The PC version of Trackmania easily ranks as one of the most exciting and joyful racing games ever created. In a genre where racing lines, modifications and fettling have become an increasing obsession, Trackmania‘s emphasis on arcade thrills was a breath of fresh air.
When the DS version of Trackmania was announced, I was intrigued. Could the blistering pace, competitive play and huge variety of modes make it to the Nintendo intact? The answer is, somewhat predictably, not quite.
The good news is that, despite the Nintendo’s humble technical capabilities, this is still recognisably Trackmania: races tick along at an impressive pace, and the tracks are as unpredictable and wackily designed as they always were, with huge jumps, loop-de-loops and hairpin bends. There are a few graphical glitches here and there, but it’s still remarkable just how many polygons are thrown around here, and how quickly.
Just like the PC version, crashing isn’t possible in Trackmania DS; you can make mistakes and go flying off the track, but your car won’t explode in a shower of glass and twisted metal as you’d expect in, say, Race Driver GRID. Instead, you simply tap a button (Y in the case of the DS) and start again from the previous checkpoint. It doesn’t sound like a particularly earth-shattering innovation, but it makes Trackmania one of the least frustrating and most addictive driving games ever, leaving you free to race around at ridiculous speeds without being punished unfairly when you make the inevitable mistake.
Trackmania DS has three modes to choose from: Race, Platform and Puzzle, and each one consists of three scenarios, each with its own vehicle – Stadium, Rally and Desert. Race mode is just as the name implies: drive from A to B in as short a time as possible. You can race on your own, or if you get lonely, you can choose a ghost car to race against. Breaking track records earns you Gold, Silver or Bronze medals, depending on how well you do, and more tracks are unlocked as your times improve.
Platform mode is rather different; courses are far more tricky to navigate, with gaping chasms to avoid and treacherous bends. The object here is to finish each race with as few restarts as possible rather than in the fastest time, which is far more tricky than it sounds.
Similarly tricky is the Puzzle mode, where you’re presented with a starting grid and a finishing line and, using the stylus, must draw a circuit between each point.
This brings me onto Trackmania DS‘s other big feature: the course editor. It’s a virtual Scalextric set, with different course elements which can be selected by dragging icons into the play area. In theory, the stylus should make course design a simple, enjoyable affair; in practise, it’s just fiddly. Unlike the PC version, you can’t select, say, a normal piece of track and draw a long straight – the course elements must be selected, rotated and dropped one at a time. While it won’t spoil your fun completely, it does makes both the track editor and the Puzzle mode rather more time consuming than they would normally be, which is a huge pity.
There are other disappointments, too: the online leaderboard has gone, which means you can’t share your racing statistics with other players, and the multiplayer mode is restricted to local wi-fi play only. The three scenario/car combinations on offer are something of a let-down too; the Stadium/F1 car stages are great, but the vehicles in the Rally and Desert scenarios handle too similarly – the PC’s awesome supercar mode is sorely missed.
Trackmania DS is a perplexing game to play, particularly if you’re as big a fan of the PC version as I am. For all its niggles and excised features, this is still, ostensibly, vintage Trackmania; it’s fast, quirky fun, and its short races are ideal for lunch breaks or train rides.
And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that something indefinable was missing. Desperate to know what it was, I fired up my computer and played the original game, and within minutes I was laughing and having a generally marvellous time. I tried the course editor (just to compare it to the DS version), and spent hours making a ridiculous roller-coaster track when I really should have been writing this review.
And I think that’s Trackmania DS‘s problem: it’s a perfectly good conversion, and does more-or-less everything that its bigger brother does, just not quite as well. It’s like the difference between a genuine painting or a forgery, a stadium rock band or a tribute act: the elements are all there, but without the soul that made the original so special.