- Format: 3DS
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo/Retro Studios
- Players: 1-8 (local & online)
- Site: http://mariokart7.nintendo.com/
Double Dash (which irked some fans) aside, the Mario Kart games haven’t changed an awful lot since the original was released on the SNES almost twenty years ago. The series remains massively popular nonetheless, as evidenced by Mario Kart 7 outselling every other videogame in Japan last year – despite not being released until December. Are these sales due largely to a sense of duty amongst Nintendo fans, or is the magic still there?
So, yes indeed, Mario Kart 7 will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s played any previous game in the series. Lifelong fans will notice a mix of the old and the new here, however. As with Mario Kart Wii, you can unlock your Mii as a playable character, and motion controls are an option for steering (though only, oddly, if you use the new driver’s seat view). The recent introduction of karts with differing stats in regards to handling, acceleration etc. is taken one step further here, allowing you to mix & match a frame, wheel set, and parachute attachment.
The introduction of said parachute could so easily have ruined the whole experience. It’s arguably the biggest change the game introduces – but it works so well because it is, ultimately, hardly a change at all. You’ll rarely be in the air for more than a few seconds at a time, and some opportunities for gliding are entirely optional; meaning that, basically, the new attachment is mainly used for super-long jumps. There’s still a tactical element mind you, as you choose whether to try swooping under or over certain obstacles; and judge whether prolonging your flight as long as possible or diving groundwards at the first opportunity will give you that crucial half-second lead over the kart behind you.
The other change of note is the introduction of brief underwater sections in certain tracks. It must be said that, with no propeller-style attachment available, these sections do seem somewhat pointless. Driving underwater does seem to slow your kart slightly but apart from that, there are no noticeable benefits or drawbacks. They do nothing to improve the experience but, thankfully, nothing to detract from it either.
Coins, which are dotted around each track and here respawn after a slight delay, make a return. Collecting them (up to a maximum of ten) slightly increases your max speed, and you lose some as a penalty each time you fall off the track, hit certain obstacles, or are hit by an item used by an enemy. They also act as currency for unlocking new parts for your vehicle, as the game keeps track of your cumulative total in the background.
There are a total of 32 tracks here. 16 retro ones – tinkered with slightly to accommodate the new parachutes and underwater fetish – and 16 brand new ones. If you’re feeling generous enough to count those in the Mirror Cup as separate tracks, that’s… um… 64. The new ones are just as deviously designed as the old ones, full of turns ready to catch out those who time their powerslides wrong and shortcuts that will actually slow down those who come in at the wrong angle and/or don’t have the right item.
The item list includes series staples such as shells, banana skins, the star and so on, as well as more recent additions such as the bullet, which automatically whizzes you along the course (knocking over anybody who gets in the way) for a limited time – and the infamous blue shell. While the blue shell still homes in on whoever is in first place and is completely unavoidable, it now travels along the ground rather than through the air. This means it now hits anybody in its path on the way to first place, making it (slightly) less unfair to whoever ends up on the receiving end of the explosion at the end. The new kids in the item list are a tanooki tail (knock over anyone and anything that gets too close with a tap of the button, for a limited time) and ‘7’, which awards you with seven items all at once. This isn’t the gamebreaker it may appear to be, as you’ll never be awarded with a blue shell or bullet (though you will get an invincibility star). As the items constantly rotate, choosing exactly what you use when in the middle of a race can be tricky to say the least.
As ever, what the question mark blocks award you with after you drive through one is almost completely random. Now more than ever though it adds to the challenge, rather than rendering final results entirely down to chance. Recovering from spinning out, or even suffering an explosion, seems to be a little quicker than before; and not knowing what those behind you are armed with when you’re in the lead just makes you very aware of the mini-map (which now helpfully shows what item each racer is carrying/using).
Local multiplayer is possible both with and – kudos to Nintendo, without – multiple copies of the game. Online multiplayer is also present; but is the game’s Achilles heel.
You still can’t change your character or kart between races; you’ll have to quit and start a new online race for that. The races themselves are superb however, with no noticeable loss of graphical quality and absolutely no lag. The problem is that, for some players, the words ‘communication error’ come up far too often. Just before a race, just after a race has started… exactly when you don’t want it. At CG, some of us were forced to try this (which helped, but didn’t fix the problem entirely).
In theory, Mario Kart 7 is the best of the series so far. With an online mode that’s crippled for an indeterminate number of players however, we can’t justify scoring the game quite as high as we’d like. Once everybody can enjoy an uninterrupted online session, add one more point to the number below.