The Mario Kart franchise is like a Camry in many respects. Most everyone you know has either driven or ridden in one before. It’s the top of its class in sales. Little changes from model to model. Value over time recedes slower than the competition. Most that were made a decade or more ago are still in use today.
Mario Kart 7, the first entry in the series designed exclusively for Nintendo 3DS, brings back everything loved and detested from prior installments with just enough tweaks and new courses slapped on like a fresh coat of paint to deliver something fresh. All it takes is one quick race to feel settled in for drinks and good times with an old friend.
The most obvious tweak to Mario Kart 7 is the inclusion of flight and/or underwater segments in each of the races. Gliding through the air off a variety of ramps is truly fun and a completely different experience from racing on the ground. Following traditional flying controls, pointing toward the ground speeds up the airborne kart, while pulling up slows it down but also extends the flight distance. There’s something oddly satisfying about gliding high above the finish line rather than driving under the banner.
Dropping under the water’s surface isn’t quite the charm soaring through the air is. The karts slow down when submerged, and navigating turns isn’t anywhere near as tight or effective as on the surface. It’s the racing equivalent of a sand trap; the goal is to avoid landing in at, and to get out as quickly as possible if you do.
Familiar gold Mario coins are found in the air, on the surface or under the sea. Initially these coins seem useless to pursue; however, once 50 are collected a new kart customization unlocks and the race to scoop up as many as possible is engaged. Unfortunately there’s no controlling which kart customization becomes available as they are offered up in a pre-determined order from a selection of body, wheel, and glider types.
Past Mario Kart games allowed solely for kart selection and not kart builds, so the ability to play around with different combinations – once several are unlocked – is one of the better updates to the series. The options that effect speed, weight, handling and acceleration aren’t as robust as full-fledged racing games, but it’s a huge leap forward for Mario Kart that changes the way those pesky 150cc races are approached.
3DS’ analog stick allows for more finite control of those customized karts which is a big plus when navigating tight spaces. If you hated whipping the D-Pad around to produce sparks and a speed burst, prepare to rejoice and give your thumbs a rest. Sparks, now in “red” and “blue” varieties, are generated automatically when making tight turns.
A few new power-ups are in play on the tracks in addition to all the Mario Kart DS options returning. The Lucky 7 spins a wheel of random power-ups around a kart that can be used to attack other drivers or as a wall of defense. On the flip side, the power-up boxes can be swiped, so wielding Lucky 7 requires a little extra concentration to avoid its pitfalls. There’s also the Fire Flower from Mario platform games that spits out a few fireballs a short distance. The red turtle shells are much more effective, but it’s neat to see a familiar Mario weapon jump genres.
I crown the real winner the Tanooki Tail which can do no wrong in any Mario game. The tail can be used offensively to swat other drivers as they are passed, or defensively to swat away incoming projectiles. The only downside to the tail is that it doesn’t always stay available for use long enough to actually make use of it. At least a banana hangs around the track for awhile and can potentially knock out an opponent two laps after it was initially dropped.
Sprinting out into first place offers the weakest power-ups, while trailing the pack delivers the dreaded blue turtle shell of dastardly doom. Sound familiar? It is, and has always been, Nintendo’s own unique version of rubber-banding to level the playing field. Love it or hate it, Nintendo is unwilling to waver in this design and it’s fully present in Mario Kart 7.
Getting nailed with a barrage of shells within eyesight of the finish line makes the 150cc races as brutal to beat as they have always been. Stretching the difficulty gap to its furthest, the 50cc races are a breeze and can be beat even after dropping off several cliffs. The 100cc races are a little harder but still conquerable for even novice drivers.
In total there are 32 tracks in Mario Kart 7 to race; 16 all-new and 16 from past games tweaked with the addition of gliding segments, underwater segments, or both. Some of the new tracks are more fun than others, especially those with limited submerged racing and extended gliding segments. Others feel bigger than they should be, as if there should be 16 or 32 karts in action rather than only 8.
While most of the tracks feature the traditional Mario Kart three laps to complete, the final tracks in each Cup, such as the new Rainbow Road, are one long unique track broken into three segments. This new direction makes those final races feel more important, and they should considering what’s at stake. And that new Rainbow Road with its undulating stretches and lunar backdrop is by far the best Mario Kart track to date.
Local multiplayer is supported as it also is in Mario Kart DS, but in an unexpected move for typically online-shy Nintendo, there’s a new Community area that lets you put together matches, join other matches, and track leaderboards. Nintendo isn’t playing up this online functionality, but it’s there and works well for when racing against CPU drivers grows tiresome.
Mario Kart 7 is a beautifully polished game with no apparent flaws, exactly what’s to be expected from a Nintendo first-party release. Like fellow holiday 2011 3DS title Super Mario 3D Land, the 3D effect is superbly implemented and something you’ll want to turn on rather than immediately flick off.
There’s also a new first-person driving mode that utilizes the 3DS gyroscope to steer the kart by tilting the handheld left or right. I prefer the new perspective over the controls in this mode, but it works as advertised and should become a staple in future Mario Kart games.
If I had to choose one word to sum up Mario Kart 7 it would be “variety.” Like the Camry, there’s no radical change from the last iteration. But all the little tweaks add up to the most robust and versatile Mario Kart driving game to powerslide onto any Nintendo system. I’ll keep racing until it’s determined whether one of those damned blue turtle shells can be deflected and defeated with a Tanooki Tail.
– Dan Bradley
Shop for Mario Kart 7 on Nintendo 3DS for a discounted price at Amazon.com (December 4, 2011 release date).