This 3DS Mario Kart title doesn't reinvent the wheel, but does it have to?
Mario Kart 7’s name tells you way more about the game than you might think. While previous iterations in the series had subtitles that told you more about what was special about the game (even if it was just on a new system), the racing series’ 3DS debut has a generic-sounding name that accurately fits a by-the-book sequel. Mario Kart 7 is still great, especially with the stellar use of online and StreetPass and tiny gameplay refinements, but it ultimately just feels like its hitting bullet points.
16 new courses? Check. The new races are, as usual, cleverly designed with neat shortcuts and lots of nostalgia-inducing visuals. The big change-up in this game’s tracks is that three of them (the two Wuhu Island tracks and the new Rainbow Road) don’t feature laps; instead, each race is broken up into three unique sections. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual mayhem, and those tracks are some of my favorites in the game.
16 retro courses? Check. The tracks, ironically developed by Retro Studios, pull from each game in the series, though the Wii and DS games are the only ones that are represented in each cup. If you’ve had experience with these courses before, it’s novel to see how the game’s latest gimmick (using a glider to fly and a propeller to drive underwater) is used in each level. It’s a weird feeling knowing it is now okay to dive underwater in Koopa Troopa Beach.
Speaking of the new gimmick, that’s really all it is. Gliding is occasionally used to open up the courses, but it’s only implemented interestingly in a limited set of tracks. When you’re given the chance to float around for a while, it is awesome, but when you just leap off a ramp to glide for three seconds, it adds very little to the experience. Driving underwater is similarly underutilized, though it just feels like Mario Kart with lower gravity. There is actually a section in the new Rainbow Road where you drive on a moon that realizes the low gravity feeling perfectly.
The Battle Mode features six courses, three of which are pulled from past games. With the exception of a dud (Honeybee Hive), the courses are all excellent when eight players are involved. In a change from the normal Mario Kart tropes, the main Balloon Battle is timed, as players try to rack up the most captured balloons. Coin Runners, a version where you try to collect the most coins, is also present. The customization options are limited, allowing you to limit to groups of items, and not specific items. My hopes of a Blue Shells-only match are dashed.
Where Mario Kart 7 is bolstered above its predecessors is with its online and connectivity options. While I wasn’t able to test the full force of online, the matches I played were flawless and lag-free, and it was easy to hop in and start searching for games. The community option looks like it’ll be a fantastic way to find like-minded players. StreetPass and SpotPass give you the ability to build-up a roster of time-trial ghosts and future online opponents that is all easily managed in a menu off of the main menu. In addition to the online options, you can also play locally using download or multi-card play.
Mario Kart 7 also features a more focused array of items, removing a lot of the farcical ones introduced in past games. The three new items, Fire Flower, Super Leaf, and Lucky 7, all fit in nicely, with the Lucky 7 being the most ridiculous item ever, as it gives you a roulette of seven items ranging from stars to green shells. The same narrow focus extends to the characters, but that’s more of a regression. With items, it affects gameplay, but with characters, it doesn’t make sense to me to remove Dry Bones, the babies, and Waluigi when they’ve already appeared in several iterations. It’s not like this is Super Smash Bros. and Roy is being replaced by Ike; these characters are just straight-up gone and are replaced by the likes of Honey Queen and Wiggler. You also unlock kart parts along the way, but they don't add too much. It's just a new hat on what they had in Mario Kart Wii, except you have a little bit of granular control with the stats.
The 3D effect is snazzy, but it adds nothing more than shine to the game. Graphically, this might be the prettiest Mario Kart game ever. To Kart veterans, the controls should be instantly familiar, especially if you played a lot of Mario Kart Wii, as the boosting mechanic is lifted almost directly from that game. The optional first-person mode, which uses the gyroscope and Circle Pad in conjunction, is surprisingly good, almost like how the motion controls worked in Mario Kart Wii. Basically, you lose precision, but if you can beat people using it, you deserve a gold star (or wheel).
Mario Kart 7 isn’t a huge leap forward for the series. Instead, it’s another damn fine iteration in a proven series. You’ll still be upset when you’re “Mario Karted” by a blue shell followed up by a red shell and a bomb, but the winning online play and gameplay polish make Mario Kart 7 a must-have for all 3DS owners.