There's a brilliance in the simplicity of Mario Kart that has stood the series in good stead all these years. Not for the fat, red plumber and his karting cohorts the blistering pace of other arcade racers. No, Nintendo, as ever, had a plan, they perfected that plan, and then they stuck with it. Since it appeared on the SNES, Mario Kart has been a multiplayer mainstay, a game suitable for all ages, as fun for five years as it is for five minutes.
Nintendo's approach has more often than not been rather conservative, although the Gamecube's Double Dash! introduced a significant number of alterations to the formula, with mixed reception. The reason is simple: money. Mario's racing adventures have been popular and lucrative, and you don't fix what ain't broke.
The 3DS, however, at a crucial stage in its fledgling life, could use some fixing. I was at a StreetPass meet a few weeks back and the consensus was that although the console had an enormous amount of potential, that its social functions were exciting in a Western environment that has not embraced physical social gaming as Japan has, there just weren't enough games to take advantage of that. Ocarina of Time 3D is a fine game, but asking a game that was a killer app fourteen years ago to do the same job for a new console now is pushing it.
The two names that stood out in our discussion were obvious, in retrospect. Two Nintendo titles built close to their hearts, popular on a range of consoles. One was Smash Bros., the other, of course, was Mario Kart. For the latter, at least, it would seem that we are getting our wish.
There are those that suggest 3D adds something particularly special to the racing genre, but quite frankly, with concentration brought to bear on both an object in the foreground and a destination on the horizon, the 3D effect becomes superfluous unless things are being flung at you as in Motorstorm Apocalypse. That said, this close to the screen, I found the added depth perception really aided cornering, particularly once I'd gotten used to the drifting in this incarnation.
This is another delightfully looking title for the 3DS. True to form, the colours are bright and vivid, the rainbow vistas of the Mushroom Kingdom dazzle in the backgrounds, with plenty of detail for the eyes to feast upon in the fore as well. It's not the best looking game on the system we've seen, Luigi's Mansion takes that crown for the moment, but it's pretty easy on the eye.
But Mario Kart was never really about the graphics. Things kick off with a bit of customisation., you can choose between small, medium and large karts, tricking them out with rims to suit your mood and picking the colour of the hang-glider that your kart will fire out of its ass when you go airborne.
Retro Studios - they of Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country fame - have added a few things into the mix this time, expanding upon the gameplay, giving the old formula a little seasoning of variety. When you encounter a body of water, for example, no longer does a particularly smug Lakitu take his time fishing you out and plopping you back on the track dripping wet at the back of the pack. Now your cart sprouts a little propeller and things take on an entirely new, floaty method of handling where control counts for much more than pace.
The real joy, though, comes from getting some sweet air. Do so and you'll begin to glide, a level we encountered throwing up several green pipes that needed to be avoided, you can pitch from left to right, dip your nose to accelerate back down towards the ground or try to keep yourself airborne for as long as possible, picking out land-based obstacles and attempting to take shortcut advantages. As before, there are a number of potential routes and options to take on some of the courses and, as per usual, messing it up more often than not results in a swift plummet in the race standings.
Classic concepts are making something of a return too. Remember the collectable coins from the SNES original? Well they're back, although it was hard to get an indication as to whether or not they'll increase your top speed as they did a couple of decades ago.
It's an emphatic return for the series, and having the circle pad makes a delightful world of difference. Handling is an utter joy (although it does depend on which wheels you choose), in the air and on the ground, but we'd worry about holding an entire level underwater if that happens. Purists might have some reservations, but only the ones that stopped playing games made after 1994, and they'd be completely wrong anyway. This is Mario Kart through and through, and for the 3DS it can't come soon enough.