Being a big fan of the Mario Kart franchise growing up, I was ecstatic to get the chance to play a full hour of Mario Kart 7 at Nintendo's Bay Area office last week. So how is it? Well, let me just say that it made me feel like a kid again.
Before starting your races, you're greeted with a wide assortment of customization options. You can choose over a dozen characters, numerous carts, various wheels, and a plethora of gliders. Each component offers different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, some carts may feature faster acceleration but slower top speed, some wheels may be slower overall but work better on icy terrain and so forth. The game will start you off with a decent amount of these accessories, but Nintendo tells us players will be able to unlock more by nabbing coins scattered along the race tracks.
I was able to play all four levels of the Mushroom Cup at 150cc speed (i.e the fastest speed - go big or go home!) with six other human opponents. This first cup features Toad Circuit (your standard and simple nascar-esque race track), Daisy Hills (a pretty scenic Dutch country side-type course that allows gliders to take flight), Cheep-Cheep Lagoon (a predominately underwater level filled with caves), and Shy Guy Bazaar (a sandy/desert like Moroccan course). Being the first cup in the game, these levels were all pretty easy (i.e., devoid of any annoying obstacles).
The next circuit we were able to play was the last one in the game, the Special Cup. This level features an ice level, typically the bane of most Mario Kart games, but surprisingly, it wasn't too annoying. Moving on, we raced through Bowser's Castle. Of course this place is filled with lava and insane jumps/multiple pathways, but still, it wasn't anything too painful. Finally, we reached Rainbow Road and here the difficulty did not hold back. Mario Kart 7's iteration of this dastardly level certainly lives up to its reputation. There are plenty of twists and turns, and many of them don't have safety rails. I picked up a couple of mushrooms along the way (in-game mushrooms, kids), but hesitated using them after a while because they would always send me over the edge (again, I'm talking about in-game mushrooms). What was visually interesting to me about this version of Rainbow Road is that it seemed to have taken inspiration from Mario Galaxy, as space around us was filled with small revolving planets.
Players who like the less linear levels in their racers will have a lot to like in Mario Kart as most of the levels feature branching pathways. These may come in the form of choosing the left or right option or even high and low. I found this verticality quite refreshing and can't wait to play the game so more to see if other short cuts exist.
As far as the racing mechanics go, many players may be delighted to hear that unlike games like Mario Kart 64, there appears to be no rubber-banding between players. This means no artificial handicap. Control side, the game handles as well as you think it would. Power sliding and steering feels smooth as it should be. Staples like boosting out from the starting lines and coming back after a fall are still here.
New to the franchise is the first person perspective coupled with the 3DS' motion controls. playing the game in the new first person perspective (initiated by pressing up on the D-pad), players can use the 3DS gyroscope to veer left and right. These controls seemed to work okay, but with you not being able to see how well you're power sliding in first-person or to see what's going on with the weapons surrounding you (both yours and the enemies'), I'm afraid it's going to become more of a novelty than anything.
Now, one of my favorite parts about Mario Kart are its battle modes. Once again, the three-balloon battle mode is back, but this time it has a twist. Instead of trying to kill all opponents to be the last man standing, this mode now is all about who can score the most points within the allotted time frame. This means that all players start off with three balloons and they earn points by hitting other players. Whoever has the most hits by the end of the round wins. Furthermore, players won't "die" in this mode as once their three balloons have been popped, they will be restored with three balloons all over again. Nintendo is doing this to allow for more accessibility. While I agree that this is definitely more accessible for newer fans, I wish the more ruthless and old school three strikes rule was still there as an option.
In terms of battle levels, we were able to play two retro levels (Big Donut and Palm Shore) and two new levels (Honey Bee House and Sherbet Rink). Big Donut is from Mario Kart 64 and closely resembles what you remember of it, i.e. it's a circular arena with big brick walls with a big lava pit in the middle. Palm Shore takes place on a fairly flat tropical beach with water surrounding the map. Honey Bee House features several small Honey Bee domes to traverse through and some areas of the map even feature Bees that will hurt you. Sherbet Rink takes place across an icy terrain and features Snowman as dangerous obstacles.
Allowing you to play all of these battle maps in a different way is the Coin Runners mode, returning from Mario Kart Wii. Here, instead of blasting everyone to earn points, the goal is to collect as many randomly scattered coins across the map as you can. The interesting part is that you can blast people to take their coins away from them.
In terms of weaponry, you've got your standard banana peels, green/red, blue shells, stars, bombs, ink squids, and more. One new addition that I got to use was the Super Leaf. This items temporarily gives you a Tanooki tail and allows you to melee swipe nearby enemies within your immediate vicinity. It's not a top tier item by any means but if you've got someone on your tail (no pun intended...okay, a little pun intended), it's good for getting rid of them. Another new weapon is the Fire Flower. For a limited time, this item allows you to hurl fire balls a head of you. Lastly, there is the speed-boosting mushroom, complete with the battering ram abilities that's been seen in more recent installments.
Visually, the game looks pretty sweet, too. I'd say it most closely resembles the aesthetics of Mario Kart Wii. The Environments are of course varied and colorful. Furthermore, slowdown wasn't an issue at all. On the 3D front, I'd say the game worked pretty well and offered good depth but I personally found myself turning down the slider when the action got really close and heated so I could better focus and not have to worry about my eyes tweaking out; however, your mileage (and tolerance for this issue) may very.
On the auditory front, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a Mario Kart game. The music is bright and cheery and the voice acting is so cute it makes you want to blow your brains out, or buy puppies -- you choose.
Embracing the online arena, Mario Kart 7 supports creatable server-like networks called Communities. These Communities allow hosts to create and customize match types like, "battle mode with shells only," or "100cc races only" etc... and allow people to join them. Furthermore, using Street Pass, players will be able to see what communities other players have engaged in and join in on these match types. The game allows 8 players to play at once and up to 10,000 people to join any one community. Another feature of Street Pass is that it will allow other players to download your ghost tracks so that they can theoretically ride along with you. It's a pretty cool use for Street Pass in my opinion. Furthermore, players hoping to play the game with other friends who don't have the game need not worry. Mario Kart 7 allows owners to play with up to 7 other friends even if they don't have the game, provided they use download play. One caveat to this is that they won't be able to customize their rider load out and will be relegated to play as a mere Shy Guy.
Being an old school fan of Mario Kart, I have to say that this game looks extremely promising so far. If you're a die hard franchise fan like I am, December 4th (when the game launches in the US), can't come soon enough.
Note: We incorrectly stated Goomba was a character instead of Shy Guy. Also, we corrected that the Coin Runners mode was first seen in Mario Kart Wii. Jimmy has been submitted to severe punishment by Blue Shell for the errors.