In the genre of hardcore arcade racing games, you can’t more niche than TrackMania. The games are well known for their highly competitive gameplay, not to mention their controversial and potentially invasive DRM. With a handful of titles on the PC TrackMania has amassed a considerable fanbase, full of skilled racers who go head to head in the online leaderboards. But all of this history pertains to the PC games; does TrackMania translate well to the DS?
That depends on how serious of a TrackMania fan you are, and what you consider to be the core of the experience. The games have first and foremost been about beating the clock, getting insane time records and completing the Platform and Puzzle courses. If this is what you’re looking for then TrackMania DS has it, but I have a feeling that for most players, it will simultaneously be too much and too little.
Confused yet? I apologize, and I admit that TMDS had me befuddled for a while too. For weeks I wasn’t sure what audience this game was aiming for. TMDS has the series’ hallmark gameplay, but it might not be deep enough for hardcore fans and also hard for casual gamers to get into.
If you are a TrackMania fan looking for the most basic experience, then TMDS will more than satisfy you. The standard race mode is available in three flavors: stadium, desert and rally. Stadium is played in an F1 Dragster that reaches impressive speeds but doesn’t turn well, so managing your speed and braking at the right time are essential. Desert has you driving beat-up hotrods that corner like crazy, so the focus is split-second hairpin turns. In rally you drive a small twitchy car that resembles a Mini-Cooper, and the gothic European tracks force you to maintain your speed while balancing it with careful maneuverability.
Each race can be played for a bronze, silver or gold medal, and if you think you’re good enough you can race all three competitors and earn all of a race’s medals at once. For each environment there are difficulty settings, ranging from Practice to Extreme, and each difficulty must be unlocked in sequence by winning medals. It’s all very logical, but the practice mode is challenging enough, so getting to the meat of the game takes a lot of time and patience.
In addition to the main race are the staple Puzzle and Platform modes. Puzzle sets you up in a track editor and requires you to construct a track that gives you the best time with the limited tiles available. Platform consists of tricky tracks with holes, jumps and pits that challenge your ability to stay on the course. Both of these modes have ascending difficulties as well. The final mode, Quick Race, selects a random track for you.
The game includes a track editor, another standard TrackMania feature. The interface takes a while to get used to but the stylus does surprisingly well at mimicking a mouse, and even lets you trace a track by simply drawing on the field. The editor lets you make tracks from each type of terrain and includes all of the esoteric tiles you find in the main game.
The problem with all of these modes is that they aren’t very accessible overall. Each one requires that you unlock a large amount of content, and even though Puzzle and Platform are easy to unlock they still aren’t available from the start. Most of the editor’s tiles need to be purchased, and so do the later tracks for each terrain. New skins for each car type can also be bought, but all of these not-so-extra extras cost a hefty amount of coppers, TrackMania’s traditional currency. If you want to buy even the most cursory of unlockables, prepare to play a lot of the basic races over and over again.
And hey, if you’re a diehard TrackMania fan that’s probably what you’ll be doing anyway. I applaud the developers for shying away from the casual games trend. If you want a difficult game that doesn’t hold your hand then you’re entitled to it, and it’s certainly refreshing to see amid the torrent of cheap, exploitative casual shovelware. The problem with TMDS is that it might not have enough of what makes the PC games popular with their hardcore audience.
TMDS has a decent multiplayer with both multi-card and single-card play. It also has “Hotseat” mode that lets eight people pass a single DS around, racing the previous player’s best time. You can also share your custom tracks with other people who own the game. None of these modes, however, are online-enabled, which eliminates one of TrackMania’s enduring features: leaderboards. Competing with the best worldwide times has been a big part of TrackMania since the beginning, and leaving it out of the DS game doesn’t seem right. I can understand a lack of online racing, what with Nintendo’s awkward, counter-intuitive friend codes mucking everything up, but leaderboards are comparatively easy and usually featured in online-enabled DS games.
TMDS is also missing some of the breadth of its PC brethren, notably a few of the established terrain types. It isn’t lacking in content by any means and the visuals and music are faithful to the PC games, but the slightly lighter options and dearth of leaderboards makes it inferior to the PC versions when those features could have been easily implemented on the DS. It certainly isn’t a casual-friendly experience and I respect that, but longtime TrackMania players will only find the core essence of what they love about the series, without the bells and whistles.
TrackMania DS gets the basics of the series right on a handheld, and that’s decently impressive. It looks, sounds and plays great, but if you’re new to the series don’t expect TMDS to go easy on you—there’s a lot to unlock and the difficulty curve is rough. TMDS unfortunately lacks online leaderboards and some of the beefier aspects of the PC games, which might make it less attractive to longtime players.