Nintendo is all about reinventing the wheel where it can – and that attitude follows through even to more simple, straightforward genres – like racing games. This has worked for good and for ill – part of the reason why we’re still waiting on more F-Zero is presumably because developers have been unable to come up with an earth-shattering, genre-shaking concept for the series. They don’t want to just make ‘another F-Zero’, so the franchise has been trapped in a prolonged pit stop.
Mario Kart, however, is relatively bullet-proof. Nintendo knows it needs at least one of these on every generation of hardware. It’s one of the most iconic Mario things; even the Hollywood movie goes to great pains to get in a kart racing detour. As part and parcel of that, it’s fair to say that Mario Kart has often been a gently iterative series – new tracks, new items, new modes – but rarely shaking things up on a fundamental level. But… then there’s Double Dash.
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Double Dash turns 20 today, having first been released in Japan on November 7, 2003. Double Dash is, I’d argue, the one entry in the Mario Kart series that really embodies the attitude that drives most of Nintendo’s other franchises, experimental in a way that adding hang-gliders and such over the subsequent years rarely gets close to.
If you’re so young you never played the original (which at 20 is now depressingly likely), Double Dash added a co-operative twist to the karting affairs. Basically, you wouldn’t just select, say, Mario – you’d pick Mario and Peach. The idea is that one character will drive the kart while another will be in charge of the items – but this is far more than a simple gimmick.
I mean, don’t get me wrong – this is a gimmick. But it’s a bloody good gimmick, a Nintendo-at-its-best gimmick. The two characters can switch places on the kart with a button press, and every one of the characters in the game has unique properties that must be considered – their weight, their ability to control the kart – and so on.
This system initially feels like a fun way to tool around creating silly pairings of characters who might not go so well together – but it quickly becomes a strategic delight. Item management matters in every Mario Kart title, but in Double Dash it feels more engaging and intricate by a wide margin. There’s a depth to picking your racing duo, but then also an equal amount of thought that needs to be poured into deciding how to tackle races.
This gets better still – and best of all, in my opinion – with two players in control of one kart. The same rules apply – one handles items, one drives – but it made for shriekingly good multiplayer sessions – and it’s the sort of thing that I imagine would be an absolute hoot online. Double Dash included LAN play, allowing you to link multiple GameCube titles together – but for Nintendo, online wasn’t a thing then. I imagine Double Dash multiplayer online and it honestly sends my heart a-flutter a little bit. I want it.
At 20 years old, I’d be lying if I said Double Dash hasn’t been left in the dust by other aspects of the Mario Kart series. In the Switch version of Mario Kart 8, with almost 100 tracks, we have the definitive Mario Kart experience – but that’s sort of the point. It’s why, in 2023, Double Dash’s charm hits all the harder – because it’s different, and stands apart.
Or to put it another way – with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in-hand, I honestly don’t see much point in going back to play many, if any, of the other Mario Kart games. The latest entry is the ultimate upgrade on those titles. But Double Dash is different. It still stands apart, still stands unique – and is still brilliant. How about a port, Nintendo?