Games 1/31/07: Diddy Kong Racing DS, Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Diddy Kong Racing DS
For: Nintendo DS
From: Rare/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

Roughly a billion kart racers have come, gone and been forgotten since “Super Mario Kart” invented the genre more than 14 years ago, with only one — “Diddy Kong Racing” — being good enough and loved enough to endure the tests of both Mario and time.

But that was 10 years ago, and an enhanced port of a game from 3D gaming’s training wheel days still is a port. Anyone who has played “Mario Kart DS” will realize immediately that, in terms of graphics, framerate and overall gameplay polish, the year-plus-old “MKDS” pretty well smokes “Diddy Kong Racing DS.”

What makes “DKRDS” still well worth playing is the same thing that made it worth playing in 1997: variety, and lots of it. Races come in three flavors — via go-cart, unwieldy hovercraft and airplane (which suffers a bit due to the DS’ lack of an analog stick) — and are connected by an impressively large and open hub world that’s teeming with boss races, treasures and unlockable secrets. The enhanced port piles on more trimmings, with the ability to customize and upgrade vehicles and (finally!) design your own tracks and share them online.

The incorporation of DS hardware features yields mixed results: Some additions (blowing into the mic to jumpstart a hovercraft, random touch screen surprises in the hub area) are great, while others (rubbing the touch screen to jumpstart the cart and plane, a new magic carpet ride mode that’s saddled by some bizarrely bad control decisions) are clumsy and actually a needless step backward.

Perhaps the best news about “DKRDS” also is the least surprising: wireless multiplayer support for up to eight friends and online play (complete with friend list and matchmaker support) for up to six friends and strangers. The best news about the best news? The cheater-friendly control exploit that ruined online play in “MKDS” is nowhere to be found here. It remains to be seen how the online landscape will shape up once more people are logged in, but things look very promising so far.

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Hotel Dusk: Room 215
For: Nintendo DS
From: Cing/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (Mild Language, Mild Violence, Alcohol)

Huh? Wha? What’s this? The Nintendo logo is on the box, so we must assume it’s a Nintendo game. But why has Nintendo — never one not to hype a forthcoming game in any number of clever ways — said almost nothing to promote “Hotel Dusk: Room 215?”

One guess: It has no idea what to say. That sometimes happens when you release a game that, like “Dusk,” represents a stark departure from any game you’ve delivered in the last two decades or so.

“Dusk” comes courtesy of the same development team behind the oft-overlooked adventure game “Trace Memory,” and similarities between the two are clearly there — particularly as far as basic presentation, exploration (first-person viewpoint on one screen, overhead view on the other) and puzzle-solving are concerned.

But where “Memory” was a game defined by its puzzle-solving elements more than anything else, “Dusk” tips even greater in the opposite direction.

Playing “Dusk” is akin to reading one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. The story — a mystery that drops you into the shoes of an undercover private detective — drives the game, and most of the gameplay consists of talking to people you meet, gathering clues, and doing your best not to say the wrong thing and sabotage the case. Puzzles do pop up, and certain challenges are scattered in pieces throughout the hotel. But dialogue trees rule the day here. If text-heavy games make you queasy, consider yourself positively allergic to this one.

Should that not scare you — and should you not be put off by a perilously slow start — “Dusk” is a novel (in every sense of the word; you even hold the system sideways, like a book, to play) addition to the DS library. If Cing hedged its bets a bit with “Memory,” it doesn’t here, and the result is a game that’s smarter, prettier, more expansive and more sure of itself than its spiritual predecessor. That it’s not for everyone can’t be emphasized enough, but gamers with great patience, a love of reading and a taste for something very different have an intriguing new means of complimenting all three.