Mario Kart 7: the game that will save the 3DS. Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but it has the potential to lift the 3DS out of its rut and make the handheld worthwhile. Super Mario 3D Land may well be the better game, but it won’t have the longevity of Mario Kart.
I still play Mario Kart DS as it’s essentially the perfect handheld title. Mario Kart 7 is ready to replace it as the new “go to” game when you need to kill a spare 15 minutes or 15 hours on a long-haul flight. Mario Kart 7 is the game 3DS owners have been eagerly awaiting.
What Mario Kart 7 Got Right
Classic Mario Kart - The classic elements of Mario Kart that we’ve come to know and love are all still here. You choose from a somewhat limited roster of players – with 8 available from the outset and another 8 unlocked – and race your way through a variety of tracks, split up into eight cups, to take home the silverware.
It’s classic Mario Kart with difficulties including 50, 100 and 150cc races. The latter is finally challenging, at least compared to the more casual Wii version. The gameplay modes are all familiar, with the stalwart of single-player remaining Grand Prix mode, which tasks you with winning all eight cups in succession.
The tracks - Retro Studios was commissioned to work on the Donkey Kong inspired level, but ended up remastering half of them. Of the 32 tracks in the game, 16 are “classic” from old school Mario Kart, complimented by 16 new tracks from Nintendo.
The old tracks have been selected from a wealth of quality, including Koopa Beach from the Nintendo 64, Rainbow Road from the SNES and Mushroom Gorge from the Wii, just to name a few. The new courses are equally impressive, with an emphasis on challenge to veteran players. This isn’t a game for Grandma. Some areas are only wide enough for one kart to pass, making the use of items more strategic than the inclination to spam them immediately in past games.
There are heaps of shortcuts that can change the face of a race in ways not seen since Mario Kart 64. Some are basically alternate routes, while others require precision that will make or break your race. This is what Mario Kart is all about. It actually requires a semblance of skill and forward planning to win a race. It doesn’t all come down to one overpowered item – but they are still there.
A small step forward - The new additions to Mario Kart 7 take to the sky and under the sea with the ability to glide and go underwater. They feel Diddy Kong Racing-esque, which is a 3DS compatible DS game, but undoubtedly add a new dimension to Mario Kart.
The glider controls well and quickly became a personal favourite of mine, while underwater adds a different dimension to Mario Kart. Whereas water has always been foe, it has now become friend. The water section in Koopa Beach, for example, always foiled my ambitious tactics on the Nintendo 64, but can now be fully traversed.
The other notable evolution is the ability to customise your kart, changing the wheels and body for advantages in handing or speed. It’s not ground-breaking, but offers flexibility and gives the player a newfound sense of control. Default handling is an improved version of the Wii’s “manual” mode and the best of any Mario Kart game.
Multiplayer - The bread and butter of the series, multiplayer is as strong as ever in Mario Kart 7. There’s standard versus racing as well as the classic Balloon Battle. It's now limited by time, not balloon stock, and the player who takes the most in total is crowned the winner. It’s more entertaining than the three balloon system of old, and allows for more aggressive play without the fear of being knocked out of the match. The side-effect is the loss of defensive play, as there’s no benefit to protecting your balloons.
Local play is still the strongest option. Nothing beats being able to high five or punch your opponent in the face, depending on sportsmanship. It supports download play if your cheap buddies haven’t bought the game, but really, every 3DS owner should have Mario Kart 7.
Online Communities - Communities is one of the key improvements that advances the series. You can create custom rules for races with groups and share them with others online. It’s great to be able to tinker with the rules and set them to your desires. If you don’t like something, customise how your group plays – just don’t go too far, otherwise nobody will join.
Unfortunately, Community Groups are more or less restricted to your friends. Nintendo is still as conservative as ever when it comes to online gaming, but Mario Kart 7 is about as good as it gets on a Nintendo platform. Each player is assigned a rating based on how they’ve fared in the past. It allows matches to be paired up based on estimated skill, as they should be.
The motion controls - A throwaway addition to Mario Kart 7 actually works surprisingly well. At any moment you can switch to first person and control your kart using the 3DS’s gyroscope motion controls. It works particularly well for the glider.
Like all 3DS games, however, it’s best in 2D mode. It’s also tiring after one race, let alone all 32 tracks, so it can’t be considered the best control method. Nevertheless, it’s a positive inclusion and nice secondary option to shake things up momentarily.
What Mario Kart 7 Got Wrong
Single-player is lacking - Handheld games need an emphasis on single-player. Unfortunately, Mario Kart 7 is essentially limited to Grand Prix. Its DS predecessor offered a variety of missions; these are nowhere to be seen in the 3DS incarnation. It vastly reduces the single-player value, even if it’s a multiplayer game at its core.
Conservative Nintendo - Nintendo needed Mario Kart 7 to play safe, and it has, but at the expense of serious innovation. Gliders and the ability to go underwater are interesting, but hardly progress the series substantially. The lack of serious evolution isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Mario Kart has rarely taken a wrong turn. However, Nintendo is going to have to break the shackles one day and that hasn’t happened with Mario Kart 7.
Lack of characters and bikes - A total of 16 characters is disappointing compared to the Wii’s 25. Customisation makes it feel like more, but really Nintendo should have aimed for at least 20. Perhaps they will improve the line-up through DLC. The omission of motorbikes is also a shame, as they were a highlight of the Wii game.
The Final Verdict
Mario Kart 7 is the game every 3DS gamer must own. Its classic multiplayer is the best on the system and is unlikely to be surprised by anything except maybe Super Smash Bros. several years down the track. The single-player is lacking and Nintendo has been very conservative, but as a multiplayer title it is arguably the best Mario Kart game to date and offers a much greater challenge than the casual Wii instalment. Mario Kart 7 gives you a reason to pack the 3DS these holidays.
By Ben Salter