Clearly, Nintendo and their developers—Namco, and later, Retro Studios—tapped into something irrefutably fun and accessible with Super Mario Kart's initial formula. While fans and critics have routinely lambasted the series for its considerable use of content from previous games and its refusal to alter the "original formula," there appears to be good reason why Mario Kart has remained a flagship Nintendo series for 20 years now.
Mario Kart 7, like the previous games in the series, brings elements both old and new to the racing circuit. If you've simply grown tired of Mario's new-blue overalls and incessantly cheery cries of victory over the years, there's not much that can be done--nobody's going to take the "Mario" out of Mario Kart. But as both an addition to the series and as a standalone title, Mario Kart 7 succeeds in places where the previous games have faltered (yes, even the infallible Super Mario Kart). In our opinion, Nintendo and Retro Studios appear to have spent a good deal of time analyzing both what was right and what was wrong--in terms of gameplay and replayability--about the previous titles, and have made alterations accordingly.
It's natural to hope for a steady, zen-like perfection when dealing with repeated games in a series: continuously improving a formula, removing impurities, until the utmost efficiency is achieved. We're not saying the series has nowhere to go in terms of improvement, but Mario Kart 7 is so well crafted that we think it's a shame the game is only available on the Nintendo 3DS, and is like to be a staple of Nintendo's newest handheld for a number of years. But more importantly, it puts the series' best foot forward while stepping into the 20-year mark, making it perfectly clear that the Mario Kart series' gold-coin standard has not, yet, decreased in value, innovation, or fun.
If you've played any of the Mario Kart games before, you probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Mario Kart 7. The classic elements of the series--3 lap races, success-based item allocation, and risk/reward based shortcuts--are all still in full force. Mario Kart has often been simultaneously praised and criticized for catering to players of all experience levels and racing prowess by giving very low-powered items to the players in 1st and 2nd place, and scaling items by their usefulness (magnitude of effect on the race) back through the ranks, so that if you're lagging in 7th or 8th place, you'll be getting the most powerful items available to help you catch up and turn the tables.
But what's best about Mario Kart 7 is not what's been carried over from the previous games in the series, but what's been added to counteract and balance out the random, luck-based use of items: kart customization. That's not to say that banana peels, green shells, and bob-ombs can't be used strategically, but rather that players who just want to pick up and play, and players who want to fine-tune their racing style through the use of different kart bodies, wheels, and gliders, are given equal chance to do so. For the first time, Mario Kart is truly rewarding the process of thought, allowing players to customize karts to optimize speed, or handling, or weight, to cater to a specific track within a grand prix, or to best suit a player's racing style.
Karts, Parts, and Smarts
Between the 17 playable characters (5 categories of weight class), 17 different kart bodies, 10 different wheel sets, and 7 different glider types, there are 20,230 possible unique outcomes to fill the 8 kart spots available for a given race. This, more than anything else, is what sets Mario Kart 7 apart from every other game in the series.
Players don't start out with such a plethora of options, however. Upon starting up a fresh game of Mario Kart 7, only 3 kart options, 3 wheels options, and 1 glider option are available to the player. The other characters and kart customization options must be gradually unlocked by completing certain in-game tasks; some are more challenging than others.
Players can unlock kart customization options by collecting coins during a race, a feature that has been absent from the series since Mario Kart: Super Circuit. Players can only collect up to 10 coins per race, but are given a permanent speed boost for as long as their 10-coin maximum is maintained. Coins are sometimes used as guidelines--such as being strung along a curve in a way that executing the optimal drifting technique will allow the player to grab them all--or put in out-of-the-way locations along the track, to give players the choice between maximizing forward momentum, or taking the time to grab some extra coins. Usually, the 10-coin speed boost can make a huge difference in racing efficiency over the course of a race. Unfortunately for greedy grabbers, anywhere between 3 to 4 coins are lost (assuming the player has that many) whenever a kart is struck by an item, such as a turtle shell, or the game-changing lightning bolt.
When the player crosses the finish line, regardless of their overall placement in the race itself, they keep however many coins they currently have, and that amount is added to a total. This total dictates the unlocking of kart customization options, though kart parts are unlocked in random order.
Players unlock their first, random part after banking 50 coins. From here, the amount needed to unlock another part gradually increases:
50 Coins - 100 Coins - 150 Coins - 200 Coins - 250 Coins - 300 Coins - 400 Coins - 500 Coins - 600 Coins - 700 Coins - 800 Coins - 900 Coins - 1000 Coins - 1200 Coins - 1400 Coins - 1600 Coins - 1800 Coins - 2000 Coins - 2500 Coins - 3000 Coins - 3500 Coins - 4000 Coins - 4500 Coins
Upon banking 4500 Coins, players will have unlocked all of the standard-level parts for kart customization.
Players start out with the Standard, Bolt Buggy, and Birthday Girl kart bodies already available. Over the course of banking some serious coin, players will unlock the following kart bodies at random:
B Dasher, Barrel Train, Blue Seven, Bruiser, Bumble V, Cact-X, Cloud 9, Egg 1, Gold Kart, Koopa Clown, Pipe Frame, Soda Jet, Tiny Tug, and Zucchini.
Including the starter bodies, this makes for a total of 17 possible kart bodies, each with different Speed, Acceleration, Weight, Handling, and Off-Road stats (though some, truthfully, are almost exactly the same). These stats are then modified and altered depending on the selected character, wheels, and glider.
Players start out with Standard, Monster, and Roller kart wheels, and there are 7 more to be unlocked, also at random:
Gold Tires, Mushroom, Red Monster, Slick, Slim, Sponge, and Wood. Each of these wheels will affect the player's overall weight, speed, acceleration, handling, and off-road stats. Some of them--such as monster types--have fairly obvious stat modifiers, such as giving a much higher off-road stat.
We haven't been able to try them all out, but can say for sure that changing wheels is much more than a simple cosmetic preference. It is integral to your racing style: if you want to fly through straight-aways at top speed, for instance, don't pick Sponge wheels.
The gliders are the least varied amongst unlockable kart parts, and in our experience, are also the least important to overall kart stats. However, the more varied glider types do make a big difference during the gliding sections of races, even very brief ones. More than once, we were overtaken by a slower, smaller kart that simply accelerated much more quickly than us while airborne because of its low weight.
Players start out with only the Super Glider to work with, but can unlock these six gliders by banking coins:
Flower Glider, Ghastly Glider, Gold Glider, Parafoil, Peach Parasol, and Swooper.
Kart parts can also be unlocked via the 3DS' StreetPass function.
p. In our opinion, the kart customization is far-and-away the best new feature in Mario Kart 7, as it brings a level of individuality and customization to each race or grand prix that has never been seen before in the Mario Kart series. To put it plainly, it's awesome. Working out which combination of kart parts will yield the fastest kart, or the one with the best handling, or--even better--finding a kart that balances good handling with high top speed, and attempting to work around, say, your terrible acceleration by avoiding collisions, items, and braking at all costs... well, this is what truly blew us away about Mario Kart 7. It's just complex enough to make a real, palpable difference from race to race, but not so esoteric as to put limitations on players who simply want to play the game for fun, without crunching the numbers on kart parts. It kept us eager to see which new part would unlock next, and gives players good reason to grab up coins as they race around the track; this, in turn, helps new players learn the track layout, and illustrates the best path to take for certain curves or corners that would otherwise be tricky to navigate (especially when trying to drift around them). This level of subtle detail, hidden beneath the fun, familiar blanket of multiplayer Mario Kart action, may just cement Mario Kart 7 as the best game in the series.
By Land, Air, or Sea
It seems important to make note that, for the first time in the Mario Kart series, players are given the opportunity to take to the air, and to dive to great depths underwater. While the air and water segments are, expectedly, not as common as racing on land, they are still quite common to tracks on a whole, and should not be taken lightly. This new addition makes for a fun new way to use items; saving your mushrooms for an air segment and then literally flying over the heads of opponents who have already landed is a legitimate, effective strategy.
On an even more subtle level, knowing the land/air/water ratio of a track or of the tracks within a Grand Prix is yet another way in which Mario Kart 7 rewards thought, strategy, and repeated playthroughs of its 32 tracks. If, for instance, you know that a particular track has an extended underwater section, or a particularly long gliding section, customizing your kart to give it the most speed while airborne or underwater becomes a viable strategy as well.
On the other hand, imagine boosting off of a jump over a massive chasm while in 1st person view, and staring into the 3D depths of the verdent, yawning valley below; the background music cues down, and is aurally replaced by the sound of wind rushing around you. Upon hitting the ground, your accumulated speed rockets you forward while the traditionally upbeat music kicks back into full volume. We probably don't need to tell you, but it's pretty fun, no matter how far behind you are.
If there's one thing Joe Everyman might know about the Mario Kart series, it's that it wouldn't be Mario Kart without the game's signature items. The use of items in 1992's Super Mario Kart is, arguably, what made it such a success. While this, obviously, detracts from any sense of realism one might wish to capture, it's kind of hard to fake it when one of your rival drivers is an angry dragon/turtle hybrid with a shock of flame-red hair.
The items you know and love (or, more likely, hate) are back in Mario Kart 7, and there are a few newcomers as well. There are 18 different items that you could end up with upon driving through an Item Box:
Banana: Bananas can be thrown forward or backward; upon hitting one, the player spins out, and loses a few coins. The Banana can be held behind the player to block incoming projectiles.
Triple Bananas: 3 Bananas, which can also be thrown forward or backward; they affect racers in the same way as the single Banana.
Green Shell: A projectile which can be thrown forward or backward, and will bounce off of surfaces for a time until finally expiring. The Green Shell can be held behind the player to block incoming projectiles.
Triple Green Shells: Three Green Shells which, once activated, rotate around the player like a shield. They can be thrown forward or backward, and act the same as single Green Shells.
Red Shell: The Red Shell, when thrown forward, will home in on the next racer up from you. When thrown backward, it acts like a Green Shell.
Triple Red Shells: Three Red Shells which, once activated, rotate around the player like a shield. They can be thrown forward or backward, and act the same as single Red Shells.
Spiny Shell (Blue Shell): Many an obscenity has been shouted over the Blue Shell, which rapidly races forward after the driver in 1st place. The Blue Shell can only be thrown forward, and in Mario Kart 7, is considerably more aggressive towards the players who aren't in 1st place: if you're in the middle of the track, it will make a point to hit you on its way to the pack leader. Short of activating a Super Star, there's no escaping the Blue Shell once it's been thrown.
Mushroom: The Mushroom gives players a brief speed boost. It's key to a lot of shortcuts.
Triple Mushrooms: Three Mushrooms that can be used as quickly or slowly as the player activates them.
Golden Mushroom: Once activated, the Golden Mushroom can be used for endless Mushroom boosts, but only for a short time.
Super Star: The Super Star gives the player a considerable speed boost and makes him/her invulnerable for a short time.
Lightning: The Lightning bolt shrinks all the drivers except for the player who used it, slowing the other players down and making them susceptible to damage from non-shrunk players.
Blooper: Blooper sprays ink on the screens of all the drivers who are currently ahead of the player who used it. If used while in 1st place, it backfires and inks that driver instead. The ink obscures the track and most of the screen, and is more of a hindrance depending on how many spots you're up from the player who triggered it. The ink can be removed by hitting a boost pad or using a Mushroom, and will also go away on its own. In an attempt to "play fair," AI drivers will swerve around the track considerably once Blooper has been used against them, despite not really having a screen to look it.
Bob-Omb: Bob-Ombs can be chucked forward or dropped behind the user (sneaky sneaky). Regardless of how they are deployed, Bob-Ombs will sit on the track for a moment before exploding in a fairly massive display of carnage, causing any drivers within the vicinity to spin out and lose coins.
Bullet Bill: When a driver uses the Bullet Bill items, they are transformed into the titular bill and launched at high speeds along a predetermined path. Players have scant control over their direction, as this item serves merely to catch a driver up with whoever is ahead of them in the race. Drivers struck by a Bullet Bill user are knocked aside, and lose coins.
Fire Flower: The Fire Flower is new to the Mario Kart series, though it's been in Mario games for years, and is arguably a holdover of Mario and Luigi's signature special attacks in Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. Once activated, players can toss very fast, bouncing fireballs either in front of or behind them. Any player struck will spin out and lose coins.
Super Leaf: The Super Leaf is making a huge comeback on the 3DS; after being featured heavily in Super Mario 3D Land, it has now made its way onto the racing circuit! The Super Leaf is arguably the most defensive item in the roster. Once activated, the player can use the signature Raccoon Suit tail to swipe bananas, shells, and other players either out of their path or off of their tail (no pun intended).
Lucky 7: The final, and most ridiculous, new item in Mario Kart 7 is the Lucky 7 pickup. Players who get this item shouldn't be seduced by its title: it can be as much of a hindrance as an aid, if used incorrectly. Picking up the Lucky 7 causes a string of seven items (Green Shell, Red Shell, Banana, Mushroom, Star, Blooper, Bob-Omb) to spring up and circle the player a la the Triple Green Shells discussed above. Players who come in contact with the green shell, red shell, or banana while it is circling will spin out. Players who come into contact with the bob-omb will cause it to explode, spinning out everyone in the vicinity (including the Lucky 7's original user) and littering whatever items are remaining across the track. Players who come into contact with the Blooper will become the user; the same applies to the star. For this reason, it's a dangerous item, despite being arguably overpowered. We advise using it up as quickly and efficiently as possible, lest an opponent comes along and steals your star, or worse, detonates your bob-omb by carelessly plowing into you. Never, ever use it in a crowd, unless all-out mayhem is your end goal. All of the items given by the Lucky 7 pickup can be thrown forward or backward, save the Blooper, which is merely activated.
There is a good overall item balance in Mario Kart 7; items remain unpredictable and fickle, but extremely useful if used properly.
Drifting and Drafting
Items, kart parts, and track shortcuts aside, there is a core element of pure racing in the Mario Kart series that separates the skilled from the lucky, and rewards reflexes, muscle memory, and practice. This, of course, has everything to do with managing sharp turns and long, sloping curves, as well as managing your proximity to the racers around you.
But before we delve any further into those mechanics, we feel its important to address the elephant in the room: snaking.
In previous Mario Kart titles, especially the last handheld iteration--_Mario Kart DS_--players were given the opportunity to build a speed boost when traveling around corners. The basic mechanic involves hopping while taking a curve (in this case, tapping and then holding the R shoulder button) so as to drift along the slope of the curve, maintaining speed at the risk of severely reduced lateral mobility. During the process of drifting, players have the opportunity to build a speed boost, up to two times, by turning into the direction of the curve. In Mario Kart DS, this was achieved by rapidly rocking the steering of the kart to the left and right (or in a circular motion), until blue and then orange sparks began to fly from the player's wheels. Upon releasing the R button, players were given a brief but substantial speed boost, roughly half the effectiveness of a Mushroom item if they'd taken the time to build the boost to full power.
Snaking became the name of the technique many players would use to repeatedly build and re-build their speed boost on straight stretches of road where drifting should not have been possible; the serpentine motion it required to pull it off is how the technique got its name. While a large part of the Mario Kart DS community made use of this technique, even more of them found the online mode to be broken, called it cheating, or exploitation, and demanded that Nintendo do something about it--which, as far as we know, they did not.
Well, they've done something about it in Mario Kart 7. Namely, the mechanic used to build the first and second speed boosts during a drift is now changed, making it impossible to "snake" with the efficiency found in earlier titles. Rather than rocking the steering from left to right, players build a speed boost by turning into the direction they are facing during their drift slide--be it on a straight away or a curve, this means that if you want to build a single or double boost, you need to either put together a kart with superb handling or very carefully maintain the proper drifting angle along your course, which on a straight stretch of track, could turn you entirely perpendicular to your goal. This gives the drift boost a more organic feeling, and we can report from numerous online matches that players need not constantly use--or abuse--this technique in order to compete with the other drivers. Sure, it still gives a huge advantage if used properly, but it is not the game changer that it was in the past. We think this is a good thing.
Finally, drafting has returned in the seventh installment, and it's still as effective as ever. Drafting involves driving behind another driver and taking advantage of the reduced wind resistance; small airy notifiers begin to build around your kart, until a sudden massive speed boost rockets you forward for a number of seconds. This technique is a rewarding and effective way to overtake another player simply by matching their driving position, but it can be risky as well. To match another driver and successfully draft them often requires a good deal of attention (unless you draft by accident, which does indeed happen). More than once, we found our drafting technique had rocketed us forward, uncontrollably quickly, launching us right off the edge of the track.
But there's more!
A staple of the series from the very first game is the countdown launch. Traditionally, players could begin accelerating while waiting at the Start line, and if they timed it correctly, would receive an immediate boost once the race began. It is the same in Mario Kart 7. During the 3, 2, 1 countdown, players can begin accelerating just as the number "2" begins to fade and change into the number "1." Done right, it's the best way to get the jump on the other drivers. Done wrong, it's the best way to spin out and end up starting late.
Another technique that is a holdover from a previous game in the series (in this case, Mario Kart Wii) is the ability to perform "tricks" after going off of a jump. While we wouldn't necessarily call these tricks, as for most characters the result is simply a yell and a pumped fist, tapping the R button after going off of a jump will result in a speed boost upon touching the ground. This technique can be used repeatedly, and on almost any size jump, even very tiny jumps. If the player makes use of this technique while taking a jump that will result in glider deployment, they are given a speed boost while gliding--which is critical, because the gliding mechanism causes speed to build gradually, and starts out very slowly.
These are the kinds of techniques that, were the series not known for its menagerie of over-the-top item use, would make up the meat and potatoes of Mario Kart's racing system.
Overall, there are 8 starting characters and 9 unlockable characters in Mario Kart 7. While this isn't a staggering amount, it's plenty to work with. Lots of old standbys make their return; players start with the ability to select Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Toad, and Koopa Troopa. The other 9 must be unlocked by completing certain goals--most of which involve placing in the highest difficulty races.
The characters are split into 5 different weight classes. From lightest to heaviest, they are: Feather, Light, Medium, Cruiser, and Heavy. In the older games in the series, there were traditionally only 3 weight classes to choose from: Light, Medium, and Heavy. The larger variety adds new dimensions to character choice and kart customization, and overall makes the already rather cerebral Mario Kart 7 even more involved; but like the subtle stat differences between different kart bodies and wheels, weight classification can be inferred rather intuitively, and is not even a listed stat in the game itself.
Like previous games in the series, Mario Kart 7 brings tracks both old and new to the table. There are 32 overall, 16 tracks from previous games, and 16 new tracks. The tracks are organized into 8 Grand Prix-style tournaments consisting of 4 tracks each. New tracks are grouped with new tracks, and old with old.
The old tracks are mostly unchanged from their original iterations, though they have been shortened and widened slightly.
There are also 6 battle courses, 3 new and 3 old.
In our experience, the selection of tracks is varied and entertaining, long enough to give players in last place a chance to catch up, but not so long as to make spectating during online matches a source of dread. The new tracks have that classic Mario Kart polish, with plenty of shortcuts, and the occasional air or water section, though not so much as to feel overdone.
When you boot up MK7, the different gameplay modes are broken up into 4 sections: Single Player, Local Multiplayer, Online Multiplayer, and the Mario Kart Channel.
Single player consists of Grand Prix, Time Trials, Balloon Battles, and Coin Runners. Grand Prix is the "campaign" of the Mario Kart modes, allowing players to race through gradually more difficult cups, consisting of 4 tracks each, and gaining placement-based amounts of points after each race. Time Trials allows players to race solo against standard- and expert-level staff ghosts, as well as the ghosts of other, real players they've picked up via the 3DS' StreetPass function. Balloon Battles is Mario Kart's classic battle mode, where players are given 3 hit points (in the form of 3 balloons tied to their kart) and they race around a stadium battling other players via the race items like bananas, shells, and bob-ombs, attempting to hit other players and knock away their balloons without losing balloons themselves. Finally, Coin Runners is a similar mode to Balloon Battles, but instead of battling over balloons, players attempt to grab up the most coins before the time limit runs out. Coin Runners feels a little tacked on, in our opinion, especially as a single-player mode, but we feel that there's enough to do between Grand Prix and Time Trials that most players won't notice this slightly boring Balloon Battle clone.
Local Multiplayer is exactly what it sounds like. Harkening back to the console days of old, when Mario Kart meant sitting down with your friends and sharing a tiny segment of screen in the attempt to determine who was, in fact, the best of the best, Local Multiplayer allows anyone with a 3DS to get together in a series of hosted rooms and play. Players can host rooms, and even players who don't have Mario Kart 7 can download temporary software and play with someone who does. Up to 8 players can play together in local rooms.
Online Multiplayer requires players to source a wireless connection, and is comprised of 3 modes: Worldwide, Friends/Opponents, and Communities. The Worldwide option connects players with up to 7 other players from all around the world and pits them against each other. Players choose their character and kart options before joining, so they are unable to modify their kart to suit the track that is chosen. Players then choose a track, and the server picks one at random. The Friends/Opponents option is used to find specific players whose information you have acquired through StreetPass; it's a way to either join up with friends who have the game, or seek out specific rivals and opponents to challenge. The Communities option is a series of hosted, you guessed it, communities, for players to congregate and race together in fairly serious tournament competition. Nintendo hosts a series of these communities, but players can also create and manage their own.
The Mario Kart Channel is the go-to source for players' collection SpotPass and StreetPass data. Within, they can view and manage their collected opponent data, including Time Trials ghosts and player profiles. They can also edit and manage their own driver profile as it appears to other players who collect their data via Online Multiplayer.
Mario Kart 7's online mode keeps track of a player's points through a player's VS Rating, or VR. Players start with 1000 VR, and it is increased based on how they place in single races during online play; placing in first place awards the most points, based on how many players (out of 8 maximum) participate in the race itself. Most placements award points, except for placing second to last place, which does not affect the player's VR, and placing in last place, which deducts points. VR points are also used towards unlocking secret kart parts of the golden variety, though these can also be unlocked by banking a huge amount of coins (10 or 20 thousand), ensuring that, if you play long enough, you'll eventually have everything unlocked.
The controls in Mario Kart 7 are almost identical to those found in previous iterations of the title, mapped to the buttons of the Nintendo 3DS for optimized comfort and useability. Karts accelerate with the A or Y buttons, and brake/reverse with the B button. The R shoulder button is used for hopping (and drifting), while the L shoulder button selects and uses items, and can be held down to keep a banana peel or a green shell, for example, in place behind the player while driving. The X button serves the same purpose as the L button.
Players are offered two steering options: standard, where the player steers his or her kart in 3rd person view using the Nintendo 3DS' analog stick, or the completely new gyroscope steering option, which places the player "inside" his or her kart in 1st person view. The kart is then steered by tilting the 3DS to the left or the right like a steering wheel (players may remember a similar option featured in Mario Kart Wii to take advantage of that system's motion tracking abilities).
Players can alternate between steering styles at any time by pressing Up or Down on the control pad during a race, but we recommend sticking with the standard steering option. The gyroscope method, combined with the 3DS' passive 3D technology, is a fun way to drive, but it's not nearly as precise and refined as the standard option, and the 3D effect tends to become blurry and exhibit a lot of crosstalk even when you're not tilting the console all over the place. With practice, the gyroscope method could be an effective and intuitive new way to race, but as old Super Mario Kart vets, we find the traditional control scheme to be much more comfortable.
Finally, players can change their map view during a race by tapping the system's touch screen. This is, as far as we can tell, the only real integration of the touch screen into core gameplay.
We think most players will agree with us when we say that Mario Kart 7 has massive amounts of replay value. Between mastering the 32 courses in 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, and Mirror mode, unlocking all of the standard and secret unlockable kart parts, and the constant variability provided by online tournaments and worldwide races, there's a huge potential for replay value, and in fact the game seems to expect numerous forays through its tracks. The time it takes simply to bank all 4,500 coins needed to unlock the full spectrum of kart parts is considerable, and that's saying nothing of then learning which ones work best for different scenarios. Sure, you could master the single player Grand Prix and call it a day, but we imagine the Mario Kart 7 community will be active for at least a couple of years, ensuring continuous competition for those who choose to seek it out.
While there are a large amount of unlockables in the game--characters, parts, courses, time trial ghosts--there is also a chance that Nintendo will at least be patching the game from time to time, if not adding additional content. Most additional content will be accessed through the Communities section of the Online Mode, and we imagine Nintendo will continue to host and provide "standard" racing communities--and some with special rules or regulations--for at least a number of months following the game's release.
Pacing & Flow
Mario Kart 7 is well paced. Despite having a lot of experience with the series, we purposefully started out by playing the easiest difficulty races (50cc) and the easiest difficulty cups, moving up systematically through harder cups until finishing them all, then moving on to 100cc, 150cc, etc. The difficulty is well-paced, and most players should be able to place in the top three spots in 50cc with little difficulty. 150cc is much more difficult, and we recommend playing through the different engine speed modes in order to learn the tracks at a slower pace. By the time you get to 150cc, you've got a good idea of how all the items work, of track layout, and of AI behavior.
Online Mode is not quite so forgiving. While, occasionally, new players will be matched with other new players, there's always the chance that some or all of your opponents will be very well-versed and competent in the game mechanics, as well as having memorized all the shortcuts and tricks for various tracks. While challenge is always welcome, we don't recommend starting out with online races if you've never played Mario Kart before.
The AI is programmed fairly in Mario Kart 7, though this isn't a new feature. The AI is particularly easy to beat in the 50cc class races, but in 150cc, they will drift, boost, use items with utmost efficiency, and do everything they can to keep the player from placing 1st. While they'll never boast the challenge and cunning of other, real-life drivers while playing online, we feel that Nintendo and Retro Studios has done a good job of scaling challenge based on engine class.
But, if you find the AI performance in 150cc to be too frustratingly difficult, you can always jump over to Coin Runners. The AI performance in that mode is laughably bad.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
If there's one thing that can be said about Mario Kart 7, it's that it doesn't make any graphical or sound-related changes for the worse. In fact, we'd even go so far as to say that it's the best-looking game in the series yet, but it's really not much improved from Mario Kart Wii, the most recent iteration. Still, considering that it's a handheld title and the Wii is a full console, that's not too shabby.
The most notable new aspect of Mario Kart 7 is the 3D effects provided by the 3DS' passive, glasses-free technology. While it has, since launch, been a little dodgy, it works well within the scope of the game. Depth is added and foreground action subtly pops out without instilling the feeling of vertigo. Unfortunately, the 3DS must be held almost perfectly still and level to maintain the illusion without the interference of unwanted crosstalk, which, in an exciting game like Mario Kart, is more difficult than it sounds. We recommend shutting off the 3D when playing competitively online; it's much less painful to get completely owned in only two dimensions.
Mario Kart 7 maintains the long tradition of cheery-looking tracks with bright colors and blank, smiling inanimate objects. Which is par for the course in most Mario titles. The oddity of Mario's world aside, the new tracks are spacious, well-rendered, and sound in their makeup. Shy Guy Bazaar has a flat, warm, desert feeling, contrasting to the dewy foliage that peppers the bumpy roads of DK Jungle. Rainbow Road courses in multi-colored majesty through a vast, star-sprinkled galaxy, and hanging from a glider while sailing down through the waterfall-laden chasm of Rock Rock Mountain is an experience unmatched by the presentation of past Mario Kart titles. All in all, the game's artistic presentation is impressive, smooth, and consistently interesting.
While gamers shouldn't expect Crytek level graphics from anything in Mario Kart 7, they are definitely the best graphics in the series so far, 3D or not. Characters backing up turn and look over their shoulder; dust kicks up and meshes with the sparks from tires during a long drift; gliders ripple subtly in the passing wind; and water pools and splashes upon bursting forth from its blue-green depths. For a handheld title, everything looks great. Considering the frantic, fast-paced nature of the game, taking the time to stop and look around the environment is a rare treat, but players will be pleased with Mario Kart 7's graphical presentation should they choose to do so.
On a separate note, the retro tracks look no worse for being old hat, and in fact have been updated and smoothed out, giving players no excuse to groan, "Oh no, one of the old tracks." We will say that SNES Rainbow Road is still charmingly comprised of blocks, but at this point, changing it would be heresy.
The music in the Mario Kart titles has always been a highlight of the series' presentation, and Mario Kart 7 continues that tradition with new tunes that stick to your eardrums by employing simple instrumentation and memorable, singsong melodies. The music from the last 6 games is unchanged, though it has probably been revamped so as to compete with the new software employed in the composition of the new tracks' music; but if you're looking for classic jams from the GBA and N64 versions of Mario Kart, you'll be pleased to know that they come in right on cue. We were particularly pleased with the new Rainbow Road theme song, which employs the old SNES theme song in germs throughout the composition while adding sections and chordal harmonies that give it the weighty feel of, let's say, 20 years of longevity.
The sound effects in Mario Kart 7 are holdovers from the previous games. Bob-Ombs explode, Green Shells smack, and Super Stars pump that never-gonna-die invincibility theme from Super Mario Bros. at you like it's going out of the style. This isn't a bad thing, of course, as new item sound effects would just confuse and frighten Mario Kart vets right out of 1st place.
The best sound effects are the more subtle aspects of kart ergonomics and engine functionality. While the little titular karts will never house the roaring engine of the serious cars found in realism-based racing titles, the sound of some of the game's more muscular kart bodies roaring up to full speed is nonetheless satisfying. Tires screeching, coins tinkling, and the subtle flapping rustle of a deployed glider all add to a sense of immersion and continuity.
We just wish Mario would stop shouting his name. 1st place is, "Yeah, Mario's the best!" 2nd place is, "Mario, yeah! Mario!" Last place will net you, "Oh nooo, Mario LOSES!?" We get it. Your name is Mario. Mario Mario. The game is called Mario Kart. Playing as Mario technically renders you as Mario Mario in a kart in Mario Kart.
Other than the odd, sometimes funny, sometimes unintentionally disturbing way that characters continuously rant about their names and how amazing they are, sound effects couldn't be better.
For many, many players, Mario Kart just wouldn't be the same game if they had to play solo. Sure, the racing element is fun, but at the end of the day, AI is AI, and there's no getting up in your console's face to tell it how much of your dust it just scarfed down. That's why, despite not being able to share the couch with a friend due to the game only being available in handheld form (for now), the ability to play with up to 7 other players either locally, through download/multi-card play, or online via Nintendo's hosted servers, is so welcome. Sure, it's not the same as playing side by side with a friend, but it's the next best thing.
While we haven't gotten a chance to try out the local co-op capabilities very extensively, we do know that connecting with another player who does not have a copy of Mario Kart 7 is a fairly tedious process. Fortunately, the 3DS allows the cartridge-bereft player to continue to play the game all day, for as long as they don't shut off their 3DS system. But the process of creating a match is slow and spotty, and download players are assigned a standard kart and character, and have no input on which race is selected. But considering you could pit up to 7 of your friends against you by only buying one copy of the game (to say nothing of having bought that many 3DS systems), it's not a bad trade.
The online multiplayer is where things get really interesting. We've played it extensively, and it was immediately clear that someone, somewhere, had already found a glitch to exploit. After connecting with up to 7 other players from around the world, players are allowed to vote on tracks. We found that, almost every time, 3 or 4 players would vote for the Maka Wuhu track, and found shortly thereafter that this track contains a fairly simple exploit which allows players to discard their integrity for a handful of unearned VR points by cheating their way into 1st place. Nintendo is allegedly planning to patch this exploit, and others like it.
But our contention with human nature aside, the online play works fairly well, but like most of Nintendo's systems, has its flaws. If you're close enough to your wireless signal, you'll likely be able to play as many matches as you like against people from all around the world without too much latency. But occasionally a character will appear to fall off the track, only to land in front of you moments later, completely unscathed. This is to be expected, and perfectionism aside, the online mode is probably the best yet in the series, especially due to the addition of Communities, some of which exist solely to find and report track glitches to Nintendo.
Beyond the technical details, racing competitively from folks worldwide is a lot of fun, and building your VR points adds to that fun. Crafting the perfect kart for ramming smaller characters off of the track is a teeny aspect of what the online mode allows, but that aspect alone justifies the mode (in our opinion).
Occasionally, some guy with 12,000 VR points will pop into your group and take 1st place over, and over, and over, no matter how many blue shells or lightning bolts you hit him with. This has been happening since Mario Kart DS, and appears to at least be a rare occurrence in Mario Kart 7. We're not saying these players aren't playing fairly, we're just annoyed that some people have 30 hours a day to play Mario Kart and we don't.
Overall, we're quite pleased with the online functions. But we'll be even happier once Nintendo patches the glitches and those dirty cheaters are dining on our self-righteous dust.
Online play allows for the competition of a single race or of a single balloon battles game. Once you choose one, you continue to play in that style. We'd like to have seen a mixed mode that threw all of the gaming modes together into a grab-bag, but understand the need for separation.
Matchmaking is a quick and painless process, most of the time. It doesn't take long to locate a group of players (though this may have something to do with location or wireless speed), and then, after a brief global foray showing off each individual's location, players are allowed to vote on tracks, and the match begins. If you happen to get into a group that's in the middle of the race, you'll be allowed to spectate until that race has finished, and can join in the next one. We always seem to be spectating an insane Yoshi player who spends the whole race ramming into walls and hopping in a circle.
Mario Kart 7 doesn't support any chat functions, but while in a Community game, you can send pre-set messages to the other players like, "Let's get started!" or "Good luck!" We haven't extensively looked into the organization or creation of a Community on the player side of things, but know that Nintendo is currently hosting the "Mario Cup," a worldwide competition taking place over a long period of time, and will likely continue to host official communities in the future.
Mario Kart 7 is outstanding.
Per graphics, sound quality, and track layout standards, it's fairly in-line with the other games in the series. We love the new tracks and new characters, and think the items are well-balanced and useful without breaking the pure racing element of gameplay. Has the core Mario Kart element been improved upon? You bet it has. Drifting, drafting, item use, shortcuts--all of these aspects of the game have been tailored into a scenario that balances risk and reward on a razor-thin edge, adding a subtle layer of strategy and technique to the mayhem of scaled items and stunt-based track design. But that's not what makes it the best game in the series.
The addition of kart customization could have been disastrous. Retro Studios and Nintendo could have rendered the parts so that one style of kart was always the very best, and then you'd see clones stealing the set-up from forums and glitching their way through a mindless assembly line of "winning." But the fact is, kart customization heralds a level of individual approach that is very rarely allowed in any competitive game on any system. We're not just assuming this, we've seen it in action. Using just the standard kart, slim wheels (for boosted handling), and the standard glider, we were able to place 1st a number of times in the glitch-heavy Maka Wuhu course by sticking to our guns and racing as hard as we could for the finish; despite literally witnessing the exploit taking place, we pulled ahead and won one for the good guys.
The ability for balanced gameplay is what always makes or breaks any game that features online, competitive multiplayer, and we're quite convinced of Mario Kart 7's near-perfect balance. For once, players can pick up the game, take a few test drives, unlock some parts, and put their brains to use assembling a kart that caters to the way they like to race. Allowing for individual talents to manifest in-game is the only way to foster true competition, and Mario Kart 7 does that better than any other Mario Kart that came before it.
But all of these technical details aside, it's a lot of fun. The tracks are great, the music is crisp, and the gameplay is still the frantic, fun mayhem that made Super Mario Kart sell so well back in 1992. No matter your motivations or playstyle, if you want to get the most out of your 3DS, you owe it to yourself to pick up Mario Kart 7. You get out of it what you put into it, and at the end of the day, that's what makes any game truly great.
See you at the finish line.
Meet the tester
Editor, Home Theater@Koanshark
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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