Ever since its inception on the Super Nintendo, whenever there is a new Nintendo system to be had, you can be sure that a new Mario Kart will race onto it. Barring the Game Boy and Virtual Boy, one Mario Kart has appeared on every Nintendo platform. What better way to ring in Nintendo's newest hand-held, the 3DS, than with a fresh installment of Mario Kart? Well, that is exactly what the house that the portly plumber built has done with Mario Kart 7, the first numbered entry in the illustrious party franchise. Should you race to a store near you to nab a copy, or is this version of Mario Kart one that wipes out before the finish?
Right away when you boot up your copy of Mario Kart 7 you will notice that the game runs at an oh-so silky smooth 60 frames-per-second, even when the 3D depth slider is turned all the way up. This game is one of the first to have this feature. The 3D successfully helps to gauge how far away or how close objects and turns are from your kart. It is by no means essential to the gameplay, so no worries about not being able to see or use the 3D. Character models are beefed up from Mario Kart Wii (the most recent game in the series), and they sport more polygons and better shading than their console counterparts. Courses have complex geometry and plenty of special effects going on in the background and trackside such as cherry blossom petals raining down onto Mario Circuit's track surface and a downpour of water droplets pelting the road of Neo Bowser City. Even with eight racers duking it out for supremacy and a myriad of effects and items littering the course, there is never a hint of slowdown at all. This is a technologically impressive game, and it shows that Nintendo EAD knows the intricacies of the 3DS hardware extremely well.
Meanwhile, on the sound side of the spectrum, Kenta Nagata returns from an extended absence of composing for Mario Kart (the last title he wrote music for was Gamecube's Mario Kart: Double Dash!!). There are hints of melodies from past Mario Karts as well as remixes from games like Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash. The brand-new pieces are not as memorable as past games in the franchise (though I do have a soft spot for Daisy Hills), they are, however, serviceable and never grating. Character voices are cute and clever, and they are not obnoxious either. There is no "Hi, I'm Daisy!" over and over again no matter how hilarious one might think it is (well, it WAS pretty funny back in the day).
One of the new features of Mario Kart 7 is that of kart customization. That's right. For the first time ever players can customize their karts to their liking. You select a body, a set of wheels, and a glider (more on the latter later). Depending on the weight of the character you choose-- either lightweight, middleweight, or heavyweight-- and the combination of kart pieces, your handling, acceleration, weight, top speed, and off-road capabilities will be altered. The selection of kart pieces available at the beginning of the game is a meager amount. However, collecting coins in races (you can hold up to ten per race, forty per cup) unlocks new pieces randomly. Yes, grinding for coins is a hassle that most players won't be able to suffer to collect all of the parts, but at least there's an excuse to keep someone coming back for more. You will be able to race in Bowser's koopa clown car from Super Mario World fame, a zucchini-shaped kart, a cloud, have wooden wheels, mushroom-made wheels, and much more. Furthermore, coins in races give you a higher top speed, so the more coins you collect, the greater your top speed. Getting hit or falling off the track will make you lose anywhere from three to a majority of your coins.
Another new feature of Mario Kart 7 is the ability to dive underwater or glide in the air for extended periods of time. You can go all amphibious or all airborne pending on your mood and the track. While one is more entertaining than the other, both offer a unique change of pace in races. While underwater your kart sprouts a propeller from behind and handles much differently than on land. You jump higher and turn more loosely. Launching off a light blue ramp causes your glider to extend from the back of your kart as you soar over obstacles. Holding the glider up can grant you more speed and hang-time, allowing you to pass over portions of track for great shortcuts. There is a risk/reward feeling when gliding as you are susceptible to attacks such as shells of both the red and pesky blue varieties as well as lightning bolts while in midair. The most beneficial shortcuts have you risking life and limb over hazards and time-costing hazards.
The single-player options of Mario Kart 7 are not the best the series has seen. Gone is the mission mode of Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart Wii. Also absent for some reason is the ability to play against the AI on courses of your choosing via VS mode. What is available, however, are four cart classes featuring eight cups each (with each cup being composed of four races): 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, and Mirror mode which flips the tracks, so left turns are now right turns and vice versa. Each cc gets more difficult than the last with the computer keeping up with you much more easily and utilizing items to artificially create a challenge. There is nothing more frustrating than running a perfect race only to have your run crushed by a rampant blue shell, an item that automatically targets first place. This makes going for three stars, the best grade one can get in a given cup, all the more infuriating as not only do you have to place first in each race, but you also have to do so in a timely fashion. A last second blue shell can destroy any chance of this occurring. I think the game would be nicer if the computer could not use the blue shell like Mario Kart 64. Any other item would be fair game and would make for a less maddening racing session.
Thankfully, the item balance is much better than in Mario Kart Wii. This is partially due to the fact that there are just seven other racers to worry about instead of eleven. Removed from the Wii edition are the Mega Mushroom and Hot Potato-like Lightning Cloud. Added are three new items: the Super Leaf, the Fire Flower, and the Lucky 7. The Super Leaf temporarily grants the user a Tanooki tail as seen in Super Mario Bros. 3 and most recently Super Mario 3D Land. Twirling your tail can block shells and spin out opponents. The Fire Flower allows the user to shoot out a flurry of fireballs at targets, spinning them out for a short period of time. This item wears out after a handful of uses. Finally, the Lucky 7 item materializes seven items and revolves them around the player. The fortunate racer can then unload them all or risk their safety by holding onto them all. I say risk because another player can brush up against a bomb that rotates around the player and blow both of them up, for example. Returning items include the blue shell which now works similarly to how it did in Mario Kart 64 (moving along the center of the track until dive-bombing first place), the homing red shell, the green shell, the banana peel, the screen-obscuring Blooper, the Golden Mushroom, the Mushroom, the Invincibility Star, and the Lightning Bolt.
But what good are items if you do not have any tracks to use them on? Mario Kart 7 delivers in spades with 32 tracks-- 16 all-new ones and 16 retro tracks. The retro selection is the series' best yet with such picks as Luigi's Mansion, Coconut Mall, Airship Fortress, Dino Dino Jungle, Daisy Cruiser, Waluigi Pinball, Koopa Cape, Koopa [Troopa] Beach, and the Super Mario Kart version of Rainbow Road. These old tracks have been remixed with added underwater and aerial portions. For instance, the engine room shortcut of Daisy Cruiser has been flooded and inhabited by clams and Unagi the eel, and Maple Treeway's bouncy net portion of track has been entirely replaced by a glide to the homestretch.
The new tracks are no pushovers either. You will be spiraling up through Peach's castle in Mario Circuit, blitzing through a stormy galleon in Wario Shipyard, racing along the keys of a piano in Music Park, avoiding lava geysers in Bowser's Castle, gliding past hot air balloons and windmill blades in Daisy Hills, and experiencing one of the greatest versions of a mainstay in the series, Rainbow Road. Some tracks even alter the formula of Mario Kart by having only one lap. The lap is divided between three sections. Only three courses contain this structure: Wuhu Loop, Maka Wuhu, and Rainbow Road.
Apart from normal racing, you can take part in Battle Mode. There are six maps: three new, three old, and two modes: Balloon Battle and Coin Runners. Balloon Battle has you attacking other players, looking to score the most hits before time runs out, and Coin Runners is all about collecting the most coins in the allotted time. Both can be played with or without computers.
Besides unlocking kart parts, there are nine characters in addition to the eight already available. Some of the choices and exclusions are questionable at best. Sure, Wiggler is awesome, especially when he gets hit and turns an angry shade of red. Nice touch. But where is Birdo, Bowser Jr., Toadette, and Waluigi? The latter even has a course named after him! The character unlocks are not spread out well either. They are all unlocked through finishing first in each of the 150cc cups. The addition of being able to play as your Mii is cool, but why does my Mii sound like Yoshi? Alas, beggars can't be choosers.
Mario Kart 7 borrows the racing mechanics of the Wii entry with mini turbos resulting from how long and how sharply you drift. You can get a blue burst for drifting a little or get a longer burst of speed with a red one for drifting even more. The game-breaking "snaking" method from Mario Kart DS is present, but it is really only viable for wide tracks. Plus it does not give as much of a bonus as it did in the DS game. Another helpful return from Mario Kart Wii is pressing the R button right when you launch from a ramp or jump to give yourself a turbo boost. To further add to the controls, you can race with the Circle Pad or you can go first-person and use the gyro controls. The motion controls are a cool distraction, but on courses without railings they are more of a hindrance than anything.
If single-player is not your cup of tea, and you wish to race with human beings, then hop online. You can join a random session or a Community. Communities are for up to 100,000 people where the creator of the Community makes the rules such as no items, 150 cc, Coin Runners (one of two battle modes), bananas only, shells only, etc. Each racing session uses Grand Prix rules. There is no option to just casually do one race; you must take part in all four races. This might put off some players. Nonetheless, the option to join a like-minded group of players is an excellent addition to the series, and it is actually somewhat forward-thinking of Nintendo to do. I never thought I'd say "Nintendo" and "forward-thinking" when it comes to online, but there you have it. It's on the record! A given person can join up to a handful of Communities before it is necessary to remove themselves from one.
The online fun doesn't end there either. With SpotPass you can download Time Trial ghost data and challenge up to seven ghosts in one race to push yourself beyond your normal gaming limits. As long as you have SpotPass enabled, new ghosts will continuously be downloaded for your racing pleasure.
Mario Kart 7 possesses a lot of fun and a lot of frustration in its gameplay. As long as you realize and accept that the best player doesn't always win, you'll gain a lot of enjoyment and lose a lot of irritation playing this game. The selection of tracks ranks up with the best Mario Kart titles even if the choices of characters does less than impress. The dreaded blue shell will cost you many a race, and the later difficulties are intimidating and artificially challenging, but if you persevere, you will discover an engaging and addicting game. Online is the best effort by Nintendo yet, and the addition of Communities is brilliant. Additionally, the 3D is terrific as are the visuals. The omission of mission mode may be questionable, but many players will be too involved with online to care. Mario Kart 7 may not be the most complete and most commendable karting experience, but it is one of the most fun... even if luck doesn't always go your way.