This Christmas Nintendo is giving all Nintendo 3DS owners tickets to the guns show, first flexing the right muscle with Super Mario 3D Land, and now priming the left with Mario Kart 7, the duo aimed at reviving sluggish sales, and reinvigorating an otherwise underwhelming system line-up with much needed 'must haves' that show exactly why we all laid down a couple hundred Australian dollars for a system we hope would avoid becoming a glorified paper weight.
Though the running and jumping platforming antics of Super Mario 3D Land were more than well received, Mario Kart 7 challenges the Big N to strike gold twice, again relying on the popular plumbing mascot to drive home (pun intended) the point that gamers have plenty more gaming hours to spend on their little portable device. For most part Mario Kart 7 accomplishes these goals, with plenty of reasons to stay glued to the 3D screen, but in ways you might not expect.
The foundations of Mario Kart's racing style are as familiar here as with previous titles, allowing anybody with a lick of experience in corner sliding and shell shooting to jump right in, but Nintendo has gone ahead with several tweaks to spice up this latest rendition. At the core of this, and most touted in pre-release media, are the additions of both under water racing and gliding. Somewhat reminiscent of Diddy Kong Racing, these contextual events initiate whenever a kart drops into water (avoiding the usual Lakitu rescue), or launches off specially marked blue tipped ramps. Each slightly alters the kart movement physics and controls; under water pressure is low causing karts to jump higher and slide further, while taking to the skies offers soft gliding not unlike Pilotwings 3D. Almost every track, including remixed returning tracks from past Mario Kart titles, successfully integrates brief aquatic and gliding sequences, occasionally pairing them up for optional paths, allowing racers to chose what they believe will be the most advantages and tactical navigation of the track to best benefit their position.
Second to the above is not a new element, but the return of coins, an oft-forgotten speed enhancer introduced in Super Mario Kart, yet quickly abandoned in subsequent console releases. Just as with Super Mario Kart, coins scattered around the course offer an immediate speed boost when collected, and tallied up to a total of ten increase a racer's maximum speed. To keep it interesting, coins are lost whenever racers fall from the track, or find themselves on the receiving end of an item attack.
And attacked you will be. Mario Kart's staple red and green shells, mushroom boosts and more return and work exactly how you remember, including the rage educing spiked blue shell. But, like the above, changes and additions have been made to the items on offer. New additions such as the fire flower allow players to spit balls of fire across the track at a terrifying rate, while the Tanuki tail from Super Mario 3D Land can spin out nearby opponents and bat back shells and other projectiles. All integrated well into the base item set, most impressive are the changes made to existing items. Yes, Mario Kart 7 features the same frustrations of handing losing players the best selection of items, but the broken overpowering of items in Mario Kart Wii are nowhere to be seen, as many of the super items appear less frequently and are less exploitable. Even the much hated spiked blue shell has altered movement properties, abandoning the high flying model of Mario Kart Wii in favour of Mario Kart 64's system of following the track, potentially knocking away not just the leader racer, but any unfortunate enough to get caught in it's path.
Combining these elements, a solid case can be made for Mario Kart 7 featuring some of the most versatile and skill focused tracks in the series. Not only do coins alone offer a valuable tactical advantage over opposition, but tracks themselves are loaded with alternative paths and secrets. Players are not only required to master tracks, but must be prepared to make on-the-fly decision that best exploit coin and item locations. Whether you're flying, swimming or driving, the variety of tactical racing options makes for some of the most dynamic races the series has ever seen.
The fundamentals of racing are wrapped in the framework of both single player and multiplayer options, and it is here Mario Kart 7 begins to slip up, though in ways usually unexpected from a Nintendo game. For the first time in a long time, we can comfortably say that Nintendo knocked it out of the park with the multiplayer offerings, yet dropped the ball with single player.
Issues with single player revolve around how bare bones the package is in comparison to previous Mario Kart titles. Standard 50cc, 100cc and 150cc cups are in as expected, but outside of these and your run-of-the-mill balloon and coin battle modes, the former which continues to stray away from the tense hunter-or-hunted formula that made it so popular, as well as time trials, there's nothing of note to speak of. The challenge mode from Mario Kart DS is sorely missed, and the option for single races against AI opponents is confusingly absent. For the cups themselves, 50cc is far too easy and slow, 100cc is too quite easy, meanwhile 150cc features frustratingly broken and overly difficult AI opponents, worsened by the fairly lackluster line-up of secret characters exclusively unlocked by coming first place in 150cc. We don't doubt players will have plenty of fun with Mario Kart 7 single player, but a lack of options and fairly basic presentation pale in comparison to more recent entries.
Yet these issues are almost entirely made up for by what Mario Kart 7 offers as a multiplayer game. Both Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart Wii were notable online efforts, but Mario Kart 7 is something else entirely. Standard online play will quickly mix and match players all around the world for impressively lag free racing on an assortment of tracks, meanwhile the new community feature allows players to join specific groups with designated rule sets to play with like-minded racers without ever having to exchange friend codes. Want to to race in 150cc without items? Create a community, share the code with as many people as you'd like, and all players racing in the community will be matched together under your designated rules. Communities even feature specific leader boards to show who in the community has accumulated the most points, and how many community players are online at any given time. Of all surprises, community features of Mario Kart 7 take the cake, acting as a hybrid of game hosting and 'clan' like infrastructure that rivals online game organisation found in even the most impressive titles on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It's that good.
Taking the social concept further, Mario Kart 7 makes full use of street and spot pass data sharing, specifically in the form of ghost runs. Pass another player in the street, or go head-to-head with a rival online, and their race data will be shared with you via the Mario Kart 7 channel, allowing for offline ghost races against your opponent's best times. Opening up the system after a day out and about to find an assortment of new racing challenges to beat has potential to give the game limitless replay value, and it's undeniably more enjoyable racing against real human times over predictable AI.
Capping off wonderful mutliplayer features, Nintendo continues to ride the high of Super Mario 3D Land, as Mario Kart 7 features some of the most exceptional graphical presentation on the system. Like the aforementioned title, creative use of shader effects, such as bump mapped kart tires, give an extra level of polish to an art direction that could easily be mistaken for Mario Kart Wii, right down to the vibrant colours and clean texture work. Classic tracks have been successfully revived with a new coat of paint, while all of the new tracks look gorgeous, calling upon an assortment of effects and visual twists that keeps each thematically distinctly different from others.
Audio production falls in line with what can be expected from the series, and sounds just as good as ever. Satisfying engine grunts and cracking boosts make the simple act of racing an auditory pleasure, while backing tunes for tracks never frustrate or annoy. Many tracks call upon familiar Mario Kart or thematic jingles, such as Wii Sports Resort theme on the Wuhu Island tracks, while others integrate creative contextual sound design into specific tack elements, such as the Wii Music themed track that has racers speeding across giant xylophones, the wood keys resonated as karts make contact.
However, the greatest technical achievement of Mario Kart 7 is undoubtedly the 3D. Though the stereo display itself doesn't really offer an tactical racing advantage, the display itself is incredibly relaxing and comfortable on the eyes, even at maximum depth, and free of ghosting and blurring that plauged some early 3DS titles. Most impressively though is the game's framerate, which runs at a rock sold sixty frames per second in both 2D and 3D, and retains similar silky smooth performance when playing online. Clean and fast, Mario Kart 7 is easily one of the most attractive games for the system.
Had Mario Kart 7 been a single player exclusive game, we'd have walked away a bit underwhelmed, or perhaps more accurately disappointed, simple for the lack of single player focused features and frustrating AI quirks. But this is not the kind of game Mario Kart 7 is. For every step backwards it takes in single player content, it takes several steps forwards as a multiplayer title, packed with ludicrously impressive options and customisations clearly focused at the gamer who wants to game with other around the world, not by themselves.
Wrapped in the framework of arguably the most balanced item set seen in the series (sans Super Mario Kart), and a significantly increased emphasis on skill centric racing and track design, there is plenty of evidence here to suggest Nintendo's Mario Kart team has listened to the frustrated cries spurred by the imbalance of Mario Kart Wii, as Mario Kart 7 rights most if not all of the former game's wrongs, successfully pairing the franchise's party racer fluff with solid underlying racing mechanics begging to be mastered.
Due to issues with the overall package, we'll stop short of calling Mario Kart 7 the best in the series, but as a multiplayer specific title Mario Kart fans will be hard pressed to find anything better, and the game as a whole joins Super Mario 3D Land as one of the most impressive titles in the Nintendo 3DS library.