Mario Kart DS
Nintendo DS
Rated E

To look at him, he doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who’d have much staying power. There’s that goofy stare and toy-poodle-sized love-brush. And, sweet Christ, I’ve seen terriers with more heft and stature than Nintendo’s grinning frontman.

And yet here he is, more than 23 years after power-jumping into local bowling alleys and arcades, kicking it like some endorphin-charged teenager. This winter’s crop of games featured no fewer than five Mario-themed games, making him more prolific (if somewhat less hot) than Rachel McAdams.

Take Mario Kart, the world’s most popular cartoon racing game, and now the latest in a growing line of Nintendo classics to make a killer transition to the DS.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect it, but the little mini-racers look and control perfectly on the small screen. (The lower touch screen displays menus and course maps.) As anyone who’s ever gotten behind the Nintendo wheel knows, Mario Kart isn’t really about speed and tight turns — it’s about making life miserable for everyone else in the Mushroom Kingdom’s version of the NASCAR circuit. And that means deploying cutesy items to waylay your opponents in hilarious, devious ways.

Pick an item-friendly character (like Mario, for instance) and tons of fun options await you. A lot of ye olde faves (launchable turtle shells, banana peels) have returned, augmented by all new ones. The best of the newbies is Bullet Bill, proving that the quickest route from fifth to first place is through the air at Mach 5.

Mario Kart DS takes the same clever approach as EA’s Burnout Legends, culling some of the long-running series’ most interesting and challenging tracks into a sort of Grand Prix greatest-hits package, then adding 16 new ones. And there are some real winners here, by god: snaking your mini-kart through the bumpers and flippers of the Waluigi’s Pinball track, the spinning gears of the Tick-Tock Clock, or the cannon-happy Airship Fortress never gets old.

Neither does unlocking copious content by winning races and completing mingame missions. New tracks, new racers, and new mission modes prove that there’s a ridiculous amount of single-player content stuffed into this portable package.

As good as the AI competition is — good luck winning any of the cups on the highest circuit setting — it’s even better with human opponents. Mario Kart‘s biggest distinction is that it’s the first DS game to catapult the grizzled plumber into the wonderful world of WiFi.

The feature comes in multiple flavors, including a great simple mode that allows up to eight people to race using only a single copy of the game from a single hotspot. The course and mode content are limited, naturally, but this is a user-friendly approach to WiFi multiplayer that other companies (cough, Sony, cough) ought to consider swiping.

Having conquered the baseball diamond, the tennis court, and the racing circuit, Mario and the Mushroom gang now take to the pitch in Super Mario Strikers, another of those easy-to-pick-up, challenging-to-master entries in the ever-growing Mario sports pantheon.

It’s no surprise to learn that Strikers is no Charleston Battery sim, but damned if it isn’t fun blasting cartoony one-timers and super-strikes past the keeper. But Nintendo’s signature feature, minigames, is noticeably, lamentably absent from the mix, which is sort of like McDonald’s unexpectedly whacking the Big Mac from the menu. Cup matches are all you’ll be kicking around; you can’t head the ball, and you’ll only be able to recruit one star character per team. Yellow card, gents.

Again, it’s power-ups to the rescue — unleashing turtle shells proves as fun (and strategically valuable) here as it does in Mario Kart. Turbo-dribbling your players through the opponent’s D is one thing. Having to maneuver your attack around a titan-sized, flame-spewing Bowser or a big ol’ chain-chomper might just be tougher than notching a goal in Winning Eleven.

Aaron R. Conklin’s quixotic vigil for Mario: Dancing with the Stars continues.

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