Review: Mario Kart 7 for Nintendo 3DS

Fighting for first place over land and air, Mar-i-o!

The following was originally posted on the Toronto Video Game Examiner on December 1st, 2011. Some changes may have been made to fit the format of Mario’s Hat.

The “7” in Mario Kart 7 feels very appropriate, mathematically speaking. Between all the addition and subtraction of elements new and old, it is almost like a game for accountants as one tries to figure out whether the end product is better, equal to, or lesser than previous installments of the series.

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Start Your Engines

For those unfamiliar with the Mario Kart experience, here is a really quick rundown: you select one of a group of characters from the Mario (and sometimes Donkey Kong) video game series, stick them behind the wheel of a crazy go-kart contraption, and have them race to the finish line through courses inspired (and sometimes not-so inspired) by other characters and locations from the series. Oh, and you also use a wacky variety of similarly-inspired weapons to improve or keep your position.

At its core, Mario Kart 7 is the same basic experience known and loved by millions worldwide, but with a few new twists. Naturally, as a Nintendo 3DS title, the game employs true 3D visuals, but these aren’t quite as mind-blowing as those seen in Star Fox 64 3D, nor as functional as those in Super Mario 3D Land. Nonetheless, if you can see 3D and do not get motion-sick easily, then this enhancement certainly adds a welcome level of depth to a game which always has you moving forward.

This goes hand-in-hand with another first for the series: first-person driving. Previously, Mario Kart titles would always have the driver out in front of the camera, but this time, you can get right behind the wheel by pressing Up on the D-pad (and any other direction to exit that view). Furthermore, you can control the kart in this mode (and only this mode) by using the Nintendo 3DS gyroscope to turn left and right.

Of course, depending on how you play, pairing 3D and motion-steering may not always work out. Fortunately, contrary to what Nintendo had previously stated, you can control the kart from a first-person perspective using the Circle Pad. This can conflict with the gyroscope controls, however, but you can turn those off by entering an out-of-the-way menu located in the Mario Kart Channel section.

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Tools and Tracks

Another big-ticket item of note for this installment is that Mario and crew are effectively going all-terrain this time out. In certain portions of the tracks, you might go into some water; previously, you would have to be fished out by Lakitu, potentially losing spots in the rankings. But now, a propeller pops out of the back, and you just keep on going, albeit with a floatier feel, due to the physics of moving underwater.

Similarly, catching some air off of certain ramps will cause a glider attachment to deploy, allowing you to steer through the air to avoid obstacles, gather coins, and try to gain as much distance as you can before rubber meets asphalt once more.

The courses themselves are 32 in total, with 16 brand new courses, and 16 remade to fit in with the Mario Kart 7 driving style. The old courses are as good as ever, with some old favorites like Mario Kart 64‘s Kalimari Desert and Mario Kart DS‘s Airship returning. New ramps and areas are included, allowing you to glide over portions of the track, or holes which allow you to keep driving underwater.

And the new courses are a lot of fun as well, though some of the inclusions are iffy. Among the 16 are two which take place on Wuhu Island, from such games as Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit/Plus, and Pilotwings Resort. These, in addition to what we think is the best version of the final Rainbow Road course to date, also introduce a new idea: most Mario Kart tracks require you to make several laps to win the race, but in the case of these three, it’s all one big, long course with different legs to complete.

Other courses continue the series’ strange trend of turning away from converting Mario game levels into racetracks, including the rain and neon lights of Neo Bowser City and the rolling tunes of Melody Motorway, which many are taking as a nod to Wii Music (though we were sure there was a similar stage in Super Mario 3D Land, but we couldn’t find it when we went back to look for it). These are a little strange in their own right, as is the choice to associate Rosalina with an ice-themed racetrack (though some Super Mario Galaxy elements can be spotted in the background), but regardless of their inspiration, these are still some very fun tracks to race around.

Of course, while those stand out for feeling a little like tracks with character associations arbitrarily slapped on, others continue what began in Super Mario Kart by adapting familiar Mario settings into courses upon which you’ll collide with other racers. One favorite is Piranha Plant Pipeway, which does a remarkable job of adapting the underground and overworlds of the original Super Mario Bros. into a 3D setting, and not in the retro graphics way one might expect.

And we would be remiss if we did not mention Shy Guy Bazaar, a slightly-subtle tribute to the Shy Guys’ game of origin, Super Mario Bros. 2. Anything which further cements that game as a part of the series is alright by us.

The unfortunate part of combining the new tracks and the new kart features is that, taken together, it doesn’t feel like they offer much more new than a slightly different way of doing what you’ve always done. Shortcuts have always been a part of the Mario Kart series, and so they remain here, though the glider and propeller seem like little more than new ways to access those shortcuts, and they aren’t even always required.

In truth, we were hoping that Mario Kart 7 would use these new implements to really push the envelope a little more. Falling off the track was always a bit of a bother in the older games, but what if that was no longer an issue? What if it just meant you fell in the water, or could glide down to another length of road, and keep going without stopping? Continuous racing, from start to finish?

That’s not the case here, though. It feels like they began to tap into such potential in a few cases, such as driving off-shore and underwater on the beach, but otherwise, no more than they had with previous shortcuts. And in some cases, the gliders are nothing more than a visual enhancement for the really big jumps; in some cases, you don’t even get to control the glider, leaving us to wonder just how much it really adds.

Don’t get us wrong, we do enjoy the additions, if only for the pseudo-Batmobile/Gadgetmobile/Spy Hunter-ness of it all, but we were hoping that perhaps Mario Kart 7 would set it apart from its imitators here by opening up the world more. To put it another way, we were hoping for something of a new dish with familiar ingredients, but instead got some tasty seasoning on an old dish.

The other disappointment here is in the number of tracks. With each new Mario Kart installment, we get many more new ones, but the number in each game has remained constant for the past three titles (including this one), and even that was a drop from the 40 featured in 2001’s Mario Kart: Super Circuit.

Simply put: The number of games/tracks in the series continues to grow, but not the amount in each game, which means more and more favorites are being left out.

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Plumb My Ride

Mario Kart 7 boasts another new feature in the form of kart customization. Its not on the level of such high-end racing games as, say, Forza Motorsport 3, but you do get to experiment a little and find a good set-up which works for you by combining different kart frames, wheels, and gliders.

And there are quite a number of parts to collect, both “realistic” (in a sense) and cartoony, from regular go-kart frames to egg shells and one of our favorites, the Barrel Train, plus regular tires, off-road tires, and tires made of mushrooms or sponge. Different mixes of parts affect factors such as weight, top speed, handling, and acceleration.

You begin the game with a choice of about three frames, three wheel types, and one standard glider. As you race, you will find coins floating along the track, and their purpose is two-fold: gathering them increases your speed during that race (up to a maximum of 10), and the coins you have collected go towards unlocking new parts.

Unfortunately, you never really have an idea what your accumulated coin total is, only whether you’ve gained enough to unlock the next part. Instead of spending your coins on the parts you want, each time you’ve acquired enough (50, 100, and so on, with the occasional gap-widening), a part will be randomly unlocked.

What’s more, you cannot even choose what kind of part is unlocked; despite what others may have said, it appears to be a complete luck of the draw. Or at the very least, it’s determined by factors far less obvious; our first unlocked part was the Egg 1 frame, while another reviewer’s first was the Swooper Paraglider, something we did not get until hundreds of coins in.

It may go without saying, but fans of Mario Kart Wii‘s motorcycles may be disappointed to learn that the two-wheeled rides do not make an encore appearance. Nor, sadly, does the option of decorating your kart with your own unique emblem from Mario Kart DS.

The limited tinkering with karts is a fun addition, though with everyone now able to choose from the same parts, there is now a risk that players may gravitate towards a more optimal selection, potentially leading to less variety on the track.

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Lacking in Character(s)

There are three main things which make Mario Kart what it is: Racing with Mario characters through Mario racetracks and attacking each other with Mario items. And ever since Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the GameCube, Nintendo has done a fine job of adding new characters to each installment, though many would have to be unlocked.

Unfortunately for fans of Mario characters, this is where the game really falls flat.

Mario Kart 7 begins with eight characters, the same eight found in the original Super Mario Kart. Following that, there are nine unlockable characters, down from the 26 seen in Mario Kart Wii. And nearly half of those are new.

The new batch includes Lakitu, Honey Queen (the giant queen bee from Super Mario Galaxy), Wiggler, and Metal Mario. One has to wonder why these were chosen over such longstanding racers as Diddy Kong and Waluigi (whose only real purpose has been to balance out Wario in games such as this), or other favorites such as Funky Kong, R.O.B., Dry Bones, or even Dry Bowser.

So, we are now left with the flagbearer, a giant insect who freaks out most people who see her, a former (and current) racetrack obstacle, and what most people think is a power-up for the rest of the roster. We doubt there was a huge demand for these guys, and while we aren’t bothered by their presence as racers, we still hate seeing several of our favorites go by the wayside.

Bonus strangeness: While Waluigi is absent, the Waluigi Pinball stage remains. Go figure.

Of course, it probably won’t matter to the majority of people who play this game. With the exception of the Mii, who is unlocked by winning all of the cups on any CC-class difficulty (which in itself is a nice relaxation of the demands Mario Kart Wii put on its two unlockable Mii slots), you must be an expert to unlock anyone else.

That’s right: To unlock the above four, as well as Daisy, Wario, Rosalina, and Shy Guy, you must complete a cup in first place overall at 150cc. So unless you’re willing to fully dedicate yourself to this game, then don’t expect to get to play with or race against anyone but the starting eight and Miis.

This really is a shame; Mario Kart has had a broad appeal, and we imagine there are a lot of fans of a lot of Mario characters who just aren’t good enough to take the very best a game like this has, especially with all the luck involved (more on that in a few), and come out on top. The standards are much stricter than in Mario Kart Wii or Mario Kart DS, in which you could at least unlock some of the characters if you did well on the lowest difficulty. Instead, we now have characters who were even once available at the start of the game behind lock and key.

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing featured a much better idea in allowing you to accumulate points just for racing, with better performances netting more points. In turn, you could spend those points on new drivers/cars, tracks, and even more music.

When we first heard you would be able to spend the coins earned on the racetrack, we had hoped that Nintendo was following SEGA’s laudable lead. Instead, they’ve made the process worse than ever, and the old adage “it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” clearly has no place when it comes to playing as the characters you like.

Maybe, if Lady Luck ever smiles down upon us, we can unlock Rosalina. But, speaking of luck…

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Items, Items, Everywhere…

One thing which makes Mario Kart special to many is the ability to use items found in blocks on the track against other racers. However, some items are definitely worse than others.

For Mario Kart 7, however, Nintendo has made a lot of tweaks to the items. Three new ones have been added, including the Super Leaf, which allows you to swing it at racers, items, and obstacles offensively and defensively until it disappears; the Fire Flower, which lets you throw fireballs ahead of and behind you until it disappears; and the rare Lucky 7, which surrounds your kart with a variety of potent and less-potent items.

On the other side of the coin, such nuisances as the Fake Item Blocks, Thunder Clouds, and POW Blocks are now gone, and even the dreaded Blue Shell has been toned down considerably. Rather than flying about the track, it hovers, and knocks aside anyone in its way before leaping for the first-place kill. Even then, the knockdown doesn’t seem as detrimental, and you don’t even lose the item you’re holding.

Instead, the new item to dread is the Lightning Bolt, a series staple from the beginning. With the Blue Shell’s effects scaled back to a point of being potentially useful, the Lightning Bolt takes its place as the worst item in Mario Kart 7. Its devastating effects, which include robbing you of your item, your coins, shrinking you, and potentially knocking you clear off the track, would be tolerable in doses if they were as rare as, say, an actual bolt of lightning. Instead, seeing several of these during a single race is not at all uncommon.

Making matters worse is the issue of combos. Sure, they aren’t officially acknowledged as in fighting games, but they certainly exist here. What’s more, they could easily make the combos seen in such titles as Marvel vs. Capcom 3 or Killer Instinct blush, not due to the number of hits, but due to their combined devastation.

There are times when it feels as though the computer is bullying you, hitting you with one item right after another. A blue shell homes in on and blasts you, just before lightning strikes. Add in a couple of red shells for good measure, and maybe a Bullet Bill-empowered racer will knock you clear into a ravine.

Besides costing you several places, each hit also knocks away several coins, and if you’re knocked to where Lakitu must rescue you, he takes his cut as well. Given that coins = speed in these races, such attacks can be costly in more ways than one, as you then really have to struggle to get back into the lead.

Another incident we’ve seen has had us see lightning and Bloobers appear on the screen simultaneously. It’s understandable that this might happen by chance with human opponents, but one would think they might program the computer to show at least a shred of mercy by spacing out the attacks by more than a mere nanosecond, if that.

Actually, what we’ve described here is what happens in the 50cc mode; 150cc is not only faster, but the computer players are much more aggressive as well. These incidents aren’t extremely common, but they do happen often enough that one takes notice. And this is why unlocking characters will undoubtedly prove to be difficult for many.

Even so, it doesn’t feel quite as malicious as past installments of the series, and seems a little more balanced.

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Other Modes

In addition to the Grand Prix mode, there are time trials (which can be raced against “ghosts” of the developers) and two Versus Modes. One is Coin Runners, a fun race around Battle Courses to find (and take) the most coins before time runs out. Of the six courses available, we found that the Nintendo 64 Big Donut stage didn’t seem to mesh well, with the only coin placement being over the large lava pit, with few ways to reach them.

The other is Balloon Battle, a series staple from the start. Here, your goal is to gain items and pop your opponent’s balloons. Unfortunately, instead of popping all of your opponent’s balloons to win, you just pop as many as you can within the time limit; if someone loses all three of theirs, they simply respawn. This lack of “sudden death” style play and a bothersome short time limit really keep this from being as much fun as the original, and should have been included as an option, rather than the sole way to play.

Oh, and you can’t blow up your balloons with the microphone any more, either.

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Both of the above modes can be played against other players, or you can challenge the computer. But if you are lacking a human opponent for any mode, that’s when you head online.

Truth be told, we don’t know whether it’s the game, the system, or just our system, but going online has been iffy, as we’ve experienced several “communications errors.” In fact, with another reviewer and I sitting right next to each other, we experienced several over our WiFi connection.

We’ve had a mix of trouble and success on the Nintendo WiFi Connection as well. But when it’s worked, it has been a lot of fun. Playing with others allows you to set up communities and rules, though these are unfortunately not as robust as in Super Smash Bros. Melee or Brawl, nor can you adjust items in the main game.

Fortunately, the ability to continue playing with others in rematches is far easier, and you don’t even need to swap friend codes for it. But if you would like someone to join your community, there is a number which must be traded.

Still, online racing — even with the person right next to you — can be a bit buggy at times. We actually heard the countdown clock to the start of one round count down for her before ours even began, and during that bout and online races, we’ve seen racers ahead of us literally disappearing and reappearing elsewhere on the track, and attacks which should have been direct hits were not.

We even sent a red shell out at our fellow reviewer, who was across the field in front of us, before they disappeared and wound up somewhere behind us.

In fairness, there has been mostly praise with the online mode of Mario Kart 7, and we’re willing to consider that one’s results may vary, even among different playthroughs by the same individual. Or it might just be our hardware. We would be lying if we said we didn’t get some good, enjoyable rounds out of it, but it is simply not always the case.

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In Control, or Out of Control?

The last thing we would like to touch on are the controls. For the most part, they are good; in some ways, maybe even better than ever, as the Circle Pad allows for a much greater degree of control over your steering than the D-pad ever allowed, and it sometimes feels even better than an analog stick.

And while we prefer to use the Circle Pad, the motion controls aren’t bad, either.

We do have three main issues, however. One is that the time between pressing a button for an item to activate and it actually activating seems a little slow sometimes. We’ve heard a shell coming up on us, pressed the button, and nothing happened before we got smashed… and then the banana peel would drop behind us, costing us the item for no gain.

The second issue is one we’ve shared with one or two other reviewers, that being a sense of discomfort from holding the Nintendo 3DS to play the game. There are no features for controller customization, and while they did change the Y button to serve as a second acceleration with the A button, the drifting function on the R shoulder button is the one and only permanent fixture.

After a while, it tends to get a little uncomfortable, though we have gotten a little used to it. We do find that not holding an item behind you for protection at all times does help a bit, but then that leads to the timing issue above.

Finally, it may just be us, but we’ve found some inconsistency with the hop/drift on the right shoulder button. Sometimes it works perfectly well, and we drift perfectly, while other times, we’re greeted with a much less desirable series of rapid hopping, or sometimes a hop during a drift.

Overall, we figure it may simply be an issue with the size of our hands, leading us to wonder, if not hope, that maybe a Nintendo 3DS XL might be in the works. No need for bigger screens, if that would affect the 3D thing; just give us a little more of something to hold on to.

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Approaching the Finish Line…

In the end, Mario Kart 7 has added some things, and it’s taken some things away. There have been some improvements, and some diminishments, but ultimately, we would have to say that this game is roughly as good as any other in the series, though that also depends on what you are looking for (i.e. playing as lots of characters).

The game is quite good, and can be played over and over again, but we do feel it has a lot of untapped potential as well, while missing the mark in a few other areas. The new courses and loss of some of the more annoying items make this one to check out, though we hope that maybe Nintendo might look at some aspects of Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing for some hints on better ways to provide unlockables, as well as some more interesting vehicle variety and less irritating weapons.

Perhaps Mario Kart 8 can prove to be the best yet, then, rather than roughly as good as what came before it.

The Toronto Video Game Examiner rating for this game was 4/5 Stars.

mariokart7boxMario Kart 7 was released for the Nintendo 3DS on Sunday, December 4th, 2011 at a price of $39.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.

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David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.