When the first screens of Double Dash appeared back just before E3 in 2003, the whole 'two characters to one kart' concept took observers by suprise. Personally, I initially thought it seemed a pretty pointless addition, and while I had faith in Nintendo, I couldn't really see why they felt it needed to be changed when Mario Kart has always been fun the way it was. Well now I know why and it's because it damn well works!
With a single press of Z, you can switch your two characters around - one driving, one in charge of weapons. Now, the reason for this is that you can now store weapons with the driver and hold them until needed. So now if you're grab a mushroom, but the shortcut that you need it for is far away you can just swap and hold it, freeing up the other character to continue collecting weapons. This adds more strategy to using shortcuts, rather than just relying on luck as in the previous games.
There's also another reason for this 'double team' idea. Each of the 16 default characters boasts one of 8 character-exclusive 'special weapons', which can be picked up via the normal item blocks. When you pick up a box, there's a slim chance that players will be awarded that character's special weapon - a more devastating, destructive item that (with skilful use) can often determine the outcome of a race.
Mario + Luigi - A fireball move which spreads an array of fireballs burning whoever it hits
Peach + Daisy - A brief invinciblity move where the kart is surrounded by hearts. The hearts then change into 2 random items
Yoshi + Birdo - A Homing egg attack which explodes and scatters 3 items on the track with impact
Baby Mario + Baby Luigi - A giant Chomp on a chain drags you at high speed around the track for a few seconds, destroying everyone in its wake.
Koopa Troopa + Para-Troopa - A Triple Shell attack which can be found in both green and red varieties
Donkey Kong + Diddy Kong - A giant banana that breaks into 3 smaller bananas when hit
Bowser + Bowser Jr - A giant Koopa shell attack that bounces it's way down the track knocking out others on the way
Wario + Waluigi - A bomb attack that explodes a few seconds after it has been thrown
Your team can be made of any two of these characters, so it's essential that you keep these special weapons in mind when you choose who you want to be - do you go for an all-out attack with Koopa's shells? Or do you opt for a more balanced partnership with Yoshi's egg attack and DK's giant bananas? Naturally, with all this added firepower, there was always the danger that this next-generation Mario Kart would become too weapons-based, and not enough about racing. To even things out however, it's clear that you aren't punished for getting hit as much as before. Whereas getting hit in Mario Kart 64 would see you fly up in the air and/or stop still entirely, you'll now only spin for a short while before regaining your speed again, which goes a long way to evening things up.
This mixing of various character combinations also determines the karts that are available to you (in earlier Mario Kart games, each player possessed the same generic kart, regardless of the character they'd chosen to race as). Bigger characters such as Wario and Bowser can only fit into the larger karts, and normal Mario Kart rules apply here; higher top speed, lower acceleration and increased weight (heavier Karts allow you to barge through other Karts more easily). Obviously on the flip-side, smaller characters like Baby Mario and Koopa Troopa can fit into the smaller, lighter and faster accelerating cars. The differences aren't quite as obvious as in previous Mario Kart games, so you should really go for what special weapons you want over what kart you drive. The karts themselves feature some great designs. Wario's kart is a huge convertable car, Donkey Kong rides atop a large kart constructed from a barrel, and there's even a kart with Yoshi's face on the front. There's also some really nice unlockable karts which I won't spoil.
Most of the old weapons return. The banana skin can still be dropped for opponents to skid on, mushrooms are available for a speed boost, stars for invincibility, the green shells are still there to be shot and those evil homing red shells are present as always, as is the dreaded Lightning Bolt which, when activated, turns everyone into smaller, slower versions of themselves for a short while. The new items from Mario Kart 64 (such as the Fake Item Box and the Spikey Shell which hits whoever is in 1st place) also make a return. Gone is the Ghost item for some reason. I'm not sure why, but it's gone.
Whilst the selection on offer doesn't stray too much from earlier Mario Kart titles, the driving control now feels much tighter, meaning cornering is far more precise, something you quickly begin to appreciate on the harder levels, where dodging in and out of the way of things becomes more common. The tighter handling is a blessing for those shortcuts as well. In Mario Kart 64, I lost count of the amount of times I hit a penguin or fell off the side of the track due to its slightly looser control.
Powersliding remains pretty much unchanged from the N64 game - holding either shoulder button will start the slide while pressing the stick from side to side will build up your power rewarding you with a small boost. But considering the fact that you cannot hop into the slide now, pulling it off on the straights is different than before, so it's still something Mario Kart 64 veterans need to be practicing a lot when tackling the course ghosts in Time Trial mode. Which is where Mario Kart experts will get the most out of this game. The Grand Prix provides a challenge with 3 speed settings (the usual 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc), plus an unlockable Mirror mode. Each GP is 4 races with points from 10 given to each after the races (1st place = 10pts, 2nd = 8pts, etc). Also, in a change from previous titles in the franchise, you can't try again if you finish below 4th, negating the temptation to drop back and finish below 4th if you don't think you can win, and thus earn another chance.
Nevertheless, wiith solid play you'll probably get most, if not, all of the game finished within a week. Time Trial (where the REAL Mario Kart players spend their time) will last months. Not only does each course already have a set record to beat, once they are beaten a Staff Ghost is unlocked for that course. The Ghosts will more often than not make a mockery of your previous times - they're absurdly fast, but they can be beaten. I came so close yesterday to beating one after over an hour of trying, which is certainly a good sign because I can barely remember the days that a time trial would keep me hooked like that. One thing is for sure - Nintendo have made no allowances for those not willing to invest the time to beat them, so there can be no complaints of Nintendo making an easy game for the Gamecube again.
Multiplayer-wise, this game is better than ever. Two players can compete in a GP mode exactly as you would do in single player, or play the Co-op mode where both players are on the same kart, each needing to switch places (by pressing Z at the same time) and powerslide in tandem (one pressing R while the other moves the stick left to right) to succeed, a mode which proves to be brilliant fun. Three or four players can do the Grand Prix mode in co-op also, but not singularly. With the power of the Gamecube I was hoping that we could see a four-player Grand Prix mode, but obviously it was not to be: it's a big shame. Thankfully, four players (and more with the LAN option) can race each other, and the absence of the other four CPU racers is barely noticeable. A nice little addition in multiplayer is that the freqency of the weapons can be manually adjusted in the options. Thus, how often you want the big weapons (like the Lightning Bolt) can be left entirely up to you.
As an alternative to racing, there's also the newly enhanced Battle mode option. There are now three main modes and the first, the standard 'Balloon Burst' mode, has been there since the start of the series. It's a formula any Mario Kart veteran will be familiar with: each player starts with three balloons and each time a hit is registered, the victim loses one. Once all balloons have been lost, that character is out. In a new addition, you can now steal other people's balloons from them by hitting them from the side. It's risky and it's hard to do, but it's worth it when it pays off.
The first new mode is a 'capture the flag' style game called 'Shine Thief'. Here, players race around a level containing a single 'Shine', and in order to win the player has to be holding it when time runs out. Weapons must be used to dislodge the Shine from other players. The only letdown in this mode is that I would have liked to see an option where the person with the highest cumulative time of holding it would win, rather than it being the person holding it when the time runs out, but it's great fun all the same. The other new game is the 'Bomb' mode, where every weapon is a bomb. Everyone starts with three empty stars. Hitting someone else gains you a star whilst getting hit loses you a star. The first person to get three stars full wins the game. It's a brilliant idea and I personally love it just as much as (maybe even a little more than) the standard Balloon Burst game.
The Battle Mode courses (there's four main ones, and more to unlock) themselves are much smaller than in Mario Kart 64, and actually remind me much more of the SNES arenas, where positioning and decision-making meant more than it did in Mario Kart 64. While some won't appreciate the decreased size of the arenas, I think the Battle Mode is much better for it.
Graphically, the game is more than the sum of it's parts. No, the graphics aren't technically great, and yes the textures are pretty low-res, but everytime I look at Double Dash I just can't help but love the way it looks. Everything is so colourful, so clean, so crisp and everything looks so solid. The characters are well modelled and brilliantly animated, performing the most detailed actions, such as leaning with a kart as it moves and playing around with an item once picked up. The actual karts themselves are appealing and nicely varied.
Each level has it's own feel, its own environment. The backdrop to 'Dino Dino Jungle' is just packed full of colour, with an array of vibrant greens and browns that really gets over the Jurassic feel of the level. The same can be said of the golden sands and solid blue water of Peach Beach, features that stand out all the more when you first enter from the town section of the circuit. Trackside details are also worth a mention. Huge Chomps on chains can be found on various levels, piranha plants snap at you from the side if you get too close, and the Dinosaur on Dino Dino Jungle is screen-fillingly massive.
The weapons are well created too. The standard Shells and Banana's look better than ever, but its the special items that look and animate the best, be it Bowser's huge, spinning spiked shell of doom, Baby Mario's Chomp on the chain or Wario's timed bomb which causes a large explosion around the surrounding area. Also, there's the odd unnecessary but exquisite graphical effect thrown in, namely the depth-of-field blurring (which is produced much better than in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker) and some heat haze on the desert course.
The draw distance is also brilliant: DK Mountain wouldn't have anywhere near the same effect if you couldn't see the volcano from the starting line, or vice versa when you are at the top of the mountain and you are looking back down and seeing the start line again. It's little things like this which can make a game. Perhaps the best news of all however is that the whole game shifts incredibly smoothly at a slick sixty frames a second, even in four-player where the title sacrifices only the most minimal of details. Load times are - commendably, like all of Nintendo's games so far on GC - non-existent, something that's much appreciated considering the nature of the game. Annoyingly, there's no widescreen support, which is a shame as splitting the screen vertically in 16:9 for 2 player games is better suited, but it doesn't look too squashed in Wide, or even better, 'live/just/panoramic' mode (or whatever your TV calls the mode where the centre proportions are kept while the sides are stretched a little.)
The music is probabily the weakest area of the game. It lacks the catchy tunes of previous titles in the series, but what is there is decent and fits each level accordingly. The Desert level for example features a suitably 'Egyptian' soundtrack, whilst the depths of Bowser's castle has a fittingly chilling aural backdrop. We can promise you though that the tune that plays between each race will stick in your head like no other. Sound effects are well-produced and apt, with each character armed with an array of comments waiting to be shouted in your direction many times throughout the races. Weapons also have their respective sounds, be it the cracking of the Lightning Bolt or the bleeping of an incoming shell. It's all in Dolby Pro Logic 2 as well, which certainly makes hearing where people are coming from behind a little easier.
Single-player lifespan has always been a problem with the Mario Kart games, and Double Dash isn't much different. Thankfully, the Time Trial ghosts will offer something to those who like a challenge and to beat them all will take ages. The only problem is that as far as I'm aware, there isn't any prize for beating them all - your only reward will be the kind of deep-seated self-satisfaction many older games inspired upon completion. Unfortunately, the majority of people won't really bother with Time Trials as they simply don't enjoy them, which is fair enough. But for those people, this game won't last in single-player for very long. Of course, it's the multiplayer where this game excels, boasting near-endless lifespan. Be it racing, battling or even competing with friends in the Time Trial mode, there's always fun to be had.
I'll just say this now. This is one of the most fun games I've played all year and for me it's definitely better than Mario Kart 64, especially in the overall track design department, so if you loved that then you need this. But, it's not without it's faults. Though I wouldn't say there isn't enough tracks, a further four would have extended the single-player lifespan a little (where were the Ghost House tracks?). And it should be said that the game can be frustrating at times, especially in 150cc mode where you're constantly being battered with weapons from all sides and the CPU blatantly cheats to get in front of you.
Thankfully, Time Trial remains purely skill-based so once you've done 150cc and unlocked everything, you can just leave it forever and stick to the much fairer and enjoyable 100cc for your GP fun. Apart from the downfalls mentioned above though, it's difficult to0 criticize an experience as solid as Double Dash. It's done what I expected it to do (in improving over Mario Kart 64, especially in regards to the far more consistent quality of track design), and it's basically only the relatively short single-player lifespan and a general lack of ambition here and there that stops it being a 9/10 kind of game. Bottom line: I would recommend this to everyone unless you don't know anyone who will either play it with you or compete with your time trial times. Otherwise, pick this up when it's cheap.