Trackmania DS is a portable racing title that aims to deliver some speedy but simple racing to the platform. Being someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Trackmania franchise up until now, I couldn't tell you how it compares to others of its kind, so we won't even try that one. It's not Mario Kart DS, but it's a fun little racer with some potential.
For starters, the design policy here is "Keep it simple, stupid." The controls are as basic as you can get, and based on what the game's goals are, this was a good decision. Steer with left and right, pedal with A and brake/reverse with B. Racing doesn't feel realistic, but it's very easy to get a hang of, and it's incredibly simple to pop the cart in and get zipping along. Trackmania DS is different than most other racers out there in that its gameplay is delivered in bite-sized bits, which works pretty well for a portable system. Many races/challenges can be completed in under a minute if you succeed, which gives it a very fast pace. There is also some variety in the type of vehicles players will take the wheel of. Each vehicle type is driven on a separate kind of terrain and controls differently. The drag-racing vehicle is definitely the stiffest of the bunch, and I had some trouble getting the hang of it, but it can be rewarding to successfully make turns with such high speed -- the tracks are generally designed to take into account each vehicle types strengths and weaknesses, and the variety is nice.
Content-wise, Trackmania's simplistic structure enables it to have a lot of content to tackle. There are multiple difficulty levels, each one having a unique set of tracks for all three vehicle types, as well as unlockable tracks. There's even optional modes: puzzle and platform. These extra modes further add some different kinds of gameplay to the experience since they demand variations in gameplay to achieve success. Admittedly, they're rough around the edges, but they're worth trying out and in either case bolster the content available. The last piece of the content puzzle is the editing mode, where players can use a pretty easy-to-navigate interface to create their own tracks. Every track in the game could be replicated with this editor, so it's certainly capable of producing varied content, though it can sometimes be tricky to make sure different pieces are placed in an order that makes them all function properly. There's even an option to simply draw a line along the ground if all you want is a trace out a simple road.
The gameplay engine and its mechanics are as light and easy as the elements that are dressed on it. One key element of the racing that sets it apart from most other racers is that the other racers and the player vehicle never physically contact each other. It's basically like driving against ghost racers. This boils it down even further to the game's basest element of straight-up driving. There are no vehicle stats, so they all handle the same, and the cars can't crash into one another so players will never have to re-do a race because a car bumped into their side and steered them backwards, etc. The experience here is as simple and pure as it can get, really, and its chopped down to bitty pieces for portable ease in a package that ensures that straight-up skill is always the victor.
The ways that Trackmania simplifies itself will likely be a turn off to some gamers simply because it's extremely basic. Once you've spent an hour playing, you've pretty much experienced all there is to the game -- but then again, as stated before, this title seems clearly designed to be picked up and played for brief bouts of quick and easy racing on the go. Getting the 1st place medals, especially later on, does certainly require some mastery, however, so for those who really want to get into it, there's a lot of medals to earn, and it takes skill to collect them. Collision can also be a bit glitchy once in a while, as the hit detection and physics involving collision can sometimes cause some minor issues. The presentation can feel a little too clean and artificial, as well. The music isn't anything particularly special, and the visuals won't make your jaw drop in awe as they're also very basic, but it's all in 3D and it runs incredibly smoothly without a hitch, which is important given the genre.
Final Verdict - 7/10
Trackmania DS offers a ton of bite-sized pieces of speedy and simplistic racing. It's clean-cut and basic, and is executed pretty well, tailored to the platform with a stylus-based track editor for the creatively inclined -- though there are plenty of tracks already contained within the game. Since its broken into so many small pieces, there are plenty of tracks to check out, and local multiplayer and track sharing could add some replayability for those who enjoy a zippy little racing title on the go. Trackmania DS never really crosses the border between adequate and great, however -- simple is good here, but it also limits the game from doing anything particularly poignant and daring. If Mario Kart isn't quite your thing, give Trackmania DS a try -- it's a fairly solid, very competent racing game in its most basic form, and offers up an enjoyable if basic racing experience on a handheld.