Developer: Nintendo EAD
We've all been there - safely out at the front of the pack, pootling away in first place. You can see the finish line, it's so very close; so close that the exultation begins to boil up unconsciously. You've executed every corner perfectly, sweeping round bends in glorious arcs, the sparks licking at your tyres heralding helpful boosts. The sweet scent of victory fills your nostrils, you allow yourself a swift gasp of anticipa...
...and then everything is ruined in the space of two seconds. A blue shell arrives out of nowhere and, as you roll uncontrollably off course, your pace halted by its arrival, three karts accompanied by the mocking noises of a plumber and his pet dinosaur scream past you. Cushions are thrown, windows smashed, vile epithets are hurled at little old ladies out in the street who've done nothing wrong.
Mario Kart - Nintendo's flagship casual racing series - has always been a game of frenzied fun and fantastic frustration. The AI has forever trodden a fine line between challenging and flagrant cheating, and that's absolutely no different here. 50cc and 100cc have been made somewhat easier, the computer controlled characters are far less likely to usurp your position of power with cheap shots. To be honest it's a little easy, but will provide a great entry point for younger players.
150cc, though, is the same frenetic insanity that we've come to appreciate. It's a madcap mess of difficulty curveballs. Sometimes it'll be plain sailing, at other times you'll be spammed with projectiles. You'll want to grind the faces of some of your dearest gaming icons into the dust by the end of the top level Grand Prix, but with 8 bonus characters to unlock there's plenty of incentive to do so. Plus, let's face it; we wouldn't have Mario Kart any other way.
The changes on the track are subtle yet significant. Boosting is no longer a matter of flicking a stick in the opposite direction to a bend. Instead it's all about nailing the right line around a bend, making sure that your drifts are precise and tight. But even that won't be enough; to help keep your boost potential topped up, the stunt system of Mario Kart Wii makes a reappearance (albeit somewhat scaled back), giving you a little push upon landing whenever you hop off of a ledge, ramp or jump.
The strategic potential is furthered by the introduction of gliders in this title. Hit a jump and launch yourself skyward and the wings are unfurled. Through rhythmic swoops and dives you can glean little boosts in speed and manipulating your hangtime is crucial towards setting yourself up in an advantageous position for when you hit solid ground once more. The underwater sections are a bit disappointing by comparison, slowing the action down to a crawl for seemingly simple aesthetic reasons.
There are several new power-ups, the exploding fake power-up box is gone, such as the Fire Flower, which allows for rapid-fire from front or back; there's the ridiculously overpowered Lucky 7 pickup which gives you seven different powers to deploy; and then there's one that gives your kart a tail. We're still not sure why. It's still the shells that make the biggest difference, though, with a sneaky red able to end the swiftest of overtakes with impunity.
Mario Kart 7 certainly doesn't skimp on the content, with 32 tracks for you to zip through in the 3 tiered Grand Prix tournaments, with time trials and staff ghosts to beat too. Only 16 of these are originals, though, with the other 16 reimaginings of classic courses from the series' history. The retro flavoured courses are tighter and brimming with nostalgic value, but it's the newer material that feels more at home here with the new mechanics. The scope and opportunity for multiple paths through levels, particularly when you factor the glider into the equation, is impressive indeed.
It's clear that Nintendo have spent the extra time on this game well. She's a looker, to be sure, the 3D implemented to fine effect, used to enhance rather than shoved rudely into one's face. The tracks are bright, vivid, with Waluigi Pinball a particular treat for the eyes. But the design is there, as well. This is Nintendo doing what they do best - building upon a classic core formula through inventive tweaks and twists - form and function in a wonderful synthesis when it comes to the new tracks.
But of course, Mario Kart was made to be played with other people. So is this the game that 3DS owners, huddled together at Streetpass gatherings, have been waiting for?
The answer is, simply, yes. This is Mario Kart, after all. Local games are easy to set up, with online offerings available too. Mario Kart 7 also packs a new feature called Communities. Essentially you set up the type of game you want to play and the game hands you a code. Give that code to someone else and they can play a match in your community, even if they're not on your friends list. You can still jump into random matches that'll see you get paired up with others from across the globe, but the Communities feature just allows for easy online groups to be formed.
It's not perfect though, Nintendo's online features rarely are, and it can be a cause of frustration. There's no way to modify a Community when it's been created. For example, if you set one up for a 150cc race but want to play a Battle game with the same people, you'll need to set up a new Community. You can customise your multiplayer matches to suit your style of play, with the ability to deactivate certain weapons if you fancy having a race without those pesky blue shells, but you'll need to set up new Communities each time you want to change something.
Ultimately, Mario Kart 7 doesn't change a huge amount, but the additions it does make on the track serve to enhance the overall experience. Nintendo have created a game that once again embraces the past, but it doesn't rely on it. Some of the finest moments here are to be found discovering new strategies for tracks you've already been over, looking for new ways through to shave off precious seconds. It's still Mario Kart, there are still frustrations in the AI and online play to be found here, but, as a 3DS owner, I can say I've never been happier to see Mario jump back into a go-kart!
- It's Mario Kart...on the 3DS!
- Course design is fantastic
- Good level of customisation
- The AI on 150cc is extremely variable
- First-person mode entirely superfluous
- Online features could be less clunky and more flexible
The Short Version: No, it's not a huge departure for the series, but there's enough here to make Mario Kart 7 an essential purchase for anyone who owns a 3DS.