Mario Kart 7 Review

Mario Kart 7 (3DS)
Developer: Nintendo EAD, Retro Studios
Publisher: Nintendo
MSRP: $39.99

I am bugged by games that are competitive in nature and include design choices which prevent skilled players from winning. I have completely disregarded the Mario Kart franchise since  the inclusion of the blue shell. It is an item that often robs the leader of victory. And when the leader is you, it is impossible not to be upset. But now having played Mario Kart 7, I realize that winning is not everything. Sure, the game has some frustrating design quirks that are repeatedly not addressed with each installment, but the core fun of Mario Kart still shines through.

Achieving first place requires constant use of a few basic mechanics. While navigating steep turns you will want to power-slide (Mario Kart terminology for drifting). This garners a slight speed boost. The longer you drift, the better the boost (thus eliminating the easy-to-abuse system that plagued Mario Kart DS).  Bumps in the terrain are scattered throughout the course, and also provide speed boosts if you jump at the correct moment. Power-sliding and hopping are activated by the same button, which helps simplify the controls. Collecting coins ever-so-slightly increases your maximum speed. It is a small set of gameplay mechanics, and while simplistic, it keeps you engaged throughout each race. There is a real thrill in discovering your ideal path, swiftly power-sliding tight turns while snatching up a line of four coins, causing you to jump from fourth to first place. Taken individually, these mechanics do not amount to much, but they come together in a way that is utterly delightful.

The level designs range from the best in the series to the absolute worst – the new tracks are the best in the series, while some of the updated older tracks simply do not compare. New tracks are tailored for the tweaked mechanics, offering designs that feel more natural to race on. Some tracks are even broken down into sections, so instead of three lap races they are one continuous track. Their inclusion reduces repetition, and more similar courses would have been appreciated. The new Mario Galaxy themed Rainbow Road is one of them, earning its place as the best track in Mario Kart history. But the series’ history prevents many races from being just as fantastic, thanks to the inclusion of sixteen remixed classic courses. Mario Kart Wii tracks are too wide because they were designed for twelve total racers as opposed to eight. Mario Kart 64 was pre-power-sliding, resulting in tracks that downplay finesse and focus more on shortcuts. Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart: Super Circuit tracks are flat (because of janky mode-7 technology) and are absent of unique mechanics. Overall, the nostalgia of playing these tracks with the new engine does not outweigh how bland their designs are. Tracks post-Double Dash are still enjoyable, just not nearly as much as the new ones.

Air-gliding and underwater sequences debut in Mario Kart 7 to varying degrees of success. These additions alter the way karts handle, while the new tracks take full advantage of the nuanced controls, incorporating them in interesting ways. You can glide over air-jets to increase hang time, which lead to shortcuts. Your turning axis is increased underwater, allowing for more intense, obstacle-littered turns. The air-gliding and underwater segments are shoehorned in, instead of being tastefully adjusted into the older tracks.

Items continue to make this franchise both a delight and a pain to play for several reasons. Firstly, the items are used to balance races – depending on what place you are in, different items become available to you. If you are in last place, the likelihood of getting a lighting bolt (shrinks every other racer, making them slower) or a golden mushroom (giving you unlimited boosts for a brief period of time) increases dramatically.  On the contrary, if you are in first place, you can only get the worst items (mostly just bananas and green shells). This approach to balance creates an exciting flow to the races, where being last and with stronger items is just as much fun as maintaining first place with less useful ones. At the same time, being in first makes you incredibly vulnerable to blue shells that can turn the tides way too easily and frequently. Red shells have always been annoying if you did not have a banana or shell to defend yourself, but blue shells are poorly designed to the point where you never feel safe in first place. The thought never leaves, constantly in the back of your mind, that at any moment your lead will dissipate with just one item.

There is a noticeable reluctance to design a truly competitive Mario Kart. Items, with their varying appearance and strength, are at odds with its competitive nature. Racing with them results in more chaotic gameplay, but without them, races are terribly unexciting. Changing the items and how they are incorporated within the game would be a necessity to making this series less stagnant and more relevant. But seeing as how the items practically define the series, I doubt the formula will see significant overhauls in the inevitable sequels.

In this game, there is a larger emphasis on time trials because of car customization. As you collect coins in races you will unlock new parts for your car, in the form of chassis, wheels, and gliders. Each component effects how your car handles, so experimenting with which combinations work best for each track can become a massive time sink. Ghosts are constantly being added for you to beat via street passes and spot-pass updates. I personally did not experiment with this mode much, but these improvements will make it a destination for many gamers.

The ranking system for the single player grands prix are poorly implemented. Achieving first place in all four races does not guarantee three out of three stars, which it should. The system also factors in how many times you fall off tracks and how long you maintain first place in each course. The randomness of the items intrudes upon this system too much, to the point where you simply need to hope the other racers do not use blue shells on you near the finish line on the final lap. The system is too rigid, rewarding luck more often than skill.

Racing online is a more competitive and balanced environment than the single player grands prix. There is no pesky rubber band AI, so maintaining a lead is easier. Blue shells are still a persistent threat, but they do not prevent victory nearly as often as they do in solo play. You can even create channels, where you can adjust which items are available, such as bananas only and shells only. If only there was an option to turn off blue shells. That issue aside, these added options help give Mario Kart 7 some legs and help make it a more skill-based, competitive racer.

Races are not meant to be taken seriously. You will lose when you deserve to win. You will even win when you deserve to lose. Once you accept this, the game’s light-hearted aesthetics, simple mechanics, and inconsistently brilliant tracks will absorb you in such a way that even the occasional blue shell will not be able to ruin the good vibes. Mario Kart 7 is the best execution of the Mario Kart structure to date. Now it is time to see how the franchise can evolve.




Quick tidbits:

• I’m genuinely excited for the Wii U’s Mario Kart because the two screens could really enhance the gameplay.

• Steering with the gyroscopes is a waste of time, especially since you have to turn off the 3D.

• Does anyone actually enjoy playing Battle Mode?

• The game runs at a fluid 60 frames per second and looks way better than what the screenshots suggest.

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