Mario Kart 7 is a Mario-themed combat racing game for the Nintendo 3DS. As the title would suggest, this is the seventh installment in the series. However, since this is the first one I’ve actually reviewed so far, I think I should try to explain a bit about what the Mario Kart series is known for. If you already have a good idea, I suppose you can skip the next section. Also note that at the time of writing this review I’ve not played Mario Kart DS nor any Mario Kart games past 7. If you’re still here, then let’s a-go!
The Mario Kart series is about racing at its core. However, the games are certainly more than just racing games with a Mario skin. You race go-carts as Mario characters in Mario themed levels that often have familiar Mushroom Kingdom set pieces. The music generally gives off a Mario vibe as well, along with some organ, brass, and synth tones to add some energetic flare. The other bit is that you use Mario themed items, such as shells and mushrooms, to help hinder other racers and help yourself. This is the unique spin to the series that makes it so entertaining. The attention to style, detail, and polish is very appreciated, but this new element to the racing genre adds an intense layer of both skill and luck. Do you shoot shells at your opponents to knock ‘em away? Or do you hold onto them to protect yourself from someone else’s attack? Do you use your boost now to pass someone? Or do you wait and use it just before the next item box so that you can maximize your item collection? Perhaps you want to risk it and hold onto it until a shortcut section. Are you sure you can make that shortcut? Or maybe you need it for any chance of victory. The items create a lively, hectic, and strategic new layer to the simple idea of racing. This is what makes the series stand out from standard racers.
Now that we’re all up to speed, heh heh, let’s get to this entry in the series. Mario Kart 7 keeps up with the same overall formula. You race go-carts in various Mario-themed tracks against other Mario characters while using Mario-themed items to aide you. Half of the tracks in this game are entirely new with the other half being remakes of select tracks from all the previous games in the series. You can do standard cups which consist of four races in a row and points being awarded depending on which place you finish each race. Your total determines your overall place in the cup. You can also achieve a rank of 0-3 stars for each cup. You can also do time trials to try and get your best lap times and race times for each individual track. There are two battle modes. Balloon Battle is the usual type of balloon game for the series. Racers are put into an arena level and are supposed to use their items to hit other racers to knock off their balloons while protecting their own. The way this version of the battle mode works is that you gain a point for each balloon you knock off of an opponent. If all three of your balloons are knocked off, you lose half of your points and respawn with three more balloons. These rounds are generally timed and the highest score at the end wins. Coin Runners is the other battle game. In this mode you are put into arenas with items yet again. This time around, however, there are also coins spread out on the map. You drive around and collect the coins, with the maximum being ten. Hitting other racers can knock up to three coins out of them. The winner is the one with the most coins at the end of the time limit. There’s also an online mode where you can do individual races, find communities, get ghost data to compete against in time trials, and even do battle games with people around the world. Most of these features have been found in previous titles, but there are some interesting new things here as well.
The drift boosts are back and so are the coins. The coins in this game give you a slight boost when you collect them and your total, which has a maximum of ten, will slightly increase your speed as it goes up. The number of coins you have at the end of an online race or at the end of each race in a cup will be added to your total. Hitting certain benchmarks of coins will unlock a random new vehicle part. That’s right, this entry has kart customization. You choose your character, which has a few stats of their own depending on their size, and then you are given three different sections of your kart to customize. The body and wheels of the kart are the most important as they will alter the stats the most. There’s weight, speed, acceleration, handling, and off-road. The parts you pick have their own pros and cons to balance with the others. For instance, if you’re heavier, you tend to have a higher top speed, better off-road speed, and can knock others around more easily. However, it will take you longer to build up speed, and you won’t be able to turn as well. So picking the right kart for your playstyle and the given tracks will make a lot of difference. The third part you pick is the glider, which will also alter your stats but generally not as greatly. The glider is totally new to this installment. When you go off of large jumps your glider will deploy and allow you to glide through the air. You can control your turning as well as your angle of descent while gliding. This can sometimes be used to get ahead or reach shortcuts. There’s also the new ability to go underwater in this game as well. While underwater you control slightly differently, but you do have more control over your kart mid-jump. You can even go into first person mode in this game, giving you a new perspective and experience to the racing. This also allows you the option to control yourself with the 3DS gyro controls. There are three new items in this installment. The fire flower allows you to shoot a limited number of fireballs at your opponents. The leaf give you a raccoon tail for a limited time, allowing you to knock away enemies and items and pick up a few things that would normally be a bit out of reach. The third is represented by a 7 and gives you a ring of seven different items to use as you please. That’s a lot of stuff, but how does it come together?
Personally, I think all these things come together swimmingly. The music and sound design is very good. The visuals are very pretty and polished with vibrant colors and interesting details that don’t distract you from the tracks or the action. The control is so tight that even with the randomness of which items you or your opponents may get, the races still feel like they come down to skill more than luck. You might get knocked around on the last lap, but if you’re good then you’ll regain that ground very quickly. I think this is largely due to great design choices promoting your ability to traverse the tracks over your ability to spam items. Many of the tracks are built with branching paths. Some paths are made for tight turns while others are made for off-road runs. Some paths are risky shortcuts while others are easier the long way. Some paths will give you items while others will give you coins. Grabbing coins to give you little boosts, using the drift boosts from knowing the turns in and out, and mastering those tricky shortcuts will get you ahead of the pack far faster and more consistently than the luck of the draw. Plus, there are jump boosts where if you hit the hop button at the apex of a ramp then you will receive a slight speed up. Not to mention those magic stretches where if you keep on the road just right you’ll get a bit of a boost as well. All of these pieces come together to make for the best action I’ve ever seen in a Mario Kart game. Plus, you need to understand your kart and how to use it on each given track. The tracks are very action-packed. There aren’t many stretched of nothingness. At the very least you will at least have some interesting scenery to look at. The online mode seems to be nearly lagless too. It’s fairly fast paced to get into races and just marathon race others in a fun and competitive atmosphere. I also think the kart customization is a cool way to keep you experimenting and keeping your choice of character more open to characters you like rather than feeling so forced to pick a character for their special or stats. The unlocking of characters and parts is also a nice little incentive and excuse to keep you playing. Simply put, Mario Kart 7 is beautifully designed.
However, as great as this game is, every game has some downsides. An easy target is the ability to use gyro controls in first person mode. They work, but much like the Wii’s attempt at simulation a steering wheel, these controls are simply too imprecise to be used outside of making an extra challenge for yourself, trying to simulate the driving experience, or just goofing around with the available gimmick. In a game that benefits so much from its tight controls, this method of play really feels out of place. The first person view is interesting in itself. It offers better vision of what’s ahead and give you a different angle to sometimes see things better, but the game is clearly designed to be played in third person. In first person mode it’s too hard to see the sides of your kart or behind you. Turns can be difficult to judge and item usage is often hindered. Again, while the experience is cool, it’s more harmful to the mechanics than helpful. Although this can be switched on the fly with the press of the d-pad so if you know when to use it then I guess it could be very helpful at times. The unlocks are neat, but some of them do ask a lot of you as a player to get and are not necessarily worth the hassle. Neither of the battle modes give you coins towards your unlocks, which is a bit annoying because they would be a fun alternative way to get coins if you were tiring of the races. And come on… why wouldn’t you have COIN runners count towards your coin!? Even if it DOES only let you get ten at a time like each individual race, it’d at least be something. I would’ve preferred all new tracks for the game, but I guess the old tracks have been remade well enough to keep them interesting and exciting. Multiplayer on a handheld isn’t quite the same as on a console. You need to either play online or have multiple 3DS systems in order to do multiplayer, and even then it’s still a bit more disjointed because of the separate screens. At least it has download play, which allows others with a 3DS system to play Mario Kart 7 locally if at least one person has the game.
So there are some issues, mostly nitpicky. Overall, Mario Kart 7 is absolutely the best Mario Kart game I have ever played. It’s polished, controls incredibly well, sounds good, looks, puts emphasis on skill while having that random factor to create tension, there’s customization, and the replayability is through the roof. The amount of features and the performance of this game, even going as far as having a great online experience, all within the palm of your hand to play on your 3DS wherever you go is fantastic. I enjoyed some other Mario Kart games, but this is the first one that I would go as far as to call great. It’s a must have for 3DS owners. Definitely worth the thirty to forty bucks you’ll probably find it for. Don’t miss out on this, especially if you’re a Mario Kart fan. Now I just wonder how good that Mario Kart 8 is that everyone keeps going on about. Hmm. Oh well.