 frames per second in both single player and four player split screen mode, a technical feat to be sure.  There were some sacrifices made to achieve that level of performance; if you look closely you can see some average texture work and low poly count buildings and objects.  However when it all comes together those elements are easy to ignore.

The soundtrack is full of bright and cheery midi tunes that are adequate but not all that memorable.  It’s doubly disappointing considering Mario Kart 64 had numerous tracks that are all time favorites, and that was a cartridge game.  The one area of the game’s overall aural package that is annoying are the character voices, especially the baby characters.  It’s obvious they were going for cute but veered off into the irritating zone somewhere along the way.  At least there isn’t that much of it.

While most of its additions fall short of being worthwhile the fundamentals of Mario Kart Double Dash are still sound and make for a great kart racer.  There are some missed opportunities here and there, especially in regards to multiplayer as LAN support is no substitute for full online play but what can you do?

8-out-of-101

 

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Super Mario Kart

Who would have thought a simple racing game made with crude Mode 7 effects would go on to become one of the most beloved series in gaming?  Mario had somewhat of a reputation for starring in games other than platformers, such as Wrecking Crew, Dr. Mario, and even the referee in Mike Tyson’s Punchout so it wasn’t much of a shock to now see him in a racing game.  But the fact that not only was it excellent but offered many innovative features and would spawn an entire genre was unprecedented.

Released in 1992 Mario and company take to the streets in head to head racing action rather than butt stomping through different worlds.  The 8 characters represent the most popular (at the time) members of the franchise, The Mario brothers, Toad, and Yoshi to Donkey Kong, Bowser, and even a Koopa Troopa.  Super Mario Kart was born out of a desire to create a two player racing as opposed to F-Zero’s solitary experience hence the split screen view at all times.  The unique mix of straight racing to the finish combined with adding weapons to the mix spawned a genre that still inspires imitators to this day. Even considering its age Super Mario Kart has lost little of its luster and is still an enjoyable experience to this day.

Broken down into 3 Cups (with the Special Cup unlocked after winning 100cc on the prior 3) with 5 tracks each there’s a lot of content on offer.  Each race is 5 laps with the top 4 receiving points needed to progress to the end.  The option of 50cc and 100cc corresponds to easy and normal difficulty and does more than make the computer faster; it increases computer aggressiveness but it never descends to the rubber band AI bullshit of Mario Kart 64.  It’s actually a totally different experience bumping up to 100cc and once you unlock 150cc you’ll need to stay on your toes at all times to even dream of beating the AI.

The introduction of weapons in the mix truly sets Mario kart apart.  The traditional Mario items such as turtle shells, mushrooms, and stars are joined by banana peels, lightning to miniaturize the competition and the feather for bigger jumps.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying as trailing whoever is in first place only to get a red shell that seeks out and blasts them, enabling you to steal a last minute win.  Although the items are simpler than in later installments they serve the shorter tracks well.  Anyone in lower positions has a higher chance of getting the better items such as stars or red shells which has always been a point of contention; I will say because the items are so simple in this game it isn’t as bad as some of the later games.

One gameplay feature Super Mario Kart has over some of the series later entries is the use of coins.  The coins scattered around the track serve multiple purposes.  First and foremost they help you reach your maximum speed; for slower characters such as Donkey Kong and Bowser they are crucial.  Secondly any collisions with other players or weapons will cause you to lose a few coins rather than spin out.  In 100cc and above you’ll be making a mad dash for those coins as the computer is ruthless.  Lastly any time you fall in lava or the boundaries of a track Lakitu will pick you up for a few coins.  With nothing to pay him with you’ll have to climb out yourself which is pretty much the kiss of death.  A lot of these features are rather innocuous so it’s easy to overlook until five racers pound you from behind and you basically have an epileptic fit on the track.  I don’t see why they were removed from the later games as it fit with the Mario theme of the series.

While the single player is fun the multiplayer is what helped Super Mario Kart rise to fame.  And unfortunately it’s a bit lacking in this first game.  The 2-player limit couldn’t be helped at the time but at the same time there are other aspects that are wanting.  The arenas are far too big for just two people, leaving large periods where you won’t even see your opponent.  Also the weapon selection is a bit too simple for exciting matches outside of using well timed feather jumps to dodge turtle shells.  That’s not to say it isn’t fun but the novelty of it will wear off pretty quickly.

Mode 7 is used to simulate a 3d plane like F-Zero however Super Mario Kart is more advanced in that regard.  The terrain is more varied than in that game and the Mario theme makes for some very interesting track locales.  Time has not been kind to the overall presentation though.  What was once a (relatively) beautiful game is now a flickery and pixelated mess.  You can definitely see how this was revolutionary at the time and appreciate it for what it is but a pretty game it is not.  The music however is still excellent.

Despite over 9 games in the series (including the arcade games) the original Mario Kart is still worth a shot.  It won’t turn heads but in terms of gameplay it is still one of the best kart racers of all time.

8-out-of-101

 

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R.C. Pro AM

My memories of RC Pro AM are distinct: one of the first vehicular combat games with a unique perspective and tight gameplay.  It could possibly be the best racing game on the NES.  However there is one flaw that drags the game down, and while it doesn’t knock it from its top position on the platform it can ruin your enjoyment of the game depending on how much tolerance you have for it.

You compete in a series of 24 races against 3 opponents with the object being to place in the top 3 to advance.  Played from an isometric perspective RC Pro Am’s viewpoint set it apart from its contemporaries.  Most racing games of the time were first person or behind the vehicle; the ¾ perspective allowed you to see a larger portion of the track and plan ahead.  Although the vehicles are a bit large there are convenient arrows that will alert you to upcoming turns.  Since you are controlling radio controlled vehicles the handling is a bit different than you would expect.  This is one of the earliest instances of drifting, and mastering its use is crucial to victory.

Lest you think RC Pro AM is a strictly left to right racing game it introduces power-ups starting with Round 2.  Although other games such as Death Race preceded it I would say RC Pro Am popularized the concept of vehicular combat and largely spawned the genre, with the likes of Mario Kart and Rock and Roll Racing running with it years later.  Scattered around the tracks are various power ups such as missiles, bombs, stars for ammo and the invincibility roll cage.  By collecting the letters that spell Nintendo you can upgrade the standard RC truck twice: first to a van then to a race car. The joy of getting a new vehicle is dampened a by the fact that the computer is upgraded too.

There are other power-ups such as tires for traction, gears for acceleration, and engines for top speed.  Truthfully aside from the momentary boost they give you the difference is negligible.   With the exception of invincibility the AI can’t use other weapons as the game would be impossible otherwise.  A well timed missile or running the computer off the road while invincible can mean the difference between third place and game over.  There are usually plenty of opportunities to make a come from behind victory using each weapon but even despite the slight edge you have it can be tough.

Each track is littered with various hazards that will trip you up, such as oil that causes spin outs, water to slow you down, rainfall that does the same or the worst one, and retractable walls.  The water hazards are simple annoyances that you will more than likely power through however oil will cause to spin and lose control while keeping your forward momentum.  The retracting walls are a near instant loss if you collide with them since you’ll have to wait a few seconds for your truck to repair and build up speed again.  Working in your favor are the zip lines that provide massive bursts of speed.  If you see one you have to do everything in your power to hit it because the computer definitely will.  Every time.  Which is part of the problem.

It’ll take a miracle to come in first place in the later tracks.  If you fuck up like the screens above you might as well prepare to lose or reset.

That flaw that I mentioned earlier?  My biggest pet peeve when it comes to racing games: rubber band AI.  RC Pro Am is host to some of the worst rubber band AI I have ever experienced.  This goes beyond simply catching up when you are ahead.  The game will give the computer such ridiculous speed boosts that not only will they pass you sometimes they even fucking lap you! Luckily instances like this are few and far between but you still have to be at the top of your game.  If you don’t hit every zipper and crash into a wall even once or twice the computer will pass you.  Guaranteed, every single time.

Is it still a classic?  Certainly.  But I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the cheap AI.  Honestly the only thing missing from the game is multiplayer but that can be overlooked considering everything else it does right.  Mario Kart and Twisted Metal have taken the ball and run with it but RC Pro Am is still the originator.

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Sonic R

It only made sense that Sega would follow in Nintendo’s footsteps and branch Sonic out into other genres.  The public couldn’t get enough of him and spinoffs allowed them some breathing room while working on the next major installment in the series.  This goes back as far as Sonic Spinball but it was still disappointing when Sega announced Sonic R, a racing game for the Saturn instead of the platformer gamers wanted.

Sonic R was developed by Traveller’s Tale once again and released in 1997.  Plot?  You don’t need any plot, it’s a racing game.  Sonic and friends hit the tracks to see who is the fastest that’s all you need to know.  This was not the first time Sega attempted to make Sonic lace up his shoes; the two Sonic Drift games for Game Gear preceded this but they were terrible.  Is the third time the charm?  I won’t keep you in suspense and simply say no, it is not but not for a lack of trying.  With just a little more work this could have been a decent game but is instead a forgettable misstep in terms of Sega’s handling of the character.

If you are at all familiar with Super Mario Kart then you know what to expect.  Up to 5 characters compete at the same time among a selection of 10.  On the surface the gameplay is almost exactly like SMK however Sonic R does enough to forge its own identity.  Rings collected around the track serve two purposes: speed boosts along the tracks consume 50 rings for a massive boost and certain gates require set amount of rings, granting access to shortcuts or hidden items.  Platforming is also implemented to a degree with each character possessing unique abilities that can spell the difference between a win or loss.  This would have made for a decent overall package if not for the numerous issues.

My two biggest beefs with the game are the pathetic controls and its brevity.  I can understand the developers wanting to convey the sense of speed but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the controls.  You don’t steer Sonic and pals so much as fling them around.   You move entirely too fast, making the simplest turns an exercise in frustration.  Most tracks have no boundaries so you’ll be spending more time out of bounds than finishing the race itself.  Sadly Sonic R is seriously lacking in substance as well.  There are only 5 tracks in total along with a time trial and a 2-player mode for longevity.  I guess 5 tracks was slightly more than the standard 3 most racing games of that era peddled but the vast majority of kart racers have always provided a greater selection that this game is missing.  But that simply isn’t enough.  You can see all of the content in the space of 1 hour.  6 of the 10 characters have to be unlocked but they are mostly lame robotic versions of the principle cast.

Sonic R was something of a technical powerhouse on the Saturn.  Much was said about the transparency technique employed to hide pop up and simulate hardware transparency and for the most part it works.  Sonic R has a very clean look unmatched by a significant portion of the Saturn’s library and they were able to hide the system’s deficiencies pretty well.  I can’t go any further without mentioning the music.  All of the tracks have vocal themes associated with them and the music was composed by Richard Jacques, of Sonic 3d Blast fame (or infamy).  Opinions vary from brilliant to fruity and cheesy; I fall somewhere in the middle.  The actual songs are well composed but the lyrics are cheesy.  But in the end it grew on me over time.

At this point there is no reason to even bother with Sonic R.   Hell it wasn’t worth it back in 1997 as anything other than a technical curiosity.  Less than an afternoon’s worth of content and shoddy controls mar what could have been a decent racer.  As it stands this is a reminder of Sega’s incompetency during that console generation.

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Mario Kart 64

The early days of the N64 can be summed up in 1 word: waiting.  As third parties ran screaming from cartridges and Nintendo’s hefty license fees not only were releases few and far between but constantly delayed as well.  As someone who lived through that period it was infuriating, let me tell you.  The games more often than not were worth the wait, many of them achieving classic status but its not an exaggeration to say you could add 4-6 months to any release date and it would be accurate.  With nothing else new to keep us occupied we had no choice but to turn to multiplayer, which the N64 excelled at.  Mario Kart 64 was one of the earliest 4 player games on the system and would be a main stay in N64 consoles years after release.

Mario Kart 64 was released in February 1997 for the US with Europe getting hosed as usual and forced to wait until June.  The first major release after the system’s record breaking holiday season, it benefited from having no competition while also largely meeting gamers’ expectations.  A direct sequel to the SNES game, Mario Kart 64 benefited from the move to 3d in terms of track design, with large hills, pits, and walls now possible instead of using sprite trickery to fake it.

The advances in track design would also extend to the riotous multiplayer mode, with more complex battle arenas that offered unique opportunities to ambush fellow players and quickly escape.  Despite all of these advances not every element of the game was met with favoritism by players.

Four gameplay modes are available: Mario GP, Time Trial, Vs. and Battle.  Time Trial and Vs. are both self explanatory Grand Prix is divided into 4 Cups with 4 tracks each.  The different CC classes (50, 100, & 150) correspond to difficulty, as you and you’re opponents increase in speed and aggressiveness.  Unlike most racing games, all of the tracks are available right from the start.  16 Tracks was a massive amount considering the majority of racing games during that period only had 3-5 at most if you were lucky.  The 8 characters available are rated in 3 categories although the game never explicitly states it.

A host of new items were added, many of which would go on to become staples of the series.   Turtle shells now have a blue variant which seeks out the rider in first place.  In addition you can gain 3 red or green shells that rotate like a shield and can be launched at your discretion.  The ghost will steal a power-up from the nearest opponent, the lightning bolt will shrink everyone but you for easy squashing, and a new multi use boost mushroom round out the list.  As useful as these are in single player it’s obvious from the beginning they were designed with multiplayer in mind and this is where Mario Kart 64 shines.

Plug in 4 controllers and the game takes on a whole new life.   2 players can go through GP mode together but that’s not where the meat of the game lies.  The battle mode is what made late night college parties a daily occurrence.  The 4 battle arenas truly take advantage of the jump into 3d with a ridiculous number of holes and side rooms to duck and cover in the heat of the moment.

The new items added to the game truly shine here and create legendary moments, such as using the ghost to steal a red turtle shell at the last moment before losing and turning the tables.  Vs. is available for up to 4 players but there are no computer controlled cars disappointingly.  Bottom line, you play multiplayer for the battle mode.  It’s fortunate that it turned out so well as the single player is truly lacking.

Be prepared to have someone on your ass at all times.  It really is not fun to drive perfectly and

yet the computer is 2 paces behind without missing a step.

The problems with the single player mode largely stem from Nintendo’s efforts to make it more engaging.  The game is largely focused on weapons with far more item boxes littering the tracks.   The issues stem from the way it’s balanced.  Lower ranked players receive the better items while those in first or second are shafted with the pathetic banana more often than not.  But this takes a backseat to the biggest offender, the rubberband AI.  Not since R.C. Pro AM have I experienced AI so cheap.  The AI aggressively speeds up as soon as you are in first, to the point where you will never have a comfortable lead at any point.  Crank it up to 100 or 150cc and it borders on retarded.

Even after you’ve mastered advanced techniques such as sliding and mini turbo boosting every race is a literal photo finish.  Just to give you an example:  In Wario Stadium there is a shortcut at the beginning that will dump you in the last 3rd of the track.  I can guarantee by the time you begin the second lap the AI will be right behind you like a rabid dog.  Some might say it makes every race visceral but I would say they have a hole in their heads.  If I’m running a perfect line, sliding into every turn with machine like precision I should reap the rewards, not have the computer receive a miracle bullshit speed boost to keep up.  It ultimately makes the single player mode feel hollow as you’ll never feel as though your skills make any difference.

The multiplayer still holds up but the single player is just as disappointing now as it was then.  My recommendation still stands: play this for the multiplayer thrills and Diddy Kong Racing for single player.  It would have been awesome to have both in one retro package but sometimes you can’t have everything.

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Diddy Kong Racing

During the 32-bit era no exclusive developer was more important to their partner than Rare was to Nintendo.  You could argue Squaresoft filled that role for Sony but the truth is even without them there were a ton of other third parties that would have picked up the slack.  Whenever Nintendo would delay a game or had a hole in their lineup Rare was there to cover their ass.  In 1997 when both Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Quest were delayed it could have been a disastrous holiday for Nintendo if Rare were not prepared with Diddy Kong Racing.

Diddy Kong Racing was released in the fall of 1997 completely out of nowhere.  No one was even aware of its existence until 2 months prior to release.  Released to fill the hole left by Banjo and Conker’s delay that the game was so good despite no prior coverage was a shock to many.  Although Mario Kart 64 had already seen release earlier in the year Diddy Kong Racing was different enough that the two games could co-exist.  Despite genre similarities, both games excelled in separate categories.

You have your choice of 8 characters to go through the game, each with their own stats in terms of speed, acceleration, and cornering.  Unfortunately you are not privy to this information anywhere in the game.  The stat differences actually do have a tangible impact and give you a reason to use the characters that are fast but have terrible handling and acceleration.  Nearly all courses allow you to race in the stock car, hovercraft or plane.  Bananas scattered around the tracks increase your top speed and all weapons can be upgraded 3 times.  It wears its Mario Kart roots on its sleeve but what it copies it then improves upon.  And best of all none of that rubberband AI bullshit from Mario Kart 64.  Thank the lord.

The game is split into two parts, adventure and multiplayer.  In the adventure mode you are assisted by Taj the Genie as you visit 4 separate hubs to find the pieces of the Wizpig amulet.  Once assembled you will then have the right to challenge Wizpig to a race.  The adventure in the title is no misnomer as there is a wealth of content.  20 courses total, 10  boss battles, 4 multiplayer challenges, Time Trial races, and the silver coin challenge is a lot of content to work through, something very uncommon for games in this genre.

By completing all 4 races in a world you are allowed to challenge that world’s boss, who in turn will give you the silver coin challenge.  The silver coin challenge is a grueling race to collect 8 silver coins on each level and still place first.  Beating the boss a second time nets you a piece of the Wizpig Amulet.  Rare had started to develop a reputation for collectathon bullshit and this game could be seen as the start of that.  To the game’s credit the majority of this stuff is completely optional.

You wouldn’t expect it as Kart racers are usually aimed at younger audiences but there is a decent amount of challenge in the game.  The bosses are cheating bastards that require you to run a near perfect race in order to win.  Your choice of character for these will largely determine whether these battles are near impossible or a piece of cake.  The silver coin challenge will force you to become intimately familiar with the tracks as many of the coins are placed in such a way that you’ll have to go out of your way to reach them.  I love that they don’t hold your hand through these as it is impossible to scrub your way through them, a bit rough considering the target audience but a necessary step in building their skills.

Multiplayer surprisingly is a bit weak.  The standard 4 player races are available for all of the tracks unlocked.  The battle mode is where it comes up short.  On 1 level of each world there is a key that will unlock a multiplayer challenge, completion of which unlocks it for the multiplayer mode.  2 of these are battle royales and the others are objective based, an attempt to inject a bit more life into multiplayer.  Regardless the level designs just don’t hold up and are boring, an area Mario Kart got right. These stages are far too spacious, leaving you alone with no sight of your opponents for long stretches at a time.  It’s a bit of a shame but the Adventure more than compensates.

Rare were one of the few developers able to overcome the N64’s patented blurry look and this game is a showcase for the hardware.  The overall look of the game is very vibrant with some sweet specular highlighting and transparencies.  The overall look of the game is super clean due to smart art direction and technical know how.  The only hitch would be the at times sub par frame rate and saccharine character design.   The music is also wonderful, able to change dynamically on the fly with a diverse array of themes that are also a bit cutesy at times.

After the slight disappointment of Mario Kart 64 this was a breath of fresh air.  Play this for the single player mode and Mario kart for the multiplayer.  This is one of the few times where a clone is able to legitimately one up its inspiration in many facets and turn out to be a better game overall.

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