Mario Kart’s been around the block more than a few times now, having appeared on nearly every Nintendo system to date since the SNES. And while the core of the game is always very similar, the myriad small additions, tweaks, and changes ensures that each one usually feels substantially different. Which is why it’s a little surprising that, despite having some seemingly big additions, Mario Kart 7 actually feels like the one that’s changed the least, probably due to how much it borrows from previous installments. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Fundamentally, Mario Kart 7 feels most like its direct predecessor, borrowing both the visual style and several game mechanics of Mario Kart Wii. Controversially, the game retains the same time-based power-slide system, which while removing a pretty big exploit (snaking), also makes the game feel a little less active. Fortunately, the game restores the risk vs reward coin-collecting aspect of the SNES original, which helps add depth in the form of gaining top-speed at the expense of seeking out (and retaining!) coins scattered around the track. Finally, this is all layered behind an interface identical to Mario Kart DS, providing you with a course-overview on the lower screen.
Speaking of courses, Mario Kart 7 features 32 of them, half of which are brand new, with the remaining roster consisting of remakes from Mario Kart’s past. Of the new are some truly fantastic and original designs, such as racing through the submerged shipwrecks of Wario Shipyard, or bouncing through the auditory fun land that is Music Park, complete with track portions made up of giant xylophones that make the expected sounds as you race over each key. Not every track’s a home-run though. The featureless Neo Bowser City is a relatively dull drive and the two Wahu Island tracks can’t quite shake their uninspired source material (having been seen in several different games, albeit slightly different forms). However, the latter two are at least home to one new feature: single-lap tracks. Instead of racing around a circuit, these courses are a straight-shot to the end, on a track roughly three times as long as your standard course. It’s a neat addition, one of which goes a long ways in making Mario Kart 7’s Rainbow Road feel rather distinct compared to others.
Many of the tracks--even the modified Retro ones--feature some mechanics brand new to the Mario Kart series: hangliding and underwater sections. Now you’ll often find yourself thrown into the air, allowing you to hang-glide over a short section of track. It’s a fun--if not entirely huge--addition and adds some depth with the addition of a third axis. Similarly, you’ll occasionally find yourself cruising underwater, where everything’s moves a bit slower and feels slightly looser. The change isn’t as drastic as the aerial portions, but adds some variety regardless.
Of course items are back! They’re perhaps the single-most defining aspect of Mario Kart, and this one is no exception. While the usual suspects such as shells and bananas are back, joining them are the Fire Flower and Tanooki Tail, both of which are down-right intimidating when in the right hands. The Fire Flower allows you to fire a multitude of projectiles (predictably, fire balls) either forward or backward, often resulting in instant mayhem. The Tanooki Tail, on the other hand (or tail!) is a little more reserved, but is devastating to anything--whether it be item or man--nearby. Also joining them is the Lucky 7...which is unusual in that it grants 7 other power-ups that all orbit your kart, allowing you to use them one at a time as they pass in front. This one is actually a little annoying, in that it requires almost too much concentration to use effectively--but it also crops up relatively rarely.
One thing that the developers absolutely nailed are the controls: they’re perfect. The karts handled exactly as I expected them to--even the new airborne and underwater segments--enabling me to perform seemingly impossible feats without ever feeling like I’m leaving it to chance. I only had myself to blame in the event I fell off a ledge or missed dodging a banana peel. With that said, the game also features a largely worthless first-person view which features optional motion-control steering. I can see it perhaps being helpful for those new to the game, but I went back to the standard view/controls immediately, which offers a better vantage point and more responsive controls.
And if the controls aren't quite to your liking, the game’s new ability to customize your kart should allow you to make a ride tailored to your play-style. In addition to choosing a character and kart, you can now modify the wheel and glider-types too using parts you’ve unlocked in the single-player mode, which impact your kart’s speed and handling. It’s a surprisingly deep addition to the Mario Kart series, even if it will be largely mitigated by people sticking to what they find works best (Toad in the B Dasher with Slick wheels all the way, baby!).
As typical with the series, Mario Kart 7 is at its best when playing with friends. And in addition to local 8-player multiplayer, the game also features a flawless online interface that’s nearly identical to the equally excellent Wii version. As before, you can quickly hop online and race up to 7 others with minimal lag, and now you can even play Battle Mode online too! Unfortunately, Battle Mode is as forgettable as it has been for the last several Mario Kart’s, unable to capture the magic of the original or N64 installments. This is partially due to the presence of a time-limit, instead of a life-limit, removing the thrill of trying to take down an opponent while only having one balloon left.
Ultimately, with everything Mario Kart 7 borrows from previous installments, it refines, rather than redefines the Mario Kart experience. And this is both a blessing and a curse. Because while nearly every facet of the game feels familiar, rarely has it felt this good. But it also lacks the excitement of something new: you’ve seen it all before, and in that respect, it also feels a little tired--even with the new gliding and underwater sections. Fortunately, these feelings are nearly completely left behind when playing with friends, reestablishing Mario Kart as one of the best multiplayer experiences around. You simply won’t have a better time, either online or off on the 3DS than with Mario Kart 7.
Of course, Mario Kart can be played as a single-player experience as well, and while it’s still enjoyable, it lacks the fun and excitement of playing with others.
At least Nintendo has gone out of their way to make this, by far, the most challenging Mario Kart yet. Normally I’m able to breeze past the CPUs on 150cc, but here they actually pose a very formidable challenge--especially if you’re going for the triple-star rating in every cup, which requires not only a first-place finish in all four races, but also some perfect adherence to a mysterious behind-the-scenes algorithm, which I’m confident is built-on voodoo magic. It’s punishing, but extremely rewarding when you eek out a perfect finish and earn the reward for your awesome victory. And I’ll also admit that unlocking car parts for collecting coins during races can be rewarding.
Unfortunately, the Mission Mode of the last two Mario Karts is completely missing, and really removes a lot of the value the single-player had. The missions often featured a unique objective or fun twist that really made elements of the game shine that wouldn’t in normal races. it’s a shame to see them gone.
Bottom-line: While there’s still fun to be had, Mario Kart is meant to be played with others. The single-player is more of a supplement than a replacement for playing with others.
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Developer: Nintendo EAD,Next Level Games,Retro Studios
Genre: Vehicular Combat, Driving/Racing
Release: December 4, 2011
Available On: Nintendo 3DS
Super Mario Kart: Love It
Mario Kart 64: Love it
Mario Kart: Super Circuit: Kill it with fire
Mario Kart Double Dash: Love it
Mario Kart DS: Like it
Mario Kart Wii: Like it