Over the years, Nintendo has branched off their mascot into a variety of different gaming genres. He’s been a golfer, an Olympic Athlete, and even a painter, yet the only side job the mushroom-chomping plumber has really excelled at is as a go-kart racer. Ever since the first edition of Mario Kart debuted on the Super Nintendo, to take advantage of the system’s at the time groundbreaking Mode 7 3D technology (no, not pop out of the screen 3D. Believe it or not there was a time when that wasn’t common), the gaming franchise has been a staple of every Big N console. With the 3DS finally through the early struggles and sure to be on more than a few Christmas lists, Nintendo decided to crank out another entry in their cartoony racing franchise, which has now, somewhat shockingly, hit seven chapters. So is the new one any good? Well, yeah. It’s Mario Kart. Nintendo stumbled onto a wining formula with this sucker years ago and it still guarantees childish glee.
If you’ve played a Mario Kart title before, you’ll know exactly what to expect. The visuals are practically identical to the Wii incarnation in the series, sweetly cartoony and action-packed with silky smooth animation. The controls are the same as always, with the new addition of a first person perspective, accessible by pressing up on the control pad at any time during a race. In this mode, you can steer by tilting the system using gyro controls. It’s a fun option, but I always found myself going back to the circle pad for the increased precision it provided. This being a 3DS title, it is of course in 3D, and the added depth does look pretty while flying through the tracks, though it’s not a necessary part of the gameplay experience like Super Mario 3D Land. In fact, you may turn the 3D off to avoid eyestrain during bladder-busting racing marathons and won’t really miss much.
The go-to game mode is the Grand Prix, and Nintendo has been so kind as to provide us lucky gamers with 16 new courses as well as 16 classic tracks from previous entries in the series. The new courses feature highlights, such as a Donkey Kong Country track designed by Rare with all sorts of loving nods to the SNES and Wii DK titles, as well as a truly epic Star Road that sends racers bouncing off of planets in a track so large that there are no laps, just check points. The tracks aren’t quite as unpredictable as the occasionally batshit insane Wii designs, but they do offer new gliding and underwater areas that add shortcuts and slightly different control dynamics for small sections of certain tracks. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and nothing that changes the Mario Kart experience as we know it, but it is a nice addition. The old tracks, on the other hand, are just as fun and as frustrating as you remember the first time you tackled them on SNES, N64, GBA, DS, or Wii.
Items-wise, all the classics are there, minus the annoying fake boxes, along with a few new additions. You can now set other racers ablaze with a fire flower or flick them with a Tanooki Tail. If you’re struggling near the bottom of the pack and don’t get the bullet auto-pilot, you might pick up a Lucky 7, which gives you seven different items to fire away at unsuspecting opponents. All the new items are welcome and the exploding boxes definitely aren’t missed. I could have done without the race-ruining blue-shells, but those suckers are a series staple and no first place race would be complete without having your dreams crushed by one of those lock-on bastards at least once.
Playing through grand prix in the 50cc, 100cc, 150cc iterations will unlock items and characters with every first place finish. The cast has been cut down from 25 to 17 characters following the Wii outing, so no Funky Kong for you this time. However, instead of piling on nostalgic Nintendo drivers, the designers have added unlockable vehicle bodies, wheels, and gliders that allow players to customize their karts to suit their needs. It’s an interesting, if not vital, new addition that will inevitably be a part of the next Mario Kart. When you’re sick of Grand Prix races there are also the classic balloon battles, a mirror mode (which flips the tracks), and the new coin mode that bases wins on how many coins you pick up. They’re all fun side games, but the real killer gameplay mode in Mario Kart 7 is the sweet, sweet online play.
Nintendo typically stays out of online gaming, with the lone exception of Mario Kart. Online play started with the original DS version, and the new handheld system trumps that amazing option in nearly every way. Connecting with players around the world for a race or battle is incredibly simple and requires a bare minimum of loading time. Now, obviously that might change once the official release date hits and the network is overflowing with racers, but past Mario Kart online communities worked well and I’m sure the only change after the game’s release will be a substantial increase in the number of available opponents. Nintendo also added an interesting new online option that allows you to create custom racing groups amongst friends. In fact, they’ve taken great pains to ensure that it’s easier than ever before to connect with specific players from around the world. This is the finest and deepest online Mario Kart experience to date, though there are still opportunities for improvement in the future like the ability to customize the items list.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I had a blast playing Mario Kart 7. The experience is as addictive as always and the new tracks and items certainly fit in well with all of the series standards. The only real criticism to throw at the game is that well…there’s nothing that different about this experience to set it apart from the last few Mario Kart games. I supposed Nintendo’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” thinking is sound, but after the motion control and online innovations of the Wii and DS titles, there’s nothing about MK 7 that makes it feel distinct and fresh. Nintendo clearly wanted to get this sucker out for the 3DS’ inaugural Christmas season and put innovation on the backburner. Given how much fun the game can be, that’s a minor complaint.
However, when Nintendo trots out their inevitable Mario Kart chapter for the Wii U, let’s hope they have a couple of rabbits to pull out of their hat. The kart racing formula still works damn well, but it will get stale eventually. You’ll probably be too busy logging up endless hours on MK 7 to think about that, but it’s something that Nintendo should keep in mind. Regardless, if you own on 3DS you’re going to want to pick up this game. The system will go to waste without portable 3DS racing n’ shell-slinging. It’s as simple as that.