Christmas is upon us and Nintendo have granted us with a second Mario game for the 3DS, this time from a series which has graced every successful Nintendo platform since the SNES, and every single one has been well received. Does the seventh addition to the series continue this tradition, or is this a rush job made to maximise the 3DS’ sales performance this Christmas?
The biggest additions in this version of Mario Kart are the glider and underwater sections. Large jumps will cause a glider to pop out of your kart, giving you a surprising amount of control as you decide to swoop back to the course or prolong your fight as long as possible, even trying to sneakily cut out a corner or two. Weapons also work while in mid-air, and managing to get perfect aim with a green shell to hit another gliding racer is a wonderful feeling.
Underwater sections have less focus, but still feel as much an important part of the game. Speed isn’t sacrificed, but karts do turn as if there’s less friction to contend with – on sharp corners they look as if they’re about to tip over completely. It makes a great change for levels that focus on underwater, while other levels use it as an alternate route in case you fall off the track – as opposed to that long cutscene where Lakitu picks you up and drops you back into the race. Even though nobody asked for these features, it’s now hard to imagine Mario Kart without them. It would be insane if Nintendo decided to drop them in the next Mario Kart.
There are also three parts of your kart to customise: the body, wheels and glider. Each has a significant impact on the feel of your kart and it may take a while to work out your perfect combination – especially as most need to be unlocked via collecting coins mid-race. You can pick a lightweight combination with Toad for high acceleration or Bowser with ginormous wheels to be the bully of the track. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, you can even equip slick tires that slide about on corners.
The standard driving mechanics have also been refined. The boosting system is two-teir and is similar to Mario Kart Wii’s standard setting with no wiggling about requited, which all but eliminates snaking (it’s still possible in some places, just nowhere near as beneficial). Jumping at the right moment on a ramp also makes your character perform a trick, giving you a slight speed boost and more lift. Some coins and item boxes are purposely positioned so that you need to jump at the exact moment. All parts of the racing comes together and it all feels complete, as if Nintendo have finally settled on what Mario Kart should feel like.
As Nintendo seems keen on destroying people’s eyes, a gyro control mode has also been included. Pressing up on the D-pad will put the view in first person mode and the controls will automatically change so you turn by tilting the 3DS, requiring the player to tilt their head with the 3DS or risk wrecking the lovely 3D effect (so you pretty much have to turn it off). The gyro controls work but lack the amount of control you get form a circle pad, so you’ll always be at a disadvantage in races if using this control option. What is much more impressive is the first person view, which is very fun to play with. Thankfully there’s an option hidden in the Mario Kart Channel settings that lets you turn off the gyro and enjoy the first person view with the standard controls.
Mario Kart 7 boasts the most solid line-up of original courses in a Mario Kart game yet. While one or two, such as Koopa City, look a bit dull, they’re still fun to play with their own interesting sections. Some tracks focus one one element – Alpine Pass and Cheep-Cheep Cave focus on gliding and underwater respectively while others integrate one or both aspects into what would be solid courses.
Melody Motorway is one track deserving of a mention. Living up to it’s name, it’s soundtrack is wonderful and the course feels like it’s lives through it’s music – sliding across piano keys makes a wonderful sound while bouncing on drums gives a satisfying thud. There are even two large, bouncing musical notes which make any karts on the section of track bounce up when they land, even increasing in speed as the music becomes more hectic for the final lap.
Nintendo have also worked in Wuhu Island into yet another game – and it gets an entire two courses. Even thought they’re taken from the Wii series of games, both tracks feel very much at home in Mario Kart, with loads of great shortcuts and alternate routes (and unfortunately one rather large glitch shortcut on one) and overall brilliant use of Mario Kart’s mechanics. To give you more course for your buck, these courses are a point A-B race consisting of three sections instead of three laps.
As always, Mario Circuit, Bowser’s Castle and Rainbow Road return. Mario Circuit includes a great spiral ramp inside Peach’s castle before blasting off a balcony while Bowser’s Castle is has lots of tight turns, alternate routes and a great big mid-air hoop in place of the finish line. Rainbow Road is its best iteration yet. Like the Wuhu tracks, this is one long 3-part lap comprising of many different elements inspired from Mario Galaxy, including a low-gravity moon and mid-air star boost rings.
Since Mario Kart DS, Nintendo have given us 16 Retro tracks from all previous games alongside the 16 new ones. Many have been enhanced with 7’s new glider and underwater mechanics, and some, like Koopa Troopa Beach feel like entirely new courses, while a few, like Waluigi Pinball, simply make the glider pop out while going over large jumps without actually giving you proper control.
After Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo have trimmed the fat when it comes to items. Gone are the gimmicky items – POW! Block, Lightning Cloud, Mega Mushroom – and in are several new items that add a great deal to the gameplay. The Tanooki, which also returned in Super Mario 3D Land, can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes. You can use it to spin out nearby rivals or use it to destroy shells and bananas before you hit them – and unlike trailing an item behind you it works from all angles, the only disadvantage being that you need to get the timing just right. Another new multi-use item is another classic Mario item: the Fire Flower. It enables you to send a barrage of fireballs in front or behind you. Karts don’t spin out as much as other items cause, but it’s incredibly useful when you want to pass someone who has three red shells spinning around them.
The Lucky 7 is a very interesting item. On the surface it’s a very powerful item as it gives you a range of items including a star and bomb-omb, however in practice it can be hard to use, not only timing your move right but also trying to not get too excited and going all out – a badly tmed bomb-omb will really mess you up. On top of this, if rival racers are skilled (or, more likely, lucky) enough they can nab the star right from under your nose – other items, like shells and bananas, will cause them to spin out as expected, while the blooper will quirt ink on their screen instead of everyone else’s.
Some of the returning Mario Kart items have had some tinkering. The blue shell is a mixture of the N64 and more recent version – it rushes through the course knocking any kart in it’s racing line out of the way, while lifting up in the air and exploding on the unlucky sod in first place. As always, it can be humorous watching the top of the pack trying to let other people overtake them before the blue shell picks it’s target. The lightning also seems to last for a shorter amount of time, but the ability to squish shrunken racers returns, just without the overlong “feather” animation from 64.
Overall, the item system seems like it is designed for a much more balanced playing field instead of simply helping those less skilled. There are a few small niggles, though. if you’re unlucky enough, you can be hit by another item the moment you recover – a second of invincibility wouldn’t go amiss. Also, getting hit on steep slopes will not only cause your kart to spin out for what seems an eternity, but also make it much harder to get back up to full speed.
Battle mode follows on from Mario Kart Wii’s style, where the aim is to get the most hits before the time runs out, only this time teams aren’t required. You still have three balloons and losing them makes you respawn and lose two points. It’s still disappointing that Nintendo haven’t included the classic battle mode from 64 alongside this. There’s also a battle mode where you compete to collect the most coins by the time the game runs out.
Online is a huge aspect of Mario Kart 7, with a huge focus on communities. Everyone who owns a copy of the game has the ability to create up to eight communities, you are then given a code which can be shared however you wish. These communities serve as lobby systems which have individual groups, each with a maximum of eight players. If you join a community when there are no groups, or all are full or in a race, then you will start in a new group. If you have an active community, then this is a wonderful feature. You can also select the game mode (race & speed, battle or coin) and choose to limit the items to shells, bananas, boosts or bomb-ombs if you want to. The only downside is that once these are set, you can’t change them.
You can also join worldwide matches, which throws you into a group random people, or join a friend from the 3DS’ friends list or the in-game friends list. The in-game friends list also has a list of recent players, and the top of the screen displays a score showing how many times you’ve beaten each other, which is a rather nice stat to have. One strange omission is the complete lack of a simple lobby system where you can create a lobby with your rules of choice, then let your friends join you.
Another great social feature of Mario Kart 7 is the Mario Kart Channel. Here you will find community suggestions and, more importantly, ghost data gained from SpotPass and StreetPass. This gives you seven ghosts to compete with in a time trial, encouraging you to keep trying until you’ve beaten all of their times. You can also select a single ghost you want to race against – including ones from Nintendo – from the time trial menu.
Mario Kart 7 feels like the coming together of Mario Kart. Nintendo have looked at the six other games and picked the best aspects and fined tuned it to create the ultimate Mario Kart, while also introducing great new elements that would make future games feel incomplete if they were excluded. It’s the best Mario Kart yet and any future 3DS racers now have some serious competition.