How long has it been since you've just raced in a racing game? And I'm not talking about precise racing lines in the latest ultra-realistic sim, or throwing out banana peels from your cart in a party game. I'm talking about good ol' fast-as-you-can racing to beat your time and your opponents, with your only obstacle being the track that stretches out ahead of you.
TrackMania DS is like that. It's racing in its most pure and simple form: go fast, beat your time, take your gold medal. And then you move onto the next course, where you'll retry until you have every turn perfected, collecting another medal.
This is how it works in the game's older brother, TrackMania for the PC, too. We think the developers have done a fine job of packing the fun of the PC title into a little portable package. Read on to see why.
For me, here's the thrill of TrackMania: it's the ultimate travel game. The game is packed with a crazy number of courses over its three modes, but even the most complex ones only take a minute or two to complete. And while they may take multiple tries to master, you can race these 1-minute tracks over and over until you get it right. In one sitting, I may race thirty tracks or more. Got a quick lunch break? Maybe 10 tracks. Got a long flight (or flight delay)? Well, then you'll have time to step up some of those copper medal wins to gold ones.
And TrackMania DS is really that addictive. You'll find that your face is in your DS often after picking this up. While the bite-sized nature of the races help, it's also the track design that keeps you coming back. Realism isn't the goal here. It's just d-pad, gas and brake. Sure, you'll start out in F1 style cars on classic race tracks, but soon those tracks give way to crazy loops and air-catching ramps. Expect to ride on walls, balance your car on thin beams, and make jumps over canyons that look impossible.
There are only three locales in TrackMania DS, with the variety coming from the track designs themselves. You'll race in a stadium on pavement, in the green of nature on dirt and mud, and in the desert on just about anything you can imagine: wire, dirt, beams, and sometimes air. You race these three different types of courses with three different types of cars. Aside from the F1 style racer in the stadium, you'll get a rally-style car for the rally courses, and the worst driving vehicle ever in the desert.
God, the desert sucks. God.
The stadium and rally courses are as you'd expect, with the focus on cornering in the former and sliding about in the latter. The desert is its own beast, though. Instead of standard tracks, you'll get crazy obstacle courses. At first glance, they look fun, and some of them are. But with the vehicle you're forced to use in them, some become very frustrating very quick. Incidentally, the music for the desert courses has to be one of the most annoying themes ever created. Banjos and fiddles? You feel silly just hearing it.
Standard racing against your best time is your goal in Race mode. In the Platform mode you're looking to do the same thing, but now on courses that are designed to make you fail, and you're now only racing the clock instead of computer opponents. In this mode, the desert courses move from frustrating to infuriating. Then, in Puzzle mode, you'll use your design sense to actually make tracks that will let you beat a given time. This will give you a taste of the fantastic track editor included in TrackMania DS.
The track editor is a game on its own. I had a lot of fun using the smart stylus-driven drag-and-drop edit tools to make my own courses. There was a bit of a learning curve here, but nothing too serious. While you could use the 'easy' tools and just scribble out a windy track, I put a lot of love into mine, making tracks that are near impossible to complete. One of my creations has an incline so steep that if you don't race perfectly from its start, you won't make it up.
Good fun. Looks boring, but it's pretty fun.
It's too bad that I can't upload and share my tracks. Or race this and others online with friends. For a racing game this simple and fun, especially with such a great track editor, this is a serious let down.
There's a few other smaller issues, too. One is that the screen is sometimes too small to see everything. The graphics are fine in this title, but on some of the more complex courses it feels like you're not seeing upcoming obstacles well enough. And then there's a few game bugs that pop up. One has your car falling through the tracks. It's a rare occurrence, but it did happen enough times to give me concern. Luckily the tracks are short enough that you don't get too upset when it happens.
Despite these flaws, we still like TrackMania DS for being a game that doesn't take itself too seriously. If you don't take it that seriously, we think you'll have a pretty good time with this game. The lack of online multiplayer and course trading is a real shame, though.
Score: 7.0 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)