The Mario Kart series has been a firm favourite with Nintendo fans ever since Super Mario Kart was released on the SNES back in 1992. Its (then) unique blend of manic racing action and weapons both offensive and defensive has since become the template for all other mascot-based racing games to base themselves upon – everyone from Sonic the Hedgehog to the M&Ms has had a finger in the kart-racing game pie in the last twenty years – which isn’t bad considering that, prior to its release, many assumed Super Mario Kart was a sign that Nintendo was either running out of ideas or simply abusing Mario’s popularity and mass appeal in order to make a quick buck. Of course, it proved itself to be a massive success both critically and commercially, and since then every major Nintendo console has had a Mario Kart game to call its own.
Which brings us to Mario Kart 7 – actually the eighth game in the series if you include the Pac-Man infused arcade cabinet – which is the series’ newest instalment on Nintendo’s burgeoning new handheld, the 3DS. Mario Kart has appeared on handhelds before in the form of Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the Game Boy Advance and Mario Kart DS on the, well… DS… but the latest entry in the franchise trumps them both in almost every conceivable way, sometimes even outdoing its home console counterparts.
The racing itself is classic Mario Kart fare: eight outlandish opponents drive a variety of even more outlandish vehicles, while bombarding each other with a bevy of – yes, you guessed it – outlandish weaponry, racing in one of three speed classes. Green shells that bounce around the track, red homing shells, banana skins, giant bombs, invincibility stars and lightning bolts that shrink your opponents down to handily squashable sizes are joined by a handful of new mischievous tools, although they’re of mixed usefulness and some players will fare better with them than others. The Tanooki Tail – most fondly remembered from Super Mario Bros. 3 and the more recent Super Mario 3D Land – allows players to slyly wallop opponents should they stray within its limited range, while with the Fire Flower you’re able to let loose with fireballs for a brief time. Undoubtedly the most insane of the new additions, however, is the Lucky Seven, which bestows the player with a staggering seven weapons, handy for evening the odds and closing the gap on your opponents should you find yourself bringing up the rear.
Recurring characters – Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Toad, Yoshi, Koopa Troopa, Wario, Rosalina, Donkey Kong, Bowser – are not only able to utilise new weaponry, but are also joined by new faces, as Mario Kart 7 marks the series debut of a handful of classic Mario characters: Shy Guy, Metal Mario, Lakitu, Wiggler and Honey Queen. It’s a good enough roster, although admittedly I found some of the choices quite peculiar and some of the omissions even more odd, plus compared to the gargantuan 24 playable characters found in Mario Kart Wii, 16 seems slightly stingy.
Regardless of this, Mario Kart 7 is every bit as enjoyable as its handheld predecessors and then some, thanks to the 3DS’ circle pad. No longer will you need to tentatively tap at a D-pad to steer, movement is instead every bit as smooth and fluid as when playing any of the home console versions. Additionally, should you crave motion control akin to that of Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo’s also got you covered by way of the 3DS’ gyroscope; although if you choose to use this input method you’re limited to viewing the action from a first person perspective, which is at first every bit as jarring as it sounds, plus you’ll be unable to effectively make use of the 3D visuals when playing this way.
Content-wise, Mario Kart 7 doesn’t differ wildly from its predecessors. In single player, you have the option to compete in one of three speed classes: 50cc, 100cc and 150cc, with the opponent AI’s skill getting kicked up a notch the higher you go, along with their aggression and sheer brutality with weapons. In fact, brutality is the correct word, as playing Mario Kart 7 at 150cc can at times be utterly frustrating, as your seven opponents bombard you with a seemingly endless onslaught of red shells, or you find yourself robbed of your first place position right at the finish line as you’re thwarted by a blue shell – the blight of every Mario Kart player, this tool of Satan homes in on the player leading the pack – and end up in last place.
Of course, the real appeal of any Mario Kart game lies in its multiplayer, and Mario Kart 7 certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Up to eight players can compete with each other either locally or online via Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection. Online play is undeniably the jewel in Mario Kart 7’s crown, letting players race against friends and random opponents from all over the world. Although the omission of voice chat is a bit bewildering, races run smoothly; not once have I ever experienced any lag or connection issues. New to the series are the Communities, which allow anyone to create their own custom race conditions. Do you only want to play 100cc races? How about races in which the only available weapons are banana skins? Or perhaps you’d rather race with no weapons at all (helpful hint: don’t do that, it’s absolutely rubbish). These options and almost countless more are present in what is without question the most robust and fully featured multiplayer suite of any Mario Kart game ever.
Further customisation options are available for the karts themselves. A wide variety of different vehicles and attachments can be earned by collecting enough of the coins that litter every circuit, and players can pick and choose any combination of parts they’ve unlocked, all of which affect the kart’s performance in speed, acceleration, handling and off-road. along with how well they cope when being rammed by opponents. Attachments come in the form of wheels and gliders, the latter serving up what is perhaps the most drastic piece of innovation Mario Kart has seen to date. A large chunk of the courses feature huge jumps that see your kart automatically activating its glider attachment, subsequently letting you fly through the air. It’s mostly done for dramatic effect, but there are a fair few shortcuts available for players willing to risk gliding through more perilous routes. Additionally, many courses also feature underwater segments, in which the handling feels more weighted, plus – as with the gliding sections – there are sneaky shortcuts waiting to be utilised.
Speaking of courses, races take place on 32 tracks split across eight separate cups; four comprising new courses and four made up of classic courses from previous games. The new courses that are included are for the most part brilliantly designed and their difficulty is perfectly pitched as they gradually become more difficult to navigate through as you progress through the eight cups. The featured retro courses are also some of the best the series has to offer, with classic circuits from the SNES, N64, GBA, GameCube, DS and even Wii instalments presenting players with a pleasant dose of nostalgia. There are a few duff courses – both old and new – present that aren’t all that enjoyable to race on; for example, both the SNES and 3DS Rainbow Road circuits are borderland sadistic in their design, while the new Bowser’s Castle course is disappointingly humdrum when compared to past iterations.
Mario Kart 7 can often be infuriating. Events can unfold during races that will bring you right to the brink of insanity, ready to curse Nintendo and all that they stand for, or hurl your 3DS at the nearest wall. But then, that’s the charm of Mario Kart. It’s an arena in which everyone is equally matched due to its sheer randomness, and the more sadistic you are, the higher your chances of success. Mario Kart 7 upholds the series’ tradition of being enormous fun while at the same time brutally unforgiving at times, and that – coupled with its fluid controls, (mostly) great course design, brilliant multiplayer component and some of the best visuals the 3DS has to offer – makes this the best Mario Kart game yet. If you’re not a fan, nothing here is going to bring you to your senses (you poor, deluded fool), but if Mario Kart revs your engine, you’re going to love Mario Kart 7 and it’s truly a must-buy for any self-respecting 3DS owner.
Verdict: Red Mist
Platforms Available – 3DS
Platform Reviewed – 3DS