A new Nintendo system inevitably means the release of another Mario Kart. Once again, it’s the usual mix of powersliding around colourful courses, picking up weapons, and getting justifiably angry about how ludicrously unfair Blue Shells are. And it’s still enormous fun, but also extremely familiar.
As with the last few series entries, Mario Kart 7 has 16 new tracks alongside 16 reworked tracks from the previous six games. The design work on the new tracks is magnificent. There are less hard angles to deal with than in some previous releases, but plenty of looping bends to powerslide around the inside of. Although going wide on these corners can often yield coins or items, Mario Kart 7 prioritises smart driving above all else. Getting a boost on a powerslide is now dependent on the angle and duration of your slide, so ‘snaking’ along straights is thankfully gone (unless someone finds an exploit).
It pars things back a bit from the Wii version, ditching the bikes and capping the number of racers back to eight, but it also adds in gliding and underwater sections. These additions allow for some smart layered tracked track designs - if you fall off a bridge over a lake, you may simply find yourself driving along underwater instead, while shortcuts will often send you flying through the air, adjusting the angle of your glider to land just where you want to.
The retro tracks are fun, but only a few of them match up with the new courses, making us a little sad that Nintendo didn’t bother to squeeze in more new stuff. Indeed, the whole product feels like it may have been rushed out once Nintendo realised how crucial the franchise could be to the 3DS’s success over Christmas. The absence of Mario Kart DS’ ‘mission mode’, which offered up a series of fun challenge scenarios, is felt particularly harshly. Without it, the game feels a bit sparse, as though an additional option on the Single-Player menu should unlock at some point. On 50 and 100 CC the Grand Prixes are all ludicrously easy, and even on 150 CC I still managed to win all but one of them on my first shot. A mirror mode can be unlocked too, but we wanted more.
That Nintendo still has a long way to go with online gaming almost goes without saying at this point. Mario Kart 7 is one of their better thought-out online efforts, and it’s great fun to play against others, but there is room for improvement.
You can create or join ‘communities’, and then play other members who join up to it (I went ahead and created one for AusGamers – the community code is 42-8551-8383-4957), or simply jump into any Battle or Race game against global opponents. I didn’t encounter any lag, and only a few drop-outs, but the options are quite limited. You can’t set up a full-on Grand Prix, just single races, and you can’t nominate to search for races on a specific track, or games with the item settings changed. It’s also very restrictive about when you can exit an online game. If I’ve joined a full lobby and am stuck spectating because there’s no space in the race, why can’t I exit and search for another lobby? That’s insane
. Battle Mode, with its balloon-popping and coin-collecting variations, is fun for a bit, but not hugely compelling.
When you’re on the track, Mario Kart 7 feels better than any Mario Kart before it, and for most fans of the series that will be enough. But it’s the same basic formula we’ve seen in every Mario Kart since the SNES original. The Grand Prix format is feeling a little stale, and there’s ultimately not a whole lot to do in the game. Still, if you’re the type of person who tends to lose themselves in competitive Mario Kart, you’ll find plenty to love – just don’t expect it to be significantly different from your past loves.