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Nintendo finally made the move
Nintendo has finally, finally joined the rest of the world and has made good on the promise that the DS' built-in wifi (802.11) offered players. MarioKart DS was released last week, and it's the first of several upcoming DS releases that can be played online. This is not a review of the game, it's a review of Nintendo's networking prowess. Or lack thereof...

First the good news: Nintendo makes it easy. Like most of their products, it's easy to set up, and it's easy to connect and find players. Configuring your wireless with the stylus and touchscreen is as easy and painless as a complicated thing can be.

But that's really the end of the good news. Nintendo's attempts to make it hassle-free have, as you might expect, made things option-free as well. By removing all but four choices from the player when they try to connect to a game they reduce the functionality to the point where it's nearly useless.

Once the wireless is set up, there are only four choices to be made when beginning a game: Race against Friends, Rivals (other equally skilled players), Regional opponents or worldwide opponents. Presumably 'regional' matches you up with players in your area, for better ping times.

This is when you first realize how limiting it is. Every time you start an online game, you race four tracks with up to four opponents. If you want to race more, you continue when the first four are over. You can't choose what tracks (except as vote or random choice before each race), who joins, how many laps or anything. You can search for and start a game with up to three other people, or you can shut off the system and do something else.

Most of the fun comes from racing with friends. Racing against strangers is more or less as fun as racing against unpredictable bots, they don't do anything but race and, if you kick their ass or the connection goes down, quit on you. This is where it continues to disappoint. There are no chat facilities whatsoever, so while you are protected from the "LMAO OMG WTF U SUK" silliness the internet offers, you're also prohibited from congratulating your opponent on a game well played, planning rematches, swapping friend codes or anything else.

Ah, friend codes. If you want to add someone to your list of friends, you need their twelve digit friend code. By necessity then you need to arrange this before you play. There's no facility for adding friends from matches played against strangers.

You can't quit a game after you've started, except by walking out of range of the wireless access point or shutting off the system. If someone else quits and the remaining players want to restart, you can't, and since you can't chat, you wouldn't even know if anyone else wants to restart.

If you want to race against three friends and the wrong player joins, you can't tell it's the wrong player until the match starts, and then you can't kick them out, or restart, or even tell them why you all want to disconnect and try again.

It takes 120 seconds to start each round, unless three other players are found before then. Even if there's only one person on your friends list, a friends-only match waits 120 seconds while Nintendo's matchmaking server tries to bring in friends you don't have.

Once in a while a game will start but the timer never counts down to start a race, so all the players sit on the starting line, engines idling, while nothing happens. Did I mention you can't talk to other players and arrange to quit and restart?

It's great Nintendo's finally joined the rest of the world at the online gaming table, but it's really too damned bad they didn't, you know, play other games before starting down this road. Is Nintendo too isolated? Were they asleep? How could they possibly release a game with so few online options after a decade and a half (or more!) of networked gaming?

Mario Kart's simple and easy, and because of this it's bloody irritating, and that's a shame. I have high hopes for the future of online Nintendo gaming, but they've got a long way to go.

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