Nintendo’s platform star Mario has starred in a number of spin off games since first appearing on the video game scene, but few of those spin-offs have stood the test of time as strongly as Mario Kart. Whilst stuff like Mario in Time and Mario teaches Typing flopped the Mario Kart franchise has been well received by audiences since its inception on the 16 bit Super Nintendo. These days whenever the big N produce a new system you can bet that a carting game featuring their moustached plumber will come out at some point during the hardware’s life cycle. The only real surprise then is that the 3DS Mario Kart has been titled Mario Kart 7. I would have thought that Mario Kart 3D would sound snappier for marketing purposes, especially when you consider that Nintendo have previously omitted the numerical order of their games when naming the Mario Kart titles.
Given that Mario Kart games have been in existence since August 1992, there’s a good chance that if you are reading this you have some idea how Mario Kart 7 works. Players get to choose one of eight characters from the Mario universe (or their Mii avatar) and guide them through one of the eight Grand Prix competitions on offer. Each contest is broken up into four tracks were points are earned based on your position after crossing the chequered flag. After all four races are complete the racer with the most points earns a snazzy gold cup. As has been the routine in recent releases, the first four Grand Prix tournaments are made up of original circuits whilst the remaining four are formed from courses that appeared in the last six Mario Kart games. Long time fans of the series may get a nostalgic kick out of driving through the older courses, but I cannot help but wonder if the developers are just recycling tracks as it means less work for them from a design point of view.
Another accusation I could levy at the programmers is that this instalment is severely lacking in original ideas. Most of the new features in Mario Kart 7 don’t significantly enhance the gameplay experience. For the first time ever you can drive underwater and also deploy a glider to manipulate your trajectory when launched into the air. This sounds fun until you realise that the scuba driving handles much the same as driving on the surface, aside from a cute propeller appearing from the boot of your Kart. The glider also makes little difference as you only ever spend a few seconds at most when completing laps during a race. The only other notable feature I could mention is that you earn new parts for your Kart by picking up coins. Don’t expect a Need for Speed level of vehicle tinkering, but at least you get the option to adjust tyres and chassis to modify your ride’s attributes (alter the top speed, acceleration, grip etc.)
In prior Mario Kart games the action is presented from a third person view, where you see the rear of your Kart. Perhaps to enhance the 3D capabilities of the handheld Mario Kart 7 also permits the player to switch to a first person view which shows you the race directly through the driver’s eyes. Motion control happy Nintendo also give racers the choice of steering the Kart by tilting the 3DS left and right, making use of the inbuilt gyro sensor. Although these additions are cool to use for a few seconds I did find myself switching back to the default settings because they are less cumbersome to play with. In my opinion using the third person view makes it easier to gauge your position on the road and tilting the handheld also means tilting the screen which is annoying. Give me a traditional thumb stick for movement any day.
DIFFICULTY & POWERUPS
For casual gamers I am pleased to report that conquering the 50cc and 100cc difficulties of the cups isn’t too tough. The 150cc version of the Grand Prix races will however pose more of a challenge. To succeed you’ll do well to learn each course’s short cuts and hope that luck is on your side. For better or worse victory in the Mario Kart games does rely on a degree of good fortune because driving prowess will only get you so far. Thanks to the random power-ups even if you dominate a race, with Stig like reflexes, you can often find yourself being knocked out of first place on the last corner by an unavoidable blue shell. Grrr I hate those things so much.
I’ll assume that most readers are familiar with the power-ups on offer so I won’t bore you with an in depth description of the arsenal Mario and friends can unleash on their rivals. Needless to say all the old favourites are here including the shells you can hurl at anyone overtaking you, banana peels which make anyone driving over them skid and the star that grants you temporary invincibility for a few seconds. Exclusive to this version of Mario Kart is also the Tanooki leaf and Lucky 7. The leaf gives your character a bushy racoon tail which can be used to swat away projectiles, making a bee line for your exhaust, or any opposing Karts that get too close. Lucky 7 is probably the best ability in the game giving you seven power-ups for the price of one. It’s a game changer, but don’t expect to get it unless you are struggling because the quality of power-up you acquire is inversely proportional to your current placing during a race.
Although handhelds are normally inferior to consoles in the graphics department I believe Mario Kart 7 might be the best looking Mario Kart game to date. Technically speaking the Wii is the most advanced Nintendo machine on the market right now, but as it lacks a high definition display I feel that the 3D enhancements of Mario Kart 7 surpass the visuals offered by Mario Kart Wii. All the tracks look gorgeous, have a distinct feel to them and chug along at a fair pace with no slow downs. The audio matches what we have come to expect from the Kart franchise so in other words the sonics are excellent. The jolly tunes and sound effects are a joy to listen to so who cares if a plethora of the music tracks are from older games.
At the end of the day Mario Kart 7 is a must have for 3DS owners. It’s not a serious driving simulator so even if you aren’t big on racers it is easy to become enamoured by the simplistic pick up and play experience if offers. Races can be completed quickly making it an ideal choice to play during a train ride to work or at home when you have a few minutes to kill. Playing against A.I opponents can get tiresome after a while though so to get your money’s worth I would recommend taking advantage of the multiplayer modes on offer. Despite the heaps of praise I can bestow on the game I’m only able to award it four stars as it fails to deliver anything new. Fun as it may be I cannot help but feel that the formula is starting to get stale. Fingers crossed that they freshen things up for Mario Kart 8 because it’s starting to seem like we are just forking out cash for a graphical improvement of the same game.