I'll spare the web yet another dissertation on "what Mario Kart means to me," but suffice to say I've spent a lot of time playing past versions of this game, and most notably my dad and brother and I clocked an absurd amount of time with the original Mario Kart back in the day. So needless to say, I had high hopes for this game. And to be honest, I'm pretty disappointed with the result. It seems like in Nintendo's attempt to "simplify the game to appeal to broader audiences," they not only took out a lot of the subtlety, but also managed to completely change the focus of the game.
It wasn't the double driver change that messed things up. In fact, just adding double drivers to any of the previous games (with just a few other tweaks) probably would have introduced a whole new level to the game, and in general, the double drivers are a pretty good idea. No, the problem with Double Dash!! lies entirely in the revamped item system.
In the original Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo, there was usually only one or two sections of item blocks per lap, which meant that using your items strategically was very important. In Double Dash!!, in contrast, you get more items per lap than you really know what to do with. There are so many items in Double Dash, in fact, that it seems to work just as well to immediately use any item you get as it does to hold on to that item until just the right time. In fact, holding onto an item is practically discouraged, because you now lose items when you get hit by weapons, or fall off the track, or even when another player hits you while using a star or mushroom. In other words, if you try to hold onto an item until just the right time, it's pretty likely that you'll lose that item before you get a chance to use it, because there is so much chaos going on at any given time.
One interesting aspect of losing items when you get hit by a weapon is that the items fly out of you and land on the track, so players behind you can then hit them and use them (or take damage, in the case of shells and the like). Of course, this just adds to the proliferation of items in the game.
Now, if you're a Mario Kart veteran and you've been reading so far, you might say "well, I can just hop over things or brake when I hit a banana or shell behind me in defense or X or Y or Z and avoid losing." And if you're a Mario Kart veteran, you'd think that the double kart / double item aspect of the game would offer a lot of intriguing possibilities: You'd be able to hang on to one item with your driver, and have your gunner do defense duty with whatever items he picks up. If the gunner picks up a better item, switch and have the former driver do defense.
But if you're a Mario Kart veteran, you'd be pretty much dead wrong, because they removed pretty much every defensive aspect of the game I can think of. You can no longer brake immediately after hitting a banana peel to avoid peeling out. You can no longer hop in any way (which both makes dodging items harder, but also makes hopping over little cracks impossible, and makes hopping out of / over rough track impossible). And perhaps worst of all, you can no longer drag a shell or banana peel behind you in defense. The only methods of defense you have are: 1. Using Peach or Daisy, and their special item is a defensive fireball which will not only block items, but which will also grab the item and give it to you. 2. Fire/drop an item behind you immediately before something is about to hit you. This is actually possible thanks to a little bubble that tells you when a weapon is approaching, but it's less desirable than the old methods of defense, in my opinion.
Here's an unordered list of some other problems I've found with Double Dash!!:
- The battle arenas are too small and lack sufficient complexity to be as fun as any of the previous battle arenas.
- Though you have an option to select a random character/kart combo in single player GP mode, no such option exists for any of the multiplayer modes. This is a big bummer, because random is a pretty good method of handicapping in multiplayer. Also, randomness is fun. And seriously, why would you ever want to play with random characters on single player?
- In the multi player kart selection screen, there's no way to view the stats of the karts. This is a big problem, because when you have someone play the game for the first time, experienced players are going to have to explain "no, not all those karts actually work the same," and also remember the different stats of the different karts, and then pretty much just tell the newbie which kart to use, instead of letting them make their own choice. Bad interface move.
- I was really excited about the LAN features of the game and the prospect of an 8 player race, but apparently you can't pick your characters/kart in this mode, which is pretty much totally lame, and now I don't think I'm going to get a LAN adapter to try this mode. It's like Nintendo's trying to make their "people don't want to play games online" claim ffulfill itself by neutering their network features out of the box.
- There's no longer a ghost item to steal items. This was probably removed because there are other ways to steal items now, but the ghost also turned you invisible, which was another important strategic and defensive move -- and the hitting to steal play mechanic would have only made the ghost that much more useful. Bummer.
- Honestly, the tracks aren't that interesting. They're pretty much just rehashes of things we've had before, and we don't even get a Haunted Mansion in this game. Probably half of the levels are interchangeable, and there are only a handful of levels that I really like (My favorite so far is the Wario Coliseum).
- Did we honestly need two traffic levels? (No, we did not, especially when neither of them is as good as Toad's Turnpike on the N64)
- Also sadly, there's no sign of a Ghost Valley in this game -- Ghost Valleys were always my favorite.
- In the past games, if you hit someone who was jumping across a track, they would fall onto the other portion of the track, knocking them back in the pack. This was an another important strategy in the old games that is just completely missing in this game.
- The GBA game had the original SNES tracks as extras, so why didn't this game have the N64 tracks as extras? Oh, right, because most of the N64 tracks are already "available" in this game in one form or another. =\
- And I could go on and on. But I'll stop, because I'm sure you get my point by now.
To be fair, there are some good things about Double Dash!! Giving each character a special item was long overdue, and I think overall the special items are pretty well balanced. As mentioned above, the double driver aspect could have added a lot to the game, and I still think it's a sound idea that shouldn't get the axe in the next Mario Kart. The co-operative mode is a lot of fun, requiring fun communication between the driver and gunner -- I haven't had a chance to play co-operative vs. yet with 4 players, but it should be a lot of fun. The new Bob-omb Blast battle mode is a lot of chaotic fun, even if the new Shine Thief mode is a little flat. Meanwhile, the Balloon Battle mode just doesn't seem to have the same spark it once did.
I think the real evidence of how well the game succeeds at living up the Mario Kart name lies in this test: My dad used to play the original Mario Kart with my brother and I back in the day, and he was pretty good at it, all things considered. He was perhaps a little less devious with his item usage than my brother and I, but he was still competitive. However, when he tried to play Double Dash, he was just overwhelmed by the chaos of the weaponry and just didn't stand a chance. In other words, not only did their attempt at "simplification" ruin the game, but it also didn't actually work.
In short, Double Dash(!!) is pretty much all offense and no defense, with the general chaos that entails. I admit it's still fun, but I just don't think it's really the same game I knew and loved anymore. If you want some old fashioned Mario Karting, I highly recommend you pick up Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance instead. Not only is it a much tighter Mario Kart game, but it also features all of the original SNES Mario Kart tracks as unlockables. Hopefully we'll see a real Mario Kart as a launch title for the next Nintendo console, with as much spit and polish on it as Super Smash Brothers Melee had.