When a game series has managed to last seven iterations, something that Nintendo are apparently proud enough of to name their latest this way, you’ve got to give it credit. From impressive beginnings (Super Mario Kart is still brilliantly playable) Nintendo’s flagship racer has always clicked with gamers and critics alike, providing accessible bursts of fun, deep longevity through time trials and – recently at least – online modes.
Of course, the publisher’s strict ‘one game per console’ mentality has meant that series fatigue is rare – the games are normally two or three years apart – and normally remain favourites throughout each platform generation’s life. This latest version, simply titled Mario Kart 7, doesn’t deviate from the formula much, instead providing familiar mechanics and a couple of subtle but worthwhile tricks, not least of all the ability to both glide in the air and drive underwater.
The moments are scripted – your wings will sprout when you hit a prescribed jump, providing either the ability to carry yourself over chasms or dangers or, more interestingly, a little bit of tactical choice with regards to speed, angle and when to touch down again. Likewise, the underwater elements are fixed per lap, and whilst the physics are nicely done (with some lovely water drag) they don’t make a massive amount of difference.
Few other racers get this mix right. Sure, the game’s happy enough to balance out abilities and keep things tight with the pick-ups and weapons, but – in this one at least – the better racer will always win but those behind won’t ever feel cheated. The more devastating arsenal has been toned down, too, and catch-up, outside of the currently chosen ‘favourite’ AI of course, seems to be far less rubber-banded than previous entries.
Other tweaks include the ability to customise your kart before a Grand Prix starts (including the body, wheels and – eventually – wings) which can make a significant difference to your character’s speed, acceleration and so on, and the re-introduction of collectible coins. Pick these up on the course (up to a maximum of 10) and your kart will gradually become nippier, and the funds are then traded in against new customisation options. It’s a welcome pairing, and works well.
Finally, there’s the first person view. Initially controlled via the console’s gyroscope, it’s much better with the analog stick (especially if you’re playing in 3D) and whilst doesn’t really add very much to the experience, it’s an interesting touch. Sadly, mapping the camera to the d-pad means that the option to steer digitally is gone, and there’s too much of a dead zone from behind the wheel.
Out on the tarmac, though, the action is smooth (a constant sixty frames per second, even in 3D), the graphics vibrant and colourful and the tracks themselves largely interesting. You might miss the simplicity of earlier course design – some of the tracks here go on for too long and lack imagination – but on the whole the sixteen new races are decent enough. There are clear highlights – a hysterical excursion to the moon being one, and two trips to Wii Sports’ Wuhu Island break up the normal three lap rules into single rally-style events.
Naturally, given that recent Mario Kart games have featured ‘retro’ courses in amongst the new, 7 offers up a comprehensive collection of old school treats too. There’s an equal number of classic tracks here as there are new, split into another four cups – the likes of Koopa Troopa Beach from the N64 and the DS’s Airship Fortress are inspired inclusions, but there’s some other gems too: Kalimari Desert, DK Pass, even a couple of old SNES levels make the cut.[drop]Developed by Texas-based Retro, these courses have been upgraded visually, with a few tweaks to take into account the new gameplay modifications. Expect new shortcuts, new jumps and – of course – the ability to use Mario Kart 7’s new items, such as the brilliantly swift Super Leaf (linking the game in nicely with Super Mario 3D Land) and the titular Super 7 weapon which, whilst rare, does gift the player with seven different items all at once – a neat touch.
And whilst Mission Mode is missing (a real shame, given that it was so good on the DS) there’s at least a more robust online offering in addition to local play. Nintendo have introduced ‘Communities’, which lets players group together and play each other and set the rules accordingly (it’s nice to be able to remove all weapons) and the Streetpass and Spotpass functionality means that – come release – you shouldn’t be short of people to battle on the superb Time Trial mode after you’ve beaten the staff ghosts. Even if those people aren’t your friends.
Battle Mode’s back, with some new courses, and can be played in single or multiplayer, and if you’ve got seven mates and just one cart then the game can be shared amongst friends via Download Play. It takes a while to copy over each course as you get there, but it’s still a neat idea and means you won’t all have to splash out on the game to get in on the action, even if non-cart owning players are locked to Shy Guy.
You’ll already know whether Mario Kart 7 is for you or not, though – it’s another step along a familiar road with the same faces on the way. Sure, there are new elements, new characters, new tracks, new ideas, but nothing that strays off the well worn path. That’s not a criticism, of course, Mario Kart’s particular set of rules are ones that I personally (along with millions of others) find hugely addictive, exciting and utterly, endlessly playable. The only problem is that it’ll be another couple of years before the next.
- 60fps in 3D is glorious
- Some inventive tracks
- Decent online functionality
- Ability to play multiplayer from just one cart is welcome
- Better focus on racing rather than over powered weapons
- Some of the new tracks are a little dull
- The UI is an inconsistent, dated mess
- You can’t see your friends’ time trial times
Is it normal to want to put down a game because your hands are aching? Mario Kart 7’s wickedly addictive nature quickly highlights the 3DS’s surprisingly pointy extremities and rather tough ‘B’ button, the console seemingly not designed for extended periods of play. My palms were sore, my thumb numb, and yet – compulsively – there was always more to do.
Mario Kart 7 might not reinvent itself – the natural, onwards evolution is slight and discrete – but why stray from the winning formula when you’re so far in the lead?