Mario Kart 7 review
- Mario Kart 7
Made 2 Game's Mario Kart 7 Review Score: 8/10
Developer: Nintendo EAD & Retro Studios
My concerns surrounding Mario Kart 7 were always firmly rooted in that number 7. That numerical oddity that appears as a curious case of conformity from a franchise that often celebrates the individuality of all its entries.
Every Mario Kart prior to Mario Kart 7 had carried its format name, with the exceptions of Double Dash!! and Super Circuit, and this always created a link between title and system. Each Mario Kart followed a blueprint but was clearly married to its device - 64 loved its sofa-bound four-player fun while Mario Kart Wii was a raucous 12-player party piece, to cite two examples.
So why 7? Why discard that feeling of tight-knit courtship of game and platform for the sake of a rubbish number? Well it turns out that Mario Kart 7 really is Mario Kart number 7, an educated analysis and considered re-assembly of all the series' entries so far. This means it is the best Mario Kart to date. Effortlessly.
There's something about Mario (Kart)
Mario Kart has existed in one way or another since 1992. The granddaddy of the modern kart genre the games always pit a menagerie of the Mushroom Kingdom's finest against each other in a Wacky Race that sees them drift around twisty turn-y tracks while trying to scupper each other's chances with all manner of cartoonish weaponry including slippery banana skins and homing Koopa shells.
The years since Super Mario Kart's release have seen numerous pretenders. From Crash Bandicoot, Nintendo's own Diddy Kong, the Konami Krazy Racers and most recently (and arguably most successfully) the plumber's blue rival Sonic. Yet none have been able to top Ninty's iconic moustachioed Italian. Why?
Some tracks, like Koopa City here, favour tight design over gimmicks. Mario Kart 7's spread of tracks hits every niche.
From SNES to GBA to Cube and now to 3DS, the key constant of the series has been Nintendo's eye for perfect control, and the perfect tracks to exploit that precision.
The 3DS' analogue slider and snappy buttons are perfect for the job, allowing for a comfortable precision akin to an analogue stick. Then there's the delicious drift, the tight skid and release that Mario Kart nails with all the satisfaction of the best arcade games.
Then there's the way weapons react with a reliable and learned accuracy, or how your kart can cling to an edge with two wheels for some spectacular butt clenching moments. Again, like the best arcade game, you can never attribute a mistake to Mario Kart's controls – they're measured and tightened to within an inch of perfection.
In with the new
Mario Kart 7 has some new gimmicks to spice up the racing; gliding and underwater sections. Gliding feels fantastic. The game automatically releases your wings at set points and once airbourne it's up to you whether you drop to the ground or scout the skies for coins (yeah, coins are back), items or shortcuts. Some of the remade modern tracks feature absolutely devilish glider routes that will be added as a definition for 'risk/reward situation'.
Underwater sections aren't so hot. Once your kart is submerged it tends to feel slightly floaty and flies in stark contrast to the precise gliding and tarmac sections. Fortunately these are in the minority, and far from game-ruining – they actually serve a brilliant purpose, helping retain the race's flow when you find yourself bumped from the track by an overly aggressive Ape/Lizard – but you'll likely be voting against them in online matches.
Features like a line of floating blocks give Mario Kart 7 a 'Mario-ness' that is sometimes lacking from the series
Also new are three items. The Tanooki tail is the first, a timed powerup that lets you trip up foes and knock items aside like a more finickity Power Star. Second is the Fireflower, which lets you throw a volley of burning balls forward or back. Their bounce is unpredictable but it's great for causing a spot of mayhem.
Finally is the 'Lucky 7', an item which causes seven random powerups to circle your kart. Whether you use them all at once or try and deploy them strategically, it's a curious creature. The fact that an eagle-eyed foe could nab the star adds a sense of unsure power to the item. It's a great addition.
Also worth noting - most of Mario Kart Wii's abominations - the POW block, Giant Mushroom, and Lightning Cloud - are all, thankfully, nowhere to be seen. Celebrate!
Then there are the tracks. Mario Kart 7 has some of the best new courses in the series' history. I don't want to ruin many of them but these are some of the most joyous and enthusiastic driving rings ever. Track-side ornaments are nod-and-wink references to Nintendo history while the routes have frequent moments of cool. One retro-themed delight has a smile-raising waterfall exit, while another is constructed from pianos, xylophones, glockenspiels and drums that comes alive as your wheels make contact with the different instruments.
Two of the most interesting tracks both take place on Wuhu Island (of Wii Sports Resort and Pilotwings Resort fame) as they are long tracks separated into three sections rather than laps. It's like Mario Kart Outrun, and absolutely brilliant with it.
Get hit in the air and you'll suffer a position- rippling fall. Mario Kart hasn't been this evil-minded in a long time.
Oh and Mario Kart 7's Rainbow Road – don't look at me like that, every Mario Kart has a Rainbow Road, that's not a spoiler – is one that is actually enjoyable rather than an awkward endgame irritant. It's magnificent. Seriously, it's absolutely brilliant.
These excellent newcomers are complimented with a side of 16 classic tracks lovingly tweaked and spruced up by Texan wizards Retro 'Metroid Prime & Donkey Kong Country Returns' Studios. These tracks are so well reproduced, and the glider/underwater elements so seamlessly stitched in that you'd think they were actually designed for Mario Kart 7 in the first place. As such they show an attention to detail in their restoration that the retro tracks have never received before.
In with the old
But the way Mario Kart 7 excels, and how it makes itself so effortlessly brilliant, is clear - it's through its selective series cherrypicking. Super Circuit is one of the only entries in the series that's had a clear lasting effect, its grading system and inclusion of retro tracks has been a staple of the series behind all the tweaks and alterations. But Mario Kart 7 is inspired in equal parts by every iteration to date, causing its curious numbered title to make complete sense.
From Super Mario Kart come the 'coins'. Mario's sparkling currency litters the track and grabbing a few, up to a maximum of ten, will cause your car to go just that little bit faster. And in a quaint nostalgic nod the starting eight characters are the same as this original game.
From Mario Kart 64 we have an eye for malicious track design. Where recent iterations have been generous with trackside barriers, Mario Kart 7 has a tendency to fill tracks with death drops, tempting players to race on the edge with those shiny speed boosting coins. The infamous Blue Shell also returns in its grounded state, following the track and wiping out anyone foolish enough to get in the way of its relentless pursuit of the race leader.
The game can also be controlled with funky tilt sensor controls. They work fine, but are little more than a one lap novelty.
From Double Dash the tracks are littered with alternate routes and huge obstacles. This Mario Kart was one of the first to offer a genuine selection of routes over 64's clear, and often race-winning shortcuts.
From Mario Kart DS we have the second screen map. The Blooper powerup never quite had the right impact in Mario Kart Wii but here it is back in its vision-obscuring prime. Being able to keep an eye on what weapon your pursuers are wielding with the lower screen is unquestionably handy.
From Mario Kart Wii comes the online functionality and drift boost mechanics. Mario Kart Wii's snaking ruining power slide, which grants a boost reliant on time spent in, and angle of, a skid returns in full force.
Online supports up to eight players and is once again a case of playing endless races and improving a persistent rank. However Mario Kart 7 does add 'communities' which allow you to play in slightly customised 'rooms' which track their best players.
More than the sum of its parts
Yet Mario Kart 7 is just as equally itself. It exploits the 3DS' feature set in what is the strongest case for the console to date.
As you play Mario Kart 7 you build a persistent player card which is shared with anyone you Street Pass with. They are then able to race your own Grand Prix (essentially a way of showing your four favourite tracks), add you as an online friend, or race against your best Time Trial ghosts.
This gives the Time Trials a real presence within the game. As well as featuring some of the hardest Staff Ghosts in series history it's here that the new Kart customisation truly comes to the fore.
The more you play Mario Kart 7 the more characters and car parts you unlock and your Kart's stats – Speed, Acceleration, Handling, Off-Road and Weight – are calculated from your choice of racer, body, wheels and glider.
The Mii sound effects are absolutely abhorrent, like the sound of a dying violin. Ear bleeding stuff.
Sure, choosing whether Donkey Kong should drive the Egg body or the Barrel Train isn't going to be worrying Forza Motorsport 4 but what's here is suitably intelligent and heightens the scope for shaving a millisecond off your time with a little smart thinking. Knowing you could share your best times with anyone at any point genuinely encourages you to do better.
To round off the package there's the usual Balloon and Coin battle modes. Balloon Battle retains Mario Kart Wii's timed format but ditches the awful forced team rubbish, and the Coin mode is the same timed scenario but tasks players with hoovering up and holding onto money as opposed to purely aggressive Balloon popping.
Plus, the 3D looks lovely. Wonderful.
Lucky Number Seven
So what's disappointing? Why is that not a 9, or even a 10 below these words? Well actually, disappointment was one of the first things I felt in regards to Mario Kart 7. The box is lacking in any visual vibrancy and, in particular, the interior has no mini pictures! Surely include the items? Or character faces? After Super Mario 3D Land's beautiful retro insert my expectation for interior box design has risen exponentially. As far as boxes go it's the biggest disappointment of the year.
Ok, if we're being serious for a minute the lack of Mario Kart DS' missions is a true bum note, meaning the single player side of things is limited to Grand Prix, Time Trialling and battling bots. And there are still areas the game that could be easily improved - a genuine item switch could help for starters, although Mario Kart 7's item 'categories' you can choose from is a massive step in the right direction.
The online side may look the spit of Mario Kart Wii but it is pleasantly expanded.
Then there is the Battle mode, which still feels like an aside to the racing. A few extra arenas and the ability to set some parameters (a return of the classic One Life mode would be appreciated) could help the Battle mode become as good as the racing side of things.
The problem with these criticisms however, is that what's here is still bloody brilliant. Oh sure, the blue shell is still here, scuppering many a skilful racer on the last corner but I'm hardly going to complain about that, it's all in the spirit of the game. Anyone that criticises the items is just a fun black hole who shouldn't be playing Mario Kart in the first place.
The core game that sits at the heart of Mario Kart 7 is a timeless piece of video game engineering that ties exquisite control to brilliant fun-minded sensibilities. Mario Kart 7 represents the best of the series to date, a case for all the 3DS' features, and a design team clearly comfortable with what they're making. Through respectfully delicate and educated design Mario Kart 7 doesn't re-write the wheel, it refines it, and is without a doubt the best Mario Kart yet. Video game bliss.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)
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