New features and old make for a great racing experience.
Perennial racer Mario Kart is back in what could be the best edition yet. Despite the addition of gliders and underwater driving, the game doesn't stray too far from its traditional gameplay, and even brings back some of the better features from versions past. It could be the group that I raced against at Nintendo, but races pleasantly seemed much more physical than in recent games, with a lot more bumping and direct attacks.
The new courses often have branching paths in any direction, including up and down. The glider and underwater driving capabilities are a great addition. Soaring through the air while shooting off turtle shells, and being able to drive underwater without immediately getting picked up by Lakitu really add to the experience and keep you going in the races.
I maintain that the N64 version removed many of the components that made the original Super Mario Kart great. Some of these are finally back. Coins increase your top speed (up to a max of 10), while the the shoulder button hop maneuver also returns. Unlike in the original, coins replenish after a short amount of time, as do the question blocks. Instead of shaking the controller to perform a trick in the air as in Mario Kart Wii, tapping a shoulder button also serves that purpose. Power-sliding is back, and works by steering in the reverse direction while drifting -- snaking does not seem possible, fortunately.
While racing, pressing up on the D-pad activates gyro controls. The camera moves up into a first-person view and driving can be controlled by both the gyro and Circle Pad (as in the Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64 remakes).
Driving characteristics seem to be more controlled by the karts, wheels, and gliders than they are the drivers. Each driver can drive any kart, along with any combination of wheels and glider, once unlocked. These components significantly affect the driving performance, and some fairly ridiculous combinations can be made. There were some pretty strange karts, such as the cactus-based Cact-X and a glider made out of a Swooper (bat enemy from Super Mario World).
Three new powerups are the Fire Flower, Leaf, and Lucky 7. Joining the resurgence of the raccoon tail power in Super Mario 3D Land, the Leaf is a time-limited power that can swipe nearby attacks and opponents. Frustratingly, the power always seemed to end right after passing the next set of question blocks. The Fire Flower is a more interesting power (and surprising that this is its first appearance), which can send a barrage of fireballs ahead or behind the driver. I didn't see the Lucky 7 in action, but it surrounds players with seven different items, which can be used one at a time.
Sadly, some of the oft railed against features are back as well, the blue shell in particular. This time, it travels along the ground like in the N64 version, blowing away everything in its path in pursuit of the lead driver. In its final approach, it flies up as in the more recent Kart games, dropping down in an explosion. This incarnation is especially evil. In one of my races, I was hit from behind while in third place. The first two drivers then crossed the finish line while the shell was in its airborne stage. The shell then reversed course in mid-air and came back to hit me again.
It's nice to see certain classic courses return, including one of my favorites, SNES Mario Circuit 2. However, kart upgrades have blunted some of the unique features of the tracks. For instance, the secret second jump bar in Mario Circuit 2 is easier to hit and not as effective due to the addition of gliders. The new real 3D physical nature of these courses also affects the 2D tracks. A speed boost along with a hop was enough to throw me over a wall on GBA Bowser Castle 2, which wouldn't have happened in the original version. The graphics and sound of these courses have been significantly upgraded, and everything runs super smoothly.
The new stages are pretty unique. Music Park, aside from being filled with musical instruments like pianos, featured music note-shaped Thwomps, which could pound you if you weren't careful, but hopping in time with their rhythm actually gave you a speed boost. The game looks best in motion, and the falling sakura blossoms on the Mario Circuit level are just one of the many little touches that complement the usual frenzied, item-filled races.
Aside from the online features revealed today, the game includes single and multi-card local multiplayer. Single card play limits the kart options and the driver can only be Shy Guy. Shy Guy is now an option in the regular game, however, as well as Miis.
Overall, Mario Kart 7 is shaping up to be a great entry in the series. Like Super Mario 3D Land, it takes positive inspiration from older games in the series and combines it with more modern components. While there are still a few niggling issues like the continuing return of the blue shell, the game feels more balanced.