Publisher: Nintendo / Developer: Nintendo EAD & Retro Studios / Price: $39.99 / Played on: 3DS / ESRB: Everyone [Comic Mischief]
There are two types of people who will read this review, and only one of those types will gain anything from it: people who already own a 3DS, and those who don’t. The people in the former category are already planning to buy (or have already bought) Mario Kart 7, so nothing I say here will affect them in any way. For everyone else, the takeaway from this review is simple: go buy a 3DS and a copy of Mario Kart 7. Then play the shit out of it until your hand falls off and your eyes melt. This game is why the system was invented.
If you’re not yet familiar with the basic gameplay of the Mario Kart franchise, you’re probably on the wrong website. But just in case: Nintendo’s cast of characters drive little cars around wacky tracks, picking up different power-ups and weapons along the way that they use to try and get an edge over the other and, ultimately, come in first. In this latest entry in the franchise, that same core mechanic is intact, but with a few great additions that add complexity and depth to what should be a stale formula by now.
The standard complement of items—green, red, or blue shells, banana peels, lightning bolts, various mushrooms, and more—are all present. In addition, the game features some new power-ups that add to the gameplay without ever breaking it. The fire-flower offers limited fireball-throwing, while the super-leaf gives your racer a raccoon tail that can be used to bounce off the ground, stay afloat when airborne, or swat away other racers or inbound projectiles. The bloop-bloop (those squiddie guys from the Super Mario games) squirts ink onto the screens of every racer ahead of you, resulting in limited visibility and, in the case of AI-controlled opponents, more erratic driving. Getting a Lucky 7 power up gives you a smattering of seven different power ups that rotate around you, a blessing and a curse (a blessing because of the power you possess, a curse because someone can collide into your star power up and steal it, or hit your bob-omb power up and explode you, etc.).
The new additions don’t stop there, though. When you launch off certain ramps, your racer sprouts a hang-glider, allowing for limited flight racing, while going underwater seamlessly turns your racer into a propeller-driven submersible. Again, like the new power-ups, these changes only add to the experience, offering new strategic ways to race and come out ahead. Depending on which path you take, you may or may not hit the skies or the sea—and since you can soar ahead of the competition if you fly just right or lose precious momentum when you hit the water, these subtle additions add a really exciting new wrinkle to racing.
That’s not even getting into coins, which you collect on the track for blips of speed and to unlock new kart-customization options. One of the reasons the game’s so addictive is the fact that every hundred coins earns you another possible kart upgrade, ranging from different kinds of wheels, gliders, or kart-frames, all of which combine to give what seems like hundreds of potential racing options. The different options are more than simply cosmetic, as having just the right kart-build is often the difference between victory and defeat. I’ve unlocked a fair share of what the game has to offer, but I suspect there’s even more. Once I’m done with this review, I’m going back to see what else I can find.
Battle-mode makes a return in this version, too, allowing up to eight players to try and knock out enemy players to earn as many points as possible before the time runs out. Players can be divided into two teams of four, or simply engage in an every-man-for-himself battle royale. Just like the racing portion of the game, battle-mode is more fun and exciting because of all the deadly options at your disposal. While I spent the majority of my time digging deep into the racing mode, the battle-mode doesn’t disappoint at all, and gives even more excellent content for gamers looking for less speed and more violence.
There are also 16 brand new tracks, at least 16 more tracks from previous versions of the game (all optimized to take advantage of the new gameplay mechanics), unlockable characters …I could go on. The point is, the seventh entrant in a game franchise shouldn’t be bringing anything new to the table, but this title delivers in a huge way.
I wasn’t able to test out the local multiplayer options with my pre-release copy (my one buddy with a 3DS was on vacation, the jerk), but I was able to test my racing skills against gamers from across the globe. It’s easy and effortless to get plugged into a new game and start racing, as the menus are fairly easy to navigate and understand. I didn’t notice any kind of lag or weird hiccups when playing—though I will admit that I got fed my lunch pretty often when I played online. The Mario Kart series is famous for its rubber-band equalization, allowing for last place racers to earn come-from-behind wins, but I didn’t notice much of that while playing online. Of course, the more I played the single-player game, the more I learned about different ways to boost my speed and alternate paths, so I’m confident that with more practice (and even more unlocked customization) I’ll finally score a win for the United States.
The main drawback to the online multiplayer is the lack of voice-chat, a limitation of the system itself rather than the game. Of course, if you play with a buddy across the country, you can simply call him up on the phone and use a headset while you play, but I do wish that Nintendo had gone the extra mile to allow for in-game chat on the system. I don’t know if the system’s inability to handle this is hardware or software related, or if it’s a fact of their online infrastructure, but it’s sorely missed while playing Mario Kart—mostly because of all the curses I hurled at my competitors that I know they’ll never get to hear.
Though I guess my gaming loss is international relations’ gain.
Mario Kart’s controls are tight and easy-enough to get the hang of. The A-button controls acceleration, B lets you brake or go in reverse, while L activates a power-up and R lets you hop/power-slide. Some of the other Y and X do double duty for A and L, respectively, but it’s doubtful you’ll stray far from the shoulder- and A-buttons. While the control scheme works well from a gameplay standpoint, the one glaring problem (possibly the game’s only real problem, in fact) is the inability to remap the button layout to something more comfortable. Even with the other options they give you, I would’ve loved to have made the accelerator tied to the R button, as I’ve grown used to a shoulder-mounted accelerator in my racing games. This wouldn’t even be such a problem, really, if it weren’t for the fact that the system itself will cramp your hand into some kind of deformed lobster claw after a day’s play.
Aside from all that, though, the controls work really well, allowing you to handle your racer with precision. There was nary a time during my play through when I could attribute a failure or loss to poor controls. In addition, choosing different characters (who bring their own weights) and swapping out different parts for your kart will make plenty of changes to the way your racer controls, and it always feels “right.” In short, Nintendo nailed the controls—even if your hand occasionally feels like a nail’s actually been driven through it when you’re done playing.
The game also does offer a first-person view that’s coupled with gyroscopic controls. But since moving the system screws up the 3D effects (and also, you know, moves the actual screen you need to look at while you’re playing), it’s best left unused. I’m really not sure gyroscopic control is ever the way to go on the 3DS, but it’s there in case you want it. The game isn’t at all diminished by its inclusion, but it seems better left forgotten.
Historically, I’ve not been a fan of 3D visuals in general, and certainly not in my experiences on the 3DS. Mario Kart 7 has changed that for me. Somehow, this game gets the three-dimensional visuals right. Maybe it has to do with where your eyes are focused while playing, or maybe they’re simply dialing it back a bit, but my eyes rarely felt strained while playing, and the only dizziness I felt was due to the fantastic level-design. It’s easy to call a game “immersive,” especially with 3D added into the mix, but in this instance, I feel it’s warranted. There are certain tracks that really do feel like you’re riding a roller coaster, but from the safety of your couch, and I think the great 3D visuals have a lot to do with this sensation. Moreover, the 3D helps you gauge the distance between yourself and your opponents, as well as hazards you might find on the track.
The graphics, too, are gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, character models are smooth and nicely textured, and the tracks are inviting and always fun. A few of the reused tracks from previous games do suffer from feeling a little dated (such as the mode seven-dependent tracks from the Game Boy Advance and SNES versions of the game), but even they’ve been given visual polishes for this newest version. Above all, this is a great-looking game.
Mario Kart 7’s music is infectiously fun. You’ll be humming and whistling these tunes for a while after you’re done playing—and that’s okay, because they’re great. More than that, certain tracks have interesting audio tweaks to the standard sound effects that reveal the game’s depth and sense of detail. For instance, on Waluigi’s Pinball track, the “spinning wheel” sound effect that comes when you break a power-up block gets a unique upgrade that makes it unique to, well, being inside a pinball machine. Another great moment is when you’re on the Music-themed course, driving across piano keys or xylophone bars, and the music adds in the requisite sound effect. Little touches like that—as well as the distance-specific sounds you hear from other racers or incoming projectiles—all point to a game that you’ll never want to hear with the sound off.
I could keep writing, but I won’t. I think I’ve made my point by now: Mario Kart 7 is the deepest, richest, and greatest installment in the already-rock solid franchise, and it’s the most compelling reason to go out and buy a 3DS. Now go do it already. I’ll see you on the track.
9.5 / 10