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I guess it was inevitable that at some point I would have to play and review a videogame. True to form I've picked up a cast-off DS (fittingly just as the release of the 3DS marks the beginning of its end) and for the past few weeks I've been getting to grips with Mario Kart.
I realize that most people know something of the game, but suffice it to say that Mario has a kart and so do his friends, and they like to race each other. And while racing they like to blow each other up, or bump them off the track. Each of the different characters that you can play as or play against has their own distinct characteristics right down to their victory cry as they overtake a competitor, or cause some calamity to befall them. If you've had enough of racing you can try some of the missions where you have to perform tasks against the clock, and if you have a friend with a DS (I gather there are a few out there) you can link up and race each other.
It's slick, fast, funny and completely absorbing and I both love it and hate it.
Since picking up the game I have spent more hours of my time than I would wish to admit either playing the game, or watching my wife play it, or watching my children play it. I've spent a further hefty chunk of time providing trauma counselling for my children and debating with my wife how much time they can have on it, whether it is bad for them ("they don't want to go and make dens in the garden any more" etc) and when the DS is going back to its rightful owner.
I have very little experience of videogames, but this is exactly the sort of thing that I enjoy. It's just great fun. I can remember playing Super Mario Land 2 years ago on a Gameboy and getting hooked on it so that I really wanted to get to the end. But ultimately it just felt like a treadmill. It was a job to be done before I could get on with the rest of my life, like the feeling of having to finish a book that I've got halfway through but am really not enjoying.
The kids don't want to go and make dens in the garden any more.
No such problems with Mario Kart. Yes, there are extras to be unlocked as you go through it, but if you've got a free five minutes you can pick it up and do a couple of time trials or a mission and put it down again. And that is a really good thing, particularly for a casual gamer or someone who wants to limit their family's exposure to screen-time.
On the subject of family, it's my children's first proper taste of gaming, and they love it too. And to my surprise my wife plays it avidly and we're talking about most days here. Yet I can't shake off the feeling that every minute I play on it is a minute of my life that I've wasted, never to be regained, completely devoid of value.
The irony isn't lost on me. In Mario Kart my family has discovered a game that almost all of us (three-year-old Danny aside) can play. We watch each other race, compare notes, discuss tactics and generally interact with each other in a way that has never happened during or after a game of Ker-Plunk.
And to my surprise my wife plays it avidly and we're talking about most days here.
Five-year-old James is in awe of my power-slide turbo-boosts, and seven-year-old Jon has been compiling theories about which character is best, carefully observing who wins and losses in the various races. Oh, and he's in love with Peach as well, which is a little disconcerting.
But then there are the arguments: whose turn is it to play, why can't they play every day, why can't they take it to granny and grandpa's/the beach/the swimming-pool? And there's the destitution of losing: it's not fair, why can't I do it, why are they being mean to me?
As for me, I haven't picked up a book since the DS arrived, and that's a pity. Or at least I think it's a pity. Is it possible that playing a videogame can be an enriching experience? A look through some other reviews on this site would suggest that it can, but I think I have a long way to go before I'll reach that conclusion.
In Mario Kart my family has discovered a game that almost all of us can play.
So if you have a DS, you don't have Mario Kart, and you fancy a bit of a laugh, it's a winner -- even if you don't have kids. But if you don't have a DS and are a bit scared of what it'll do to your family if you get one you'd do well to approach with your eyes wide open.
I'm just not sure what to make of it. I would have another go now (just to keep my hand in) but I heard my wife telling the boys that if they made a real effort not to fight for three days they could have a go on the DS on Thursday. Until then she's hidden it. And I don't think she's planning to tell me where it is either.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: