It just wouldn’t be a Nintendo console if it didn’t have a Mario Kart game, now would it? The legendary racing franchise has made its way to the 3DS just in time for the holidays in the form of Mario Kart 7, along with all the shell-shooting, banana-flinging action fans have come to expect from the series.
Not content for this latest attempt to be a simple in-house project, Nintendo’s EAD has partnered with western developers Retro Studios, best know for the Metroid Prime franchise, as well as last year’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, as a collaborative effort.
Does this combination result in a championship run, or is Mario Kart 7 headed for the pits? Hit the break to find out.
Mario Kart 7 (technically the ninth game in the series, but I guess Nintendo’s not counting the two arcade games) plays it relatively safe when it comes to its gameplay. There are a few new features that mix things up and help differentiate it from previous entries, but things will ultimately feel familiar to longtime fans. Specifically, MK7 handles almost identically to Mario Kart Wii, from the mini-boosting tricks off of ramps to the duration-based power slide turbos meant to prevent “snaking.” It’s a wise decision, given that the Wii version’s mechanics were quite solid, but it does tend to make the game feel a bit too much like a re-tread at times.
While the core gameplay is built on an existing framework, MK7 manages to differentiate itself in the details. The biggest and most immediately obvious of these enhancements comes in the form of kart customization. While previous Mario Karts have offered multiple vehicles for characters with varying stats, Mario Kart 7 allows players to customize these attributes by swapping out parts. Your selection of character, frame, wheels, and glider (more on this later) offers a rather robust degree of personalization, giving you a fine degree of tuning capability in order to find the build that’s just right.
When it comes to characters, Mario Kart 7′s roster is fairly diverse. You’ll start with the standard eight racers from the SNES original, with an additional nine unlockable by achieving certain feats. Most of the standard go-to characters are present, though there are some puzzling omissions (sorry Waluigi fans, all three of you). Even stranger are some of the characters that did make the cut (Honey Queen? Really?)… but hey, no babies. That’s something, right? Best of all, characters are no longer restricted to certain karts by weight class like in Mario Kart Wii, further increasing the number of customization options available.
There’s precisely no deviation from the past few entries when it comes to how the game is structured. Mario Kart 7 features the typical Grand Prix, Time Trials, and Battle Mode options you would expect. Grand Prix races are split into eight cups of four courses each, half taken from previous Mario Kart entries with the other half brand new to MK7. Track selection is one of the game’s strongest points, with some of the absolute best courses in the franchise represented (wisely, with limited representation from the series’ 2D entries), and a great suite of new tracks to boot.
Track design is absolutely top-notch. There’s hardly a dud to be found among Mario Kart 7′s new course offerings, with seemingly every course providing something fresh and interesting. The game even features a handful of new marathon courses, incredibly long tracks that consist of a single lap broken into “segments.” Best of all is the sense of exploration that has been heightened this time around. The game’s tracks are simply brimming with hidden paths, alternate lines, and risky shortcuts that mix things up significantly. It rewards track knowledge and keen eyes, and it seems almost as though there’s something new to be discovered about a track every time you play it.
Tracks in Mario Kart 7 are now dotted with coins, a mechanic that has been long forgotten in the franchise. An important strategic element, coins increase your maximum speed for every one collected up to a maximum of ten, and are lost when your kart takes a hit. Coins are typically placed along important racing lines on turns, meaning those at the front of the pack will get first dibs on optimally placed coin patches. It’s a simple but important element, as it finally gives something of an incentive to be in the lead early in a race, a position that has typically meant little more in the past than becoming a target for shells of every color.
But you won’t just be racing with your wheels on the pavement this time around. At times on certain tracks, you may find your kart airborne or racing while under water. Hitting a special zip pad will cause your vehicle to sprout a hang-glider attachment, allowing you to soar for an extended distance. Similarly, submergence under water, once a situation that typically prompted a reset by Lakitu, now pops a propeller out of your backside so you can continue the race. Sadly, these elements – the underwater segments in particular – feel a bit under-utilized; don’t expect anything along the lines of Diddy Kong Racing. Still, they do add a little bit of variety to the proceedings, and they’ve been retroactively added to the classic courses, which is definitely a plus.
Items feel a lot more under control than the chaotic mess most races of Mario Kart Wii turned into. With the field reduced back down to eight from twelve, there are going to be far fewer toys flying around the track at any given moment, and certain items (like MKWii’s hit-everyone-in-front-of-you-for-free POW block) have been removed. The new additions, a tanooki leaf and fire flower, are relatively low key and require a welcome bit of strategy to use. Even Mario Kart’s notorious first-place-seeking blue shell has been toned down somewhat, as it seems to appear less frequently and now travels along the ground, giving it a chance to hit any unsuspecting racer in the field instead of just punishing the leader.
For those seeking a more technical affair, Time Trial mode offers a compelling challenge. It’s structured the same way as previous outings, but the addition of coins to the proceedings combined with the full range of kart customization options offers an enhanced depth to the time attacks that perfectionists should find pleasing. Time Trial is also enhanced by the 3DS’s online functionality, allowing you not only to see your own best time in relation to the rest of the world, but download specific “ghosts” to race against. You can even race multiple ghosts this time around – up to seven at a time.
Players that crave a more immediately competitive race will be pleased to find that Mario Kart 7 contains a fully-featured and virtually lag-free online mode that may be one of Nintendo’s best online structures to date – although, to be fair, that really isn’t saying too much. You can join in a race with a random pool of strangers without issue, putting you in a spectator mode until the next race begins. It’s a fairly seamless, smooth affair, and you’ll gain and lose persistent points that track your ranking. In addition, you can hook up and race against people on your friend list without much effort, and a recent 3DS firmware update allows you to easily add people you compete against to your list. No friend codes necessary.
The big new addition to the online landscape is the “community” feature. Players can establish communities – a set of players playing under an agreed-upon set of rules – and distribute a special code for others to join as well. Each community comes with its own player ranking, making these akin to custom leagues. In theory, this allows you to quickly jump in to a game with a known group. The problem with communities is that, unlike the random match modes, these are sets of four races each, and do not allow players to join a set in progress. Adding to the problem, community games, infuriatingly, do not support the spectator functionality that the basic random online matches do, meaning that you’ll be sitting around doing nothing as you wait for a community match to finish for your chance to join. It’s a great feature in concept, but the execution comes off as half-baked.
Mario Kart 7′s presentation is pretty much what you would expect from the series. The visuals are colorful and varied, and the game runs at a consistent 60 FPS even with a screen full of the sort of chaos that Mario Kart often invites. Most of the sound effects are lifted directly from previous entries, which does make the package feel a bit overly-familiar at times. The 3D effect, while not providing anything nearly as eye-popping or necessary as Super Mario 3D Land, is more than serviceable, and can actually help you line up properly as you approach an item block or a batch of coins. On the easier difficulties, the game does seem to lack a certain sensation of speed – it’s recommended that you do most of your playing at the 150cc level.
All in all, Mario Kart 7 takes very few risks, choosing instead to flesh out and fine-tune an already mechanically-sound experience. Where it does deviate from the expected, the game mostly finds success, though it would have been nice to have seen a bit more in the innovation department. If you hate Mario Kart, this new title will do little to change your mind, but fans will find a lot to love here – barring a few missed opportunities in the online department, the package is exactly what you would want in a Mario Kart game. Strong customization options, incredible track design, and enough online functionality to keep you hooked make Mario Kart 7 a winner.
Mario Kart 7 was released on December 4th, 2011 for the Nintendo 3DS.