“We need to talk… I think we’d be better just as Friend Codes”

Mario Kart DS (2005)

Every man out there who’s managed to convince a woman to stay in his companny for more than three days will have experienced that blood-curdling, spine-tingling text message that reads: “We need to talk”. I’m certain it’s taught as part of the curriculum in all-girls’ schools.

You know, a quick module they do just before they learn how to show indecisiveness about what they’d like to eat, and how to get the last word in arguments. Well, if you’re a male and you’re reading this, fear not because I have struck a blow for our whole gender – I have subjected a woman to the “We need to talk” routine.

What occasion warranted me bringing out the big guns like that, you might wonder. Well, I hadn’t caught her sending and receiving messages from a well-hung mystery man. I hadn’t been forwarded photos or videos of her in uncompromising situations. I wasn’t even surprising her by picking up a tiny kitten on an impulse, though I’ll keep that one up my sleeve.

No, in this instance, it was entirely on her. She prompted me to say it. And she did so by asking me about how she could add her friends and talk to them online via her new Nintendo Switch.

Anyone who’s ever gone near an online Nintendo game within the last 15 years will have just performed the exact same sharp exhalation of breath as I gave her at the time, maybe even with some mirthless laughter on top. I’m by no means the first person to say that Nintendo have a problem. They ace games in their own franchise, they’ve kept us entertained for decades, and although they sometimes get it wrong with their hardware, when they’re not all going insane at once then they knock it out of the park.

However, they just cannot seem to stop taking a dump with their trousers on when it comes to online play. It’s funny because they actually did some pioneering online stuff way back in the day, I’m talking about on the Famicom and the Super Famicom’s Satellaview here – obviously Japan only.

Online play as we know it, or knew it in the mid-2000s, was either your turbo-nerdlingers playing on PC, or groups of fratboys screaming insults down the mic at each other in Call of Duty and Gears of War. So I could sort of excuse Nintendo’s online policy in the DS and Wii days. Those were strongly family-oriented consoles, so Nintendo not wanting to subject child gamers to abusive messages, that one did hold a bit of water.

But then, if you’ve ever gone onto a popular (that is, toxic) online game like DOTA or League of Legends or Fortnite or whatever other God-forsaken nonsense draws online gamers in – have you noticed that it’s usually the pre-pubescents who are the most offensive and abusive in the first place? What’s Nintendo gonna do about that, hmm?

So why would they lock down any and all communication between players, especially trusted players who have deliberately added each other? As you know, or has been frequently mocked, you don’t even add other players via their usernames in the Nintendo online sphere, in case someone mentions an offhand boob in their name or something.

Instead you’ve got a 16-digit Friend Code attached to you, which you give to others as if you’re exchanging credit card details. Can you grasp that? That’s why I had to give my missus those fateful words. We needed to talk alright; yes, we needed to discuss quite a lot of these online drawbacks that her brand-spanking new Switch posed, drawbacks that haven’t shown any sign of getting better.

And even when you’ve reluctantly gone through the Friend Code rigmarole together, you can’t do anything. Seriously, I’m forever interrupted on my Switch with notifications that friends of mine are online (Mr. Popular over here), but so what? I can’t invite them onto my game, or chat abuse to them. Meanwhile on PlayStation I can play my mate’s game remotely, and thrillingly scream abuse to them at the same time.

How can Nintendo be that far behind? Their handling of online play is an absolute mess. But then, it’s a profitable mess – i make it over 26 million people who have signed up for Nintendo Switch online, and I know not all of them would be paying full whack with family deals or 3-month deals and other tightwad options. But we’ve got to be talking hundreds of million of dollars here, or trillions of zillions of yen, so where’s the incentive for them to improve? Do you want your kid to get battered in school because he can’t trade Pokémon with anyone? Exactly – pony that 20 quid up and just suck it down.

As one of the very first games under Nintendo’s almost apologetically small Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection logo, Mario Kart DS was a tantalising prospect – here we go, a bit of portable Mario Kart on Nintendo’s excellent new system, and online too. I loved the first handheld Kart, Super Circuit on GBA, but that one never seemed to get much love. Mario Kart DS on the other hand is dearly beloved, sold like hot cakes, and it has that certain feel that Nintendo-published games on DS often had.

I find it very difficult to describe that feel properly: it might have been the artstyles, the music or even the fonts. But Mario Kart DS, New Super Mario Bros, the Gen 4 Pokémon games, even Picross DS and 42 All Time Classics, they all had that unmistakable whiff of mid-00s Nintendo and were always destined to be nostalgic, in a similar way to how a contemporary song can already make you feel nostalgic or wistful for your childhood, or for events which you never even experienced.

One event I never experienced was getting online with the officially endorsed, dedicated dongle, the Nintendo USB Wi-Fi Connector – what a heap of dirt that was. I didn’t have wireless internet you see, which would be caveman stuff nowadays, so I had to rely on this useless stick to get a bit of signal. It barely ever worked, so I usually had to leech off next door’s wide open Wi-Fi connection instead. Score another point for the portability of the DS, right?

If you wanted to play Mario Kart DS online, you didn’t really have that many options – you could go up against regional or worldwide players in a tournament of four tracks. That was it, and there was nobody to help you if you came up against cheaters or hackers, and they were pretty damn common – I even did a spot of cheating myself.

But who was to know? With no voice communications, you might as well have been playing against a laggy AI – what’s Mario Kart if you can’t scream and shout reactions at opponents regarding incoming Blue Shells, or when some particularly spiteful so-and-so is breaking their neck to try and hit you with a Star?

Also, even if your online opponents didn’t cheat or hack via outside means, there was a bit of a boo-boo with the kart physics in this game that meant, if you had hands made out of asbestos, you could “snake” your kart fore-and-aft to get much more speed in a straight line than would ever be possible. Your only choice, if you were up against a snaker, was to join them or quit. So what’s the point?

I will say that the local wireless communication, that let you play against karters in the same room as you, was a swell feature – no more faffing about with Game Boy Link Cables, far more trouble than they were worth. Apart from that though, you might as well just stick to yourself and play the single player modes.

Good thing we’ve got some great courses and play control here, and the introduction of what’s probably my favourite Mario Kart innovation: a second series of cups, with tracks taken from previous Mario Kart games (SNES, N64, GameCube and GBA). That gives you 32 tracks, in full 3D and with decent graphics for DS standards, plus nice music – excellent all round. Thats a proper bit of juice. As well as that, there’s an interesting Mission Mode that the console Mario Kart games really should re-explore – or better than that, they should go down the Diddy Kong Racing path and make a full adventure mode.

Mario Kart DS was a day one classic for the series, a Mario Kart game that people could hardly fail to like. I hadn’t really given it much thought until now, but when I look back, it’s got to be part of the top three Mario Kart games, alongside Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Kart for me – others will want Double Dash in there, which I’d probably stick in fourth.

What this game wasn’t on day one was a decent showcase of Nintendo’s new online service. Free of charge, I suppose, but Mario Kart 8 Deluxe hardly has much more to shout about, and that’s at 20 quid a year. In any case, the missus didn’t care too much, so long as she was able to visit her friends’ islands in Animal Crossing. So thats OK, right? Well, just wait until she plays some of the dreck on the NES Online library. I’ll need to talk to her about that another day.

22 January 2021

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