In case there was ever any doubt, it became fairly obvious that Nintendo understood that the holiday release of Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS was a big deal when a team including Cindy Gordon, VP of Corporate Affairs for Nintendo of America, showed up at the LA Auto Show with a pair of real-life karts. Designed by West Coast Customs (of Pimp My Ride fame), the concept vehicles both served to highlight the game’s emphasis on customization and as an over-the-top treat for the Nintendo faithful, as one of the vehicles is being offered as a prize in a Gamestop PowerUp Rewards contest.
This larger-than-life showing says a lot about Mario Kart 7 as a game, because it might just be, despite its diminutive size, the biggest Mario Kart title yet. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean it’s flawless.
If you’ve ever drifted around a precarious curve on Rainbow Road or tossed a blue shell at the hapless lap leader on Luigi Raceway, Mario Kart 7 will feel like home. At its core it’s a gloriously responsive iteration of the classic Mario Kart concept that benefits from the new handheld’s ergonomic thumb-stick and snappy, well-placed buttons. The drift mechanic, cartoon-y vehicular combat and starting line speed boosts that made the series great (not to mention recent twists like Mii integration) rest at the core of the game experience, but both fresh new and nearly forgotten old game mechanics also help to flesh the title out.
Coin collecting — an element mostly missing since the game’s Super Nintendo debut — again makes an appearance, but this time around it affords even more functionality. Not only do coins provide a speed boost and help protect from combat damage, in Mario Kart 7 they also serve as currency used to unlock additional parts for kart customization. A new component becomes available after every 50 coins collected, but sadly the player has no choice over the new part in question or even from which category it comes. This provides additional excitement, but too often results in disappointment when components from the third category, gliders, seldom materialize while those from the first two, kart bodies and tires, tend to stack up.
The glider marks one of the game’s newer elements: flight. Each kart is outfitted with some semblance of wings that deploy on certain jumps. Depending on speed and trajectory, these can put you at the head of the pack or kill your hard-fought momentum, but such is the nature of Mario Kart. These sections are paralleled by new underwater segments that both reduce speed and genuinely alter the steering response. Such additions help to spice up old tracks, and they really do add a satisfying wrinkle to the gameplay. The problem is that these segments are relatively small by comparison. While some tracks, like the pair set on Wuhu Island, rely on three individual “sections” rather than traditional laps, and thus feel sprawling by comparison, the much-touted air sequences last only a few seconds. While I understand that Nintendo is simply giving us a taste of these new movement types that will undoubtedly be fleshed out in later games, I can’t help but feel as though they should have instead let the player dive right in to these exciting new additions. (Apologies to Matt Blum for that dreadful pun; those are really more his forte.)
Another unfortunate strike against Mario Kart 7 is an almost unthinkable transgression in portable gaming: load times. It’s not as if they’re particularly long, mind you, but before – and in some cases after – each pre-race course fly-over the game greets you with anywhere from four to seven seconds of… two blank screens. The effect of this stark white screen-time is jarring, and it pulls the player out of the generally immersive experience that is Mario Kart. This is further compounded by the fact that the game’s graphics are gorgeous, and while I understand that the system needs a little processing time before that starting chime I can’t help but feel that the image of a pair of bare screens right before the action unfolds serves to somehow lessen the experience.
On the subjects of graphics I’ll also explicitly note that Mario Kart 7 is the first 3DS game that I haven’t played in 3D mode practically all the time. Something about that odd blur the eye detects when the viewing angle changes even slightly – and it’s admittedly hard for me not to get so into a round of Mario Kart that I lean my whole body into those tight turns – made the 3D effect a bit disorienting for me. This is especially true in the title’s new first-person view, an alternate mode that puts you the driver’s seat and allows for gyroscopic steering. It’s an interesting feature, but one that I never felt inclined to explore past a few isolated peeks. Still, the game looks amazing even in the old school view and in two standard dimensions, so I really can’t bellyache much about that.
If I had to sum up my meager complaints about Mario Kart 7 in a single defining statement it would be that the game just does too much. Which I think we can all agree is a pretty good problem to have.
It is, in a very real way, almost too Mario Kart-y. New additions like the Fire Flower, Super Leaf and Lucky Seven power-ups ably supplement combat, and everything from the new terrain types to a heavy focus on drifting, drafting and the hop mechanic – which provides a wicked speed boost if you execute it at the apex of a ramp jump – make the core race experience feel both broader and more refined. The game similarly offers a wide array of play modes, from single-player Grand Prix and mini-games to local and online multiplayer. Hell, there’s even a Communities feature that allows you to create a specific Community Code, which acts like a shared specialized Friend Code, and easily enjoy the finely responsive online aspects without fear of outside interlopers.
All this serves to underscore the double-edged sword of Mario Kart 7. The game is everything you remember about your favorite Mario Kart and more. It’s the “and more” part that proves particularly sticky. The very nature of the game is its reliance on the unexpected. It’s always painfully easy to go from dead last to first place and again to the back of the pack, and that seems to happen with an even more alarming frequency in this version. Along the way it makes for some of the most exhilarating and laughably frustrating gameplay of the series.
Despite a handful of shortcomings I heartily recommend Mario Kart 7, but I do so with the following caveat; this is a hardcore kart racer that separates the wheat from the chaff, and it may similarly separate you from your tightly reined self-control.
Wired: gorgeous graphics and sound, well-tuned controls, a grand mix of old and new gameplay elements, fun new power-ups, well designed raceways with air and water segments, easy kart customization, tons of unlockables, the system’s best online multiplayer to date.
Tired: air and undersea elements are often underutilized, first-person mode seems unnecessary, 3D effects are well done but occasionally distracting, bothersome load times.
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America