Although I consider myself a big fan of many Nintendo titles today, that was not always the case. My family primarily owned PlayStation consoles when I was a kid, and I only got around to playing my first Nintendo console, the Nintendo DS, during my later years of elementary school. At the time, I was generally averse to experiencing any kind of challenge in a game. When I was not versing a family member in a multiplayer game, I always messed around in the safest spaces a game could offer, whether it be the hub world of a 3D platformer or the practice mode of a fighting game. That all changed when I got my very own Nintendo DS along with a copy of Mario Kart DS. Although my brother got a few DS launch titles beforehand, such as Super Mario 64 DS, I consider Mario Kart DS to be the first Nintendo game I ever truly owned. An unconventional choice, perhaps, but it ended up being an amazing introduction to Nintendo’s work, the Super Mario franchise in particular. Not only did Mario Kart DS show me how fun Nintendo games could be for the first time, but it also encouraged me to embrace a challenge rather than run away from it.
Growing Out of My Comfort Zone
The very first activity I partook in upon booting up Mario Kart DS, aside from customizing my own emblem for my kart, was playing the Flower Cup in the Grand Prix mode. I skipped the Mushroom Cup mainly because I immediately wanted to try out the Waluigi Pinball track, as it was shown on the back of the box and quickly caught my eye. Given that I was unfamiliar with the mechanics and started out on a more difficult set of courses, I did not perform as well as I had hoped, but I nonetheless took note of Mario Kart DS’s most apparent strengths. The controls felt incredibly responsive and tight, and it felt pleasant simply to drive around. Little did I know how good I had it back then; prior Mario Kart titles had an inherent curvature to their turning radii that made them fairly tricky to get accustomed to, but Mario Kart DS tightened the turning considerably, which made the driving mechanics much more approachable. The track designs also drew me in with their simple yet inviting visuals as well as their winding, hazard-ridden layouts. Even though I was still hesitant to engage in any kind of challenge, I quickly grew to enjoy the inherent satisfaction of navigating through obstacles in the middle of a race, and it helped that hazards merely slowed me down rather than depleting some kind of health bar.
That being said, having to perform well at several races in a row still intimidated me on some level, so I abandoned the Grand Prix mode for the time and tried out some of the other modes on offer. I quickly latched onto the Time Trial mode since it allowed me to experience each track at my own pace without any AI racers or items to put pressure on me. It gave me an opportunity to really soak in and enjoy many of the fun details in each track, such as the walking trees in Luigi’s Mansion and the fireball-spewing sun in Desert Hills. I initially played this over the VS mode, especially since I assumed it was purely a multiplayer mode judging by the name. Once I found out it was a free race mode, it gradually became one of my go-to modes. Since each race was short and there was no long-term commitment like in the Grand Prix mode, I could ease myself into the chaos of Mario Kart much more easily than I would have otherwise. When I was tired of playing through the few tracks that were initially available, the Battle Mode’s unique maps and item-focused gameplay offered a change of pace that I welcomed, especially since the stakes were just as low as the VS mode.
But the mode that truly caught my attention was the Mission mode. This collection of bite-sized challenges tasked me with completing objectives not found anywhere else in the game, such as collecting coins or defeating a certain number of enemies. The premise of this mode instantly drew me in; given my tendency to simply mess around in game worlds as a kid, I was already predisposed to enjoying extracurricular tasks in games, and the Mission mode really capitalized on that appeal. Each mission was also incredibly short, rarely lasting more than a few seconds if played correctly. These short bursts of gameplay meant that the sting of failure was incredibly minimal, and I could freely retry each mission with no delay. On top of all this, unlike the main races, the missions were very light on random elements. Each mission was a pure skill challenge through and through, and even the few missions with random item drops were tightly controlled and tailored for the mission at hand. All of these elements made the mode approachable in a way that the Grand Prix mode wasn’t at the time, and they really encouraged me to tackle the mode’s challenges on their terms.
That isn’t to say that I did not come across some stumbling blocks. In fact, one of the Mission mode’s first significant hurdles for me came in the form of the last mission in the first level set, which tasked me with performing four drift boosts over the course of one lap, or as the game called them, “power-slide turbo boosts.” For anyone even moderately experienced with the Mario Kart franchise, this task is trivial, but since Mario Kart DS was my introduction to the franchise, I had no idea what a “power-slide turbo boost” even was. I burned through reattempt after reattempt utterly bewildered as to what I was supposed to do, and although I had access to the instruction manual and online guides, I never thought to look them up. Eventually, I stumbled onto the solution: hit the R button while turning to enter a drift, move the d-pad left and right to charge up the boost, then let go of the R button once the sparks behind the wheels turn red. Once I noticed the mission progress counter in the bottom right of the screen tick up, I cheered in excitement. Not only could I finally move on with the Mission mode, but I also learned a valuable new skill along the way.
A Sense of Discovery
Soon enough, I found myself progressing through the Mission mode rapidly, clearing objectives left and right. As I was doing so, I came across a few notable surprises. One such surprise was the boss missions found at the end of each level set. I knew that these existed to some degree since the back of the box showed the Big Bully from Super Mario 64, but for whatever reason, I thought that this would be the only classic foe I would come across. Once I found out that every one of these missions featured a unique boss from Super Mario 64 DS, I became much more excited about them. Seeing these foes within the context of a Mario Kart game was an incredible novelty for me at the time, and while the encounters themselves are far from groundbreaking, their unique objectives nonetheless gave me something to look forward to as I went through each level set.
Another surprise was seeing a whole host of tracks I hadn’t unlocked yet. In retrospect, I probably should have suspected that the Mission mode would go through Mario Kart DS’s remaining tracks eventually, but I was nonetheless thrown off when I began the fourth level set and found myself in an unfamiliar snow environment. The missions from this point forward essentially served as sneak peeks into what was waiting for me in the Grand Prix mode, and it was immensely rewarding to finally unlock these tracks once I began to progress through the Grand Prix in earnest. Many of these tracks would become some of my favorites in the whole game, particularly Tick Tock Clock, a unique clock-themed track based on the Super Mario 64 stage of the same name, and Airship Fortress, an action-packed tour through an airship armed to the teeth with hazards.
Eventually though, the later missions raised the difficulty by a considerable amount, and I quickly found myself in a conundrum. I discovered online that a secret seventh level set could be unlocked by clearing every mission with a one-star rank or higher, but this proved to be a daunting task, especially in the sixth level set. Even just beating certain missions felt like an accomplishment, let alone obtaining a high ranking on them. Rather than improving and eventually achieving my goal, I resorted to using an Action Replay cheat device to automatically unlock the seventh level set for me. This was admittedly not my proudest moment, but it nonetheless allowed me to finally experience the final set of missions for the first time. Predictably, these missions turned out to be the most challenging in the whole game, testing me on my driving skills in ways that the prior missions never managed to. The final race with Wiggler ended up being so demanding that it took me around an hour to finally best. The placement of the invincibility stars and boost-granting mushrooms was incredibly specific, and I had to learn it if I had any chance of catching up with the speeding caterpillar. It was a grueling challenge, but the catharsis I felt upon finally beating it was palpable, to say the least.
Returning to the Grand Prix
The Mission mode ended up serving as an effective training exercise for the Grand Prix mode, which I had to beat on every difficulty setting if I wanted all of the unlockables. When I looked up the unlockables online, I was immediately tantalized by what I saw. The aforementioned tracks, four extra characters, a bonus “Mirror mode,” and a whole slew of extra karts were among Mario Kart DS’s rewards for making it through the Grand Prix, and I absolutely had to have them. All of those VS and Mission mode sessions gave me the experience and courage to finally tackle the mode I had ignored for so long, and I knew that the rewards would make the journey worth it.
Although the Grand Prix started off relatively simple, the difficulty inevitably escalated. The AI racers on the higher difficulties were quite aggressive, and the item system could nullify an otherwise successful run at seemingly any moment. Mirror mode in particular was a daunting challenge, as the reversed track layouts meant that I could not rely on my prior knowledge of each track anymore. But I, at least partially thanks to the help of my brother, persevered, and we managed to beat every cup on every difficulty and unlock all of the characters and extra features. Having all of the characters felt particularly rewarding; Dry Bones and his Dry Bomber kart were unbelievably useful stats-wise, and the surprise inclusion of the NES accessory R.O.B. introduced me to a piece of gaming history that I had no prior knowledge of. With these unlockables in tow and the Mission mode beaten, I felt content to consider Mario Kart DS as among the first games I had truly conquered.
But something felt missing. Did I truly beat Mario Kart DS like I thought I did? I knew that my brother’s help was a significant reason why I was able to get past the Grand Prix at all, but that only came up in my mind a few times. What really got to me was the Mission mode. My use of Action Replay to unlock the mode’s remaining content nagged at me incessantly. At the time, it seemed like the sensible option, but considering how many hours I had put into the game, I knew that I could easily unlock the seventh level set legitimately if I put in just a bit more effort. This was essentially confirmed when I started to replay difficult missions and obtain at least a one-star ranking on a regular basis. Compounding this problem was the fact that Mario Kart DS does not have a file select feature. Selecting a different file would allow me to reexperience the thrill of unlocking all of the content again without undoing the progress I had made beforehand, but the game simply didn’t offer me this option.
The Second Playthrough
After pondering over these thoughts for a long time, I decided to erase my save data. Everything from the unlocked characters to the progress made in the Mission mode was all undone. I soon began the process of unlocking everything again from scratch, and I immediately noticed several differences in my latest playthrough compared to my previous one. The first was that obtaining a one-star ranking in every mission was much easier now. Getting an A rank or lower became an incredibly rare sight, and I was able to unlock the seventh level set with relatively little hassle. The last collection of missions were still fairly challenging, but they were nothing that I couldn’t handle, and even the final Wiggler race became much less intimidating. My journey through the Grand Prix was also a fair bit easier than it had been before. The higher difficulties could still get frustrating, but my improved familiarity with the mechanics allowed me to reobtain all of the unlockables in a relatively short amount of time.
This next difference was a big one: I finally learned how to snake. In short, snaking is an advanced technique in which players rapidly chain drift boosts to reach previously unseen speeds. When the Mario Kart DS online servers were still up, the technique quickly became notorious for giving players an insurmountable edge over those who didn’t use it. There are real conversations to be had over how much this technique upset the balance of the game, but since I never raced anyone online, this aspect of Mario Kart DS never mattered to me. I simply saw snaking as a difficult technique that I thought I could never pull off. But this second playthrough gave me an opportunity to finally learn the trick and see how much of an edge it would give me.
The difference in my play was staggering. I could now barrel through tracks and shave several seconds off of my lap times. I could coast through Grand Prix cups with such efficiency that even high-level AI racers would struggle to keep up with me. I could achieve triple-star ranks in challenging missions much more easily, although snaking was not always a viable option in this case. I even learned how to dodge the infamous Blue Shell item, which I could accomplish by timing a jump out of a drift boost right as the shell began to crash down on me. With this newfound skill, I could finally manage to earn a triple-star rank on every mission in the game, a feat that was still difficult but well worth the effort. I even became cocky enough to try and earn a triple-star rank on every Grand Prix cup on every difficulty setting, an achievement I previously thought was borderline impossible thanks to the random elements. With some practice, I finally managed to do it, and my sense of accomplishment went through the roof.
To me, snaking wasn’t just an exploit—it practically changed the game. The average Mario Kart moves at a fairly comfortable pace, but snaking turned Mario Kart DS into an incredibly fast-paced game, with tracks becoming much more thrilling than they were previously. Snaking also inadvertently made races much less dependent on luck—efficient snaking could make it so that even barrages of back-to-back items could barely slow the kart down, and the technique could nullify the rubber-banding tendencies of the AI racers outright. Snaking raised the skill ceiling by a considerable amount, and I found it incredibly enjoyable to replay tracks and see how much I could improve with each run. Since I had been playing Mario Kart DS for so long, it could have easily suffered from diminishing returns, but snaking ensured the opposite—the game only got better over time.
Ultimately, Mario Kart DS was easily one of the most influential gaming experiences I ever had. It fundamentally changed the way I approach games in general, as it taught me that failure really isn’t all that bad. Failure presents an opportunity to grow and do better, and Mario Kart DS absolutely rewards players for doing better. Even after all of the Mario Kart titles that have come out since, I still find myself going back to this one over the others. Not only does it have features found nowhere else in the series, but it’s also one of the purest games out there, and that alone makes it indispensable.