Starting life as a spin-off to Nintendo's greatest icon, the Mario Kart series is now a brand that arguably has the greatest appeal in Nintendo's portfolio of titles. The simple to learn nature of the game makes it one of the few series that does genuinely appeal to everyone. The competitive nature of games like Halo and Street Fighter may lose the interest of more casual players, but somehow Mario Kart has truly expanded beyond almost every other game. Mario Kart 7 continues on the philosophy of the Wii version to create possibly the most accessible racing game ever created.
Although largely unchanged from previous installments, Mario Kart 7 does offer a few new features for the series. There are sixteen new tracks and sixteen more retro tracks brought up to the graphical standards of the newer courses. For the most part the new tracks are pretty standard Mario Kart 3-lap affairs but others offer a much more ambitious race. Several tracks, including the latest incarnation of Rainbow Road, are actually one long race course simply split into three different sections and are by far the highlights of the new tracks. On top of that, there are new air-gliding and underwater sections incorporated into most courses. There's also many hidden paths and shortcuts to discover throughout almost every race. For example, it may be possible to avoid a particularly problematic section of a race by gliding over it, albeit with reduced speed. The classic tracks included have been revamped to balance them out with the new mechanics, such as Mario Kart 64's Koopa Troopa Beach's shortcut now only being able to be pulled off with a well-timed Mushroom speed-burst.
In previous Mario Kart titles selecting a character would instantly affect the attributes of your kart, but in this installment players can customise the actual kart themselves with different parts regardless of the racer chosen. The main components of the kart are the body and wheels, all with differing abilities. For example, larger wheels deal better with being off-road, but will take the longest to build up speed. There's also the ability to customise the Glider attachment to the kart, but doing so only appears to offer a cosmetic change with no real benefit or hindrance. New parts can be unlocked using the coins collected throughout the races, although for the most part new items are randomised. Nintendo have done an excellent job of balancing all of the different kart combinations and even after several hours of online play I have yet to discover any kart set-up that has any clear advantage over any other.
Once again the items have been slightly rethought and rebalanced. The most noticeable change is that the infamous Blue Shell will now glide along the track taking out anyone in its path before detonating on the player in pole position in a similar fashion to its Mario Kart 64 version. New items include a Tanooki Tail which will swat away other players and banana peels, and the Fire Flower which will unleash fireballs at the player's will. Occasionally a struggling player will get the Lucky 7, giving them access to a Blue Shell, Super Star and other items to give them a helping hand. It's a shame that characters still don't come with specific special items like with Mario Kart Double Dash in order to give racers the option of a unique skill, although as now with the reduced emphasis on character weight I suppose Nintendo is aiming to make every character equal.
Playing online is just as simple as the previous online offerings in the series and waiting times to join a race generally aren't too long. For the most part the game handles fine whilst connected to other players, but there are a few problems with the hit detection of items such as the Green Shells and Fire Flowers. The lag between players often makes what seem like direct hits appear to pass through the other player completely quite frequently. There also seems to be a very noticeable delay when using Red Shells on other players, sometimes even trailing an opponent for several seconds before connecting. Although not really game-breaking, these two issues can certainly be annoying, especially if a Red Shell waits to hit the guy in front of you until after he crosses the finish line!
Nintendo should be commended for keeping the competition online as fair as can be expected. Easily abusable tricks like snaking and the motorbikes have been kept out of Mario Kart 7, no doubt in order to keep the racers in first place from getting too far ahead. Although I'm sure many will shout and curse as a last minute Blue Shell steals their victory away from them, the game still remains fun and the frustration will end within the next race as they get to Bullet Bill their way into victory. Whilst the best player usually wins the even balance of the game ensures that even novice players can snatch a sly win over veteran players. There is a similar ranking system to that found in Mario Kart Wii and Super Street Fighter IV as players earn and lose points depending on their ranking in a particular race. The statistics recorded however aren't as comprehensive as the Wii version as it simply counts everyone you finish above as a win and everyone below as a loss. There's also the Communities feature where lobbies are formed with some simple rule customisations as players’ race through a Grand Prix online. Although it's possible for players to create their own community, a code is required for others to find it so the best place to find information on user created communities will be on dedicated gaming websites and forums.
Most people buying a Mario Kart game will be for the challenge of racing other human players both locally and online, however there is still a fair amount of playtime to be had with the single player modes. The meat of single player will be found in the classic Grand Prix mode in which players will attempt to win Gold in the thirty-two tracks split into eight different Cups. As usual there's the 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and unlockable Mirror modes to increase the challenge as players become more accustomed to the tracks and various weapons. Upon finishing a cup, players will be graded in stars, which will appear on their playercard online once all the races and difficulties are complete. Once again the CPU-controlled racers 'rubberband' to the player and the constant barrage of last second projectiles is more than enough to frustrate, especially so on 150cc and Mirror Mode. Had there been nothing to gain from finishing these races it would be easier to forgive, but the fact that this grind is to unlock all the characters makes it quite annoying for those who just want to unlock Metal Mario. Beyond attaining the best rank for each Grand Prix, there's no real other reason to replay the single player campaign. The only other real single player mode is the Time Trial mode, in which its possible to set new personal records or race against Nintendo EAD and Retro Studios Staff Ghosts. Unfortunately, the Challenge Mode from Mario Kart DS hasn't made a return so single player racing doesn't quite hold as much replay value as it once did.
Players who actually take their 3DS system out with them will be able to use Streetpass to swap racing data with other players. Upon connecting, there's the option to race a Time Trial attempt of the other player. The other players can also appear in standard Grand Prix Mode as well. It's also possible to check whether or not the player is online and available to race, although unfortunately repeat Streetpasses with the same player doesn't open up new options as with the Mii Plaza.
Mario Kart 7 is the only game I have played so far in which I will occasionally choose to play with the 3D effect on maximum power. The effect in the game is very subtle and still runs at a smooth 60 frames per second, unlike almost every other title on the system. Technically the game looks slightly better than Mario Kart Wii featuring simple, cheerful characters and locations. The sounds and music are all familiar Mario Kart fare, although I must admit I did find the new Mii character's voice a little annoying.
After seven games, Mario Kart is still going strong with its simple, addictive gameplay that will keep players coming back again and again for another race. It's refreshing that in the current climate of annual sequels to the Call of Duty and FIFA series, fans can rest assured that this will likely be the ultimate and only Mario Kart experience on the 3DS. Hopefully this time around Nintendo will begin releasing new tracks as downloadable content in the future for the title, however unlikely that is. For now though, this is the best online multiplayer experience on the Nintendo 3DS and likely will be for the rest of the console's lifespan, and possibly beyond.