Reviews | Triforce

Mario Kart Arcade GP

By Alex Kierkegaard / November 8, 2006

Playing the latest Mario Kart in the arcades has made me want to try out the console games with a steering wheel. I am not sure whether any such controllers exist for the Super Famicom or the Nintendo 64, but the Logitech Speed Force for the GameCube should do the job nicely for Double Dash.

Because I am telling you right now that the Mario Kart games are simply more fun with a wheel. With hindsight, this seems obvious -- they are racing games after all -- but Nintendo never really tried to market them that way, and hence players do not to associate them with wheels and foot pedals. As I've discovered while playing Mario Kart Arcade GP these past few weeks, that's definitely a mistake.

Arcade GP is a collaboration between Nintendo and Namco, developed for the Triforce board -- a GameCube-based system which hasn't really taken off (few titles have been released for it, most prominent among them being F-Zero AX). Unfortunately, I've no idea who was responsible for what. Namco obviously took care of the hardware side, but who developed the software? (In other words, who should I blame for the game's mediocrity?) Judging by what happened with F-Zero, which was made entirely by Sega, I am guessing that Namco is the culprit here.

They did a great job with the cabinet though, I'll give them that much. It's a slightly modified version of the Maximum Tune 2 design, with a smaller, toy-like wheel, and a large blue button in the center for using the various items (it lights up when you have an item available). Also, the gear lever is gone, and a camera has been placed above the screen, which takes your picture for display in-game. The cabinet is a nice, solid design, with a very responsive wheel and foot pedals, the whole thing painted in bright primary colors and decorated with appropriate, high-quality stickers.

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Another notable aspect of it is the obscenely loud surround sound setup, which wipes the floor with anything else I've seen before (including that of OutRun 2). One of the selling points of Maximum Tune 2 was the Yuzo Koshiro soundtrack, which was the reason Namco included such a high-quality sound system with the game's cabinet in the first place. This setup has been thankfully retained in the Mario Kart revision of the cabinet. Simply turn up the volume in the options screen, and from then on you'll be insulated from the clamor of the arcade by your own personal wall of sound.

If you think I am giving too much attention to the hardware and not saying much about how the game plays, there is a good reason for this: Mario Kart Arcade GP really is all about the hardware. Because in the end, that's all this title has to offer over its console predecessors.

The game is based on Double Dash, with virtually unchanged play mechanics, an okayish track selection, unremarkable music, and a graphics engine that's over two years old now and looking rather outdated. Moreover, several features of the already-lackluster Double Dash, such as the two-characters-per-kart dynamic, aren't even included here.

The few additions to the Double Dash formula are all uninspired. The most radical one, the ludicrous "Rubber Band" system, effectively kills the game's multplayer appeal. What it does is it automatically adjusts the karts' performance during the race, to close the gap between the fastest and slowest players. So if you are trailing behind your kart will become a bit faster; if you are winning, it will become slower. It doesn't get much lamer than this.

The only good additions are things that Namco's "creators" didn't even come up with. They've brought back the coins from Super Mario Kart (picking them up makes you go slightly faster; bump onto something and you lose some of them), and added a "start dash" technique, which is standard in most racing games anyway: step on the accelerator just before the start signal and you'll reveive an initial speed boost to put you ahead of the pack.

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Namco's guarded handling of the Mario Kart licence isn't surprising -- the company's risk-averse policies are well-known by now. How I wish the licence was entrusted to Sega and Toshihiro Nagoshi instead (who made Daytona USA and F-Zero AX/GX). I can't even imagine what he would have come up with.

But Arcade GP's biggest problem is not the mediocrity it inherited from Double Dash, nor the stupid "Rubber Band" system. No, the main reason this game isn't worth more than a few goes is because it doesn't even offer a decent challenge. I cleared more than half of the initial races before losing my first race (you have to place first to clear a course), and most of the time I wasn't even paying attention. And it doesn't get that much harder later on.

That's a damn shame because despite its faults the game really grabs you initially -- the whole sleek cabinet setup makes it feel fresh, and way sexier than the console games. And they've certainly come up with a well-planned Grand Prix mode, and enough hooks to keep you dropping coins for a few hours.

There are six cups in all, each comprised of four rounds (i.e. races). The last two rounds of each cup are reverse versions of the first two -- note that these are not mirror versions as seen in the other Mario Kart games; instead, as the name suggests, you race on the same track but in the opposite direction. Each cup takes its name from a different character (Mario Cup, Bowser Cup, etc.) and has a different theme, such as the beach theme in the Mario Cup or the jungle theme in the Donkey Kong Cup.

After finishing all four races from each cup you have to beat a unique challenge. These require you to reach the goal under a certain amount of time while performing some sort of stunt, such as pushing a giant watermelon, driving backwards through a field of banana peels, or having to hop over obstacles. Fail a challenge and you'll have to replay the last race in order to be allowed to try again.

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Completing all six cups opens up special cups, which are identical to the original ones except with more skilful opponents. When all six special cups are completed (including the harder challenges), all races in the 50cc category are cleared and you can then play the Grand Prix mode in the 150cc category. Karts in the 150cc races achieve higher speeds, and therefore require much better handling skills -- though by the time you get here you'll be so accustomed to the game's driving mechanics that you won't have much trouble clearing the remaining courses.

In the course of the game you also unlock items, which you can use in the normal races or in multiplayer mode. There are tons of items to unlock, but it doesn't help that most of them do pretty much the same thing (i.e. they stun opponents for a few seconds).

The courses and items you unlock are stored in a magnetic card which will set you back 200 yen, and which only stokes your desire to unlock everything. It's really not a bad setup, and unlocking races and useless items certainly has the potential to become addictive.

However, all this is undermined by the lack of challenge and by the fact that you have to keep feeding the machine with a credit for every race -- regardless of whether you won or lost (first race is 200 yen and subsequent ones 100, so it's a good idea to sit down and play a bunch of races at a time). This is standard practice in racing titles nowadays, but this game is hardly worth the amount of money it takes to unlock everything. Multiplayer can be fun for laughs with up to three friends (though some arcades only have two cabs linked up), but the "Rubber Band" system and the abundance of items that constantly change the flow of the race, and which are almost impossible to guard from, prevent this from being taken seriously as a competitive racer.

Arcade GP is all the more a disappointment because of how much fun it is at first. It certainly stands out among all the other "serious" arcade racers, with their dull colors and aggressive-sounding names ("Thrill Drive", "Battle Gear", etc. etc.), and is worth a couple of goes just to see why I am making such a fuss over the wheel (which also makes good use of force feedback). If only Namco had been bolder and more daring with their design, as Sega was with the spectacular F-Zero AX, this could easily have been the definitive Mario Kart experience. Instead it's only a footnote.