Racing into stores to end a gaming season filled with shining gems is Mario Kart 7, Nintendo's final shot in the war to make the 3DS relevant in 2011. Does it hit the mark? *eyes chart* Mostly?
What can I say about Mario Kart, the series that captured the hearts of millions of gamers around the world and gave birth to an endless stream of sub-par mascot character Kart games that still has not abated to this very day. Right now there is someone trying to work a popular retail mascot into a kart racer in order to feed his family for Christmas, and Mario Kart is to blame. When you see M&Ms Kart Racing languishing in the bargain bin, you know who to blame.
Wow, now I'm pissed at Mario Kart. Somebody get me a pen and some paper, I feel a review coming on. In the meantime, check out the Frankenreview.
The more a game has the word "new" printed on the back of its game case, the better the chances are that the game inside will feel older than time itself. Mario Kart 7 has the word "new" printed on the back of its game case no less than four times, and true to the theory, its contents are less fresh than the contents of Joan Crawford's underwear.
At this point, it's customary with a Nintendo game to mention how that's not a bad thing, to highlight how nothing was broken and didn't need fixing. In Mario Kart 7, however, I don't think that's appropriate. For once, sticking to tradition has not worked in Nintendo's favour.
There are, however, a number of tweaks and additions to the core, some welcome, others contentious. Now you are able to custom-build your kart before each championship, choosing the body, the wheels and, finally, a set of 'wings' used to glide back to the ground from special propulsion ramps. Each option offers different benefits and drawbacks, asking you to sacrifice top speed for acceleration, for example, or trade handling for heft. The flexibility is an improvement over previous games' rather straight options, allowing for a far greater number of permutations of vehicle, and it's one area where Nintendo has expanded scope in a meaningful way.
The coin-collecting concern of the original game also makes an unusual return. Mario's loose change litters the tracks and can be collected in order to unlock new kart bodies and add-ons. Simplicity is the watchword for Nintendo EAD, however, and there's no shop to speak of. Rather, you unlock a new, pre-set item every time you collect 50 coins.
It's a suitable if basic system that adds a secondary objective to each race beyond simply winning - although the decision to cap the number of coins that can be collected to just 10 per stage in order to artificially control the rate at which you unlock new items is an uncharacteristically weak one.
Mario Kart is almost exactly how you remember it, but what tweaks have been made are generally positive. Powerslide-boosting (blue sparking, in the vernacular) is now dependent on the degree of the slide instead of d-pad gymnastics, meaning that boosting down straightaways is a thing of the past. Heavy characters no longer steer like drunken camels, so you can play as DK or Bowser without unintentionally activating hard mode. The much-hyped glider and underwater segments are minimal and kind of neat, and it's cool that they adapted the retro stages to fit MK 7's gameplay systems. I'm less convinced that the return of coins has much effect on gameplay; I think they make you go faster? If nothing else, I dig having something else to aim for during the race.
The tracks are something of a mixed bag: 16 new races and 16 from Mario Karts past make an appearance, all of which have had the new flying and submersion sections shoehorned into them. Almost all are gripping. Wuhu Island, for example, is a super-sized raceway where players race through sections of the island rather than making laps in a repeated loop. Not all are winners, though: A few have tracks so wide that even in a traffic jam, they feel cavernous and empty. Also, the levels which make heavy use of the underwater segments are a little too slow to be much fun.
Of course, all the tracks look great. Everything looks great. It's a first-party Nintendo game on the 3DS. It looks as great as you'd expect it to look, which, at this point, I assume is "great."
Single players can take part in typical Grand Prix, Battle Modes and Time Trials but there's nothing to compare to competing for glory online. Much of the basic ranking system is lifted straight from Mario Kart Wii, with a few subtle differences - races are up to eight players, rather than twelve. Lopping off four karts not only keeps online races rock solid and completely lag-free (if you're on a decent connection, of course), but it also reflects Mario Kart 7's renewed focus on racing rather than total on-track chaos.
Your 1000 VR points will be boosted if you come in the top three or knocked down if you're consistently awful and also dictate who you get matched against online. Worldwide Vs Races are much the same as in the Wii game, and ideal for dipping your toe in for a quick race when you have a spare moment.
As a gamer who grew up hating Nintendo, it's quite a personal revelation to love one of its games as much as this. But I'm on board with everything the game is trying to do. Sure, all the tricks here have been done before and the core of the game is the same as it's always been. But yet again, it's been packaged and delivered in a way that makes it feel fresh.
It's a cast of likeable, cartoony characters getting powered up by magic boxes and enchanted flowers, then doing things that simply can't be done in real life, like drive under the feet of a stamping dinosaur or race down the keys of a keyboard while a graphic equaliser pumps out bright colours all over the walls. When other companies try the kart racer formula, it often feels tired and cheap. This feels fresh and deluxe.
Better still, it doesn't resort to ridiculous motion control steering or touch screen selection of weapons. You play it with the buttons and analogue stick (though, surprisingly, not the d-pad, which instead just switches between 3rd person and 1st-person camera modes), like you have done for forever. With go, stop, fire and jump buttons, it's easy enough that anyone can play it. Instantly enjoyable, infinitely accessible but as deep as you want to make it.
This really should have been a launch game, no question. But it's here now, and must surely mark a turning point for the system. Mario Kart 7 sets the graphical bar so high, it doesn't even look like a 3DS game, which means everyone else has a new standard to follow. Suddenly the platform feels new again.
One of these numbers is not like the other...