Once upon a time nobody would have considered making a racing game staring mascot characters as even an option. Leave it to the Mario franchise to boldly go, inventing the console kart racer genre in the process. True to the Mario brand it's fun for casual players but has enough challenge for the core gamers who like to go a little deeper. For a series that focuses on speed, Mario Kart is slow to change. Developer Retro Studios (known for breathing new life into both Metroid and Donkey Kong Country) builds on the foundation of the previous eight games with the some control tweaks and a few new items. But did Mario Kart 7 maintain the lead, or did it veer off course?
The standard Mario Kart formula is intact; you'll steer your favorite Mushroom Kingdom resident around a colorful track, power slide around corners, and both collect and dodge various power-ups in an attempt to cross the finish line first.
Single player is still dominated by the Grand Prix, where you have a choice of three engine classes that are basically Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulty settings. There are eight cups with four courses a piece, which if you do the math is 32 tracks (half new, half classic tracks) in total. Playing solo you also have the choice of time trials, which not only allows you to race against Nintendo staff ghosts, but also the ghost data of people you connect with via StreetPass.
Most players will be able to race through all the tracks in a standard day of play. However, your time with the game is only just beginning at this point. First off, finishing every cup on the highest engine class will open up a mirror mode, allowing you to race through every course with the turns reversed. You start with a choice of eight characters but can unlock up to seventeen (this includes using your Mii). Collecting coins during races returns, giving your cart a slight speed boost the more you collect. This time around, however, the coins also serve as in-game currency that unlocks additional kart parts. Your character choice does still affect your base stats that are rated in five different categories (such as acceleration or handling) but it is much less important than in the past. It's the karts themselves that really change your stats, depending on the chassis or tires you select. There are over 25 different kart parts that you can unlock, allowing you to really fine-tune the experience so any character fits with your driving style. Parts unlock based on how many total coins you have collected, with a maximum of ten per race being counted, which means it will take over 500 races to unlock everything.
No matter what kart you choose, you'll have access to the new gameplay mechanics of gliding and diving. In previous games, driving into water meant going out of bounds. Now, all karts are able to fully submerge and keep going. They're also equipped with a glider that activates when they drive over certain boost ramps. This addition of air and underwater travel is much more than a gimmick - many of the new tracks are designed with these options in mind. I found myself having to make many more split second decisions than usual while racing. Do I drive under this lake, take the narrow side route, or try my luck at dodging large stalactites as I fly over said lake? Gliding also carries with it the question of whether you should stay airborne to avoid pitfalls or dive to the ground to return to top speed. Retro Studios has even altered the returning classic tracks to take advantage of these new features, helping to breathe new life into some of the greatest tracks in the history of the series.
Items have only been slightly altered. No, the blue shell is not gone, but the fake item box and Boo (ghost) item have both been given the axe. In their place are the FireFlower (allowing for limited fireball flinging) and the Super Leaf (giving you access to a tanooki tail that works as a shield and something to whack other drivers with). The biggest new item is the Lucky 7, giving you access to seven random items at once, rotating around you and making you feel all powerful. That is, until you realize that other racers can steal the items by bumping into you, which keeps the Lucky 7 from being too game breaking. All the new items fit in nicely and help with balancing - no single item really feels over powered, just annoying to be on the receiving end of. The rubberband A.I. is still present, but much less obvious. They feel more like skilled players than magical cheating jerks. The blue shell use has also been tweaked to make it a much more rare drop. You get a very large heads up, with audio cues from the moment it is launched. Since you can see it on the bottom screen's map, this gives you time to decide whether you will drop to second, sacrificing another or if you have time to make it to the finish line.
As fun as playing against the rubberband A.I. is, Mario Kart is at its strongest against human opponents. You can play local multiplayer with up to eight players. Even 3DS owners without a copy of the game can join in (albeit in limited fashion as 'Shy Guy'). The online multiplayer is similar to that in Mario Kart Wii, although down from twelve to eight total players. You can compete against random players from around the globe, or choose to limit it to people on your friends list. There's no server list, so you end up joining games at random. Everyone selects their track of choice between matches and one is picked at random from those selections. Connecting is simple and latency is practically non-existent. So far, this is the best example of online multiplayer available on the 3DS. If Battle Mode is more your cup of tea you can choose from 6 courses (3 new, 3 retro) to have an all-out kart battle. The classic 'destroy your opponents’ three balloons before they get yours' is still here, of course. Also returning is Coin Battle mode, which has players fighting to collect coins while forcing opponents to lose them.
The icing on the multiplayer cake is in the new community features. Similar to Mario Kart Wii, there is a Mario Kart Channel in the game where you can customize your profile for other players to see and make your own special Grand Prix. Nintendo has plans to update the channel to include special races and events in the future. Players can create their own Mario Kart community with its own special rules for online play. You can choose an engine class as well as certain item limitations. It's not as deep as say a Super Smash Bros item switch is, with categories like “only shells”, “only bananas”, and “only mushrooms”. So no, you can’t go in and only turn the blue shell off. However, if you have ever found yourself dreaming Mario Kart had a little less to do with the luck of the items, you have options now. You can even create eight different communities of your own, allowing you to have different rules for battle modes than the grand prix modes. For those that are curious, yes the tactic known as “snaking” has been majorly nerfed. It is possible (if much more difficult) to perform still, but its benefits are dubious.
While gameplay is still king, it wouldn’t be much of a kingdom without the rest of the royal family: graphics, sound design, and replay value. The art direction closely matches that of Super Mario 3D Land; colorful and vibrant. It is among the finest graphics found on the handheld. It may be a tad streamlined, but with it never dropping below 60 fps it is hard to complain. The 3D effect of the system works well and does help with the feeling of speed and wonder. However during a heated 3rd lap you sometimes forget you have to hold the handheld at just the right angle else things can get blurry. I found myself flipping to 2D mode when the racing got more intense. This is less a fault of the game and more just a personal experience to the 3D gimmick in general, to each their own. The audio employs familiar sound effects, many seemingly direct from the Wii version. There are new soundtracks for new tracks and they fit in well. The music does what it should in Mario Kart, exist without distracting. The tricks of making the music sound far away when you're gliding, or muffled when underwater, are nice (if expected) touches. There's still the problem of a limited selection of character voice snippets, and you'll soon become desensitized to the constant repetition.
Retro Studios have gone with the “it wasn’t broken, it just needed a tune-up” philosophy with Mario Kart 7. The series has always tried to thread the needle between being fair and keeping things unpredictable. The best player won't win every race, but the worst player won’t constantly lose. It drives on the side of the road that rewards skill over luck nine times out of ten. At its heart, the series wants everybody to have fun. Between this game and Super Mario 3D Land my 3DS has gone from being an expensive dust collector to being something I never leave home without. It may not convert those that have already written the series off, but it will welcome newcomers with open arms and give returning fans that warm tingle in their driving sock. Mario Kart 7 is a game that showcases exactly what the 3DS is capable of and deserves a seat in your 3DS library.