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One of two late 2011 releases that the 3DS badly needed to bring its underwhelming sales figures up (the other being Super Mario 3D Land) Mario Kart 7 was a timely release for Nintendo but not just as a system seller. The latest in probably the most popular series of spin-offs in video games and the first to reflect its position in the chronology by sticking a number in the title is a watershed publication for many of the handheld’s features including its online play. Its success was a foregone conclusion, as was its ability to ship hardware, more important is its status as the best of its kind Nintendo have produced.

You know the drill, choose from a host of Mushroom Kingdom regulars to race around various colourful and creative courses in 50, 100 or 150cc. You get ahead of the pack by exploiting cunning shortcuts, drifting round corners for a boost and making strategic use of randomly acquired power-ups. It’s a tried and tested formula that still works. Other than Grand Prix runs and time trials there’s little for lone players to get stuck into but the real value is found in the multiplayer.

The lack of single player depth is something I’ve always rather taken issue with in the Mario Kart series. Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing, one of many imitators of the franchise introduced a tremendous adventure mode that gave the racing the kind of depth, context, lifespan and replayability that Mario Kart has never achieved. That game remains my favourite in the genre and while I would have liked Mario Kart 7 to finally offer something similar I never expected it to. The good news is it didn’t need to to take its place as the best game in the series to date.

To clarify that bold statement, it’s the best in the series that I have played, which is every one but the trailblazing SNES original Super Mario Kart, a game that still commands massive respect among those who were there to experience it in the early nineties. One day I’ll get round to downloading it but until I do I can say with confidence that Mario Kart 7 rules. Much of that fact is down to the gameplay, which is tighter than ever and empowers a skilled player to feel like they are in total control like the series has never managed before. The best way I can illustrate this is by pointing to a particular shortcut in Dino Dino Jungle, one of the retro tracks included here. There’s a wooden bridge that features a couple of branching paths one of which can save you time but is very narrow to negotiate that the game’s heavy handling put me off from ever using but I made a beeline for every time in Mario Kart 7 which makes it easy.

Drifting has been tweaked so that boost sparks appear far more quickly when turning into a corner than powersliding sideways. This has been done to eliminate snaking, a technique not intended by the devs that experts at finger gymnastics abused in Mario Kart DS, which slightly spoiled that game’s online multiplayer. Now you have to put much more strategy and forethought into your drifting to reap the rewards of the stronger boost which can only really be achieved on corners of ninety degrees or more. Once you’ve mastered drifting it will become an obsession as you strive to make the best use of the technique possible to gain that tiny advantage over your competitors.

Of course mastery of the weapons remains paramount as failure to do so can cost even a skilled player. All the usual favourites return including bananas, red and green shells, invincibility stars and go faster mushrooms and they are joined by new additions such as the fire flower, a mainstay of the platforming series making its karting debut (Mario and Luigi’s unique character weapon in Double Dash!! doesn’t count as that was just a fireball) giving you a few seconds to throw flames forwards or backwards. The Tanooki Leaf which takes centre stage in Super Mario 3D Land also makes an appearance here imbuing your cart with a tail that will protect you from shells for a short time. Better still you can perform a tail spin with a tap of L to take out rivals, an act that commands great satisfaction. The wildcard is the rare Lucky 7 which gives you a septet of toys that rotate around you and are used in turn. It’s tough to judge which item you’ll use each time making it hard to use strategically and other racers can grab weapons off you but it’s a lot of fun all the same. And the dreaded blue shell returns more devastating than ever in that it no longer flies to its first placed target but runs along the ground bashing other racers like it used to. It can still rob a superior driver of a deserved first place but doesn’t appear as often as in previous games. Overall the weapons are excellently balanced and enjoyable as ever.

The major new gameplay draw is the addition of airborne and underwater sections which shake things up with mixed results. Mario and buddies can now soar through portions of courses by attaching gliders to their carts or take a dip and play submarine complete with propeller. This is one way in which Mario Kart 7 does mimic Diddy Kong Racing which allowed you to race in planes and hovercraft although here rather than letting you choose your kart essentially transforms in the appropriate places according to the design of the course. Once you’ve got used to the controls, gliding becomes a superb addition to the gameplay allowing for some very strategic play and the scope for finding shortcuts whilst airborne is irresistible. The underwater sections on the other hand are sluggish and lack nuance adding nothing to the experience other than a bit of variety.

The other major new feature is the ability to customise your cart, which leads me to another returning feature. The coins previously seen in the original and the GBA’s Super Circuit are back to increase your vehicle’s speed the more you collect with a limit of ten. The game also counts the number you accumulate and new vehicle parts including bodies, wheels and gliders are randomly unlocked once your total hits certain milestones. Your selection of parts affects every aspect of your kart’s performance, including speed, acceleration, handling and weight allowing you to mix and match to find a combination that suits your style of play. After some experimentation I settled on the Blue Seven body with Sponge wheels and the Parafoil with Toad as my driver. It works well and unlocking every part will necessitate hoarding a hell of a lot of coins thereby increasing lifespan.

All these features don’t mean much unless the racecourses are up to snuff and Mario Kart 7 doesn’t disappoint offering some of the best designed tracks in the series. There are plenty of basic Mushroom Kingdomy courses such as early offerings Toad Circuit and Daisy Hills that are good value but the more creative ones stick longer in the memory, among them the musical Melody Motorway, the Arabian Nights-themed Shy Guy Bazaar or Wario’s Galleon which is easily the best course to make heavy use of the aquatic sections. Most races are split into three laps as usual but three are structured as one long continuous road split into three sections, among them two courses imported from Wii Sports Resort, Wuhu Island Loop and Wuhu Mountain Loop, both welcome inclusions. The other is none other than the new Rainbow Road, which might be the best example of the recurring course to date, as twisty and dangerous as ever with good aerial sections and planets and moons to traverse along the way.

The returning retro tracks are an excellent selection all told, many of which have been chosen for the opportunity they afford to be altered to include aerial and underwater sections, such as standout Wii courses Maple Treeway and Koopa Cape. Other highlights include N64 favourites Koopa Troopa Beach and Kalamari Desert, as well as Luigi’s Mansion, Waluigi Pinball and Airship Fortress from the DS iteration and Daisy Cruiser and the aforementioned Dino Dino Jungle from Double Dash!! not to mention the original Rainbow Road. Aside from the rather dull Luigi Raceway from the N64 and the odd lack of GBA courses (Bowser Castle 1 is the sole inclusion, I’m still holding out for the return of Ribbon Road) it’s a great range and they all look wonderful having been put through the modernising machine by the masterly Retro Studios.

I’ve never found the desire to invest myself in online gaming much in the past but Mario Kart 7 changed that. The DS version suffered from issues such as snakers and races forcibly halted by someone quitting while playing the Wii version online always seemed a little pointless given the ease and accessibility of local multiplayer, which I have always maintained is a lot more fun. The new game being a handheld one is at a disadvantage in that local multiplayer obliges multiple console ownership among players which makes online a better bet for multiplayer. It looks like Nintendo are finally branching out from Friend Codes, a welcome move they seem to be maintaining judging by the limited details of the recently announced forthcoming Nintendo Network online infrastructure. The more freely organised options of Mario Kart 7 allow continuous play against anyone in the world with matchups based on a personal ranking system that increases or decreases your score based on your performance. Otherwise you can create or join any number of online communities with customisable rules or take on friends or opponents you meet via StreetPass.

Playing the game online is extremely addictive and really boosts longevity and not just because it makes you want to race and beat people from all over the globe. If you can achieve perfect ratings in all of the single player Grand Prix challenges your achievement shows up online which makes pursuing the previously less rewarding status of perfect ratings more appealing so you can show off to people in Mexico. There are only two faults I can detect with the online options. The ability to customise rules for communities could do with a wider range of options such as the ability to swap out exactly which weapons you want. The other thing is a glitch that shows up in Wuhu Mountain Loop where falling off the track in a particular place sees you put back on much further on, something that everybody exploits online. The glitch itself isn’t such an issue – once you’ve figured out why everyone keeps dumping themselves into the drink in the same place and ending up winning by miles it’s easy enough to do the same thing and level the playing field. The only trouble is that a disproportionate number of players habitually choose the course every time in worldwide play making Wuhu Mountain Loop by far the course you’ll end up playing most online. It’s the lack of variety this can cause that irritates but it’s more of the fault of the players than the developers. In truth it’s a fairly minor point but one worth noting. On the whole the online experience is excellent.

Mario Kart 7 also makes good use of StreetPass and SpotPass both of which deliver plenty of ghost data to test yourself against in time trials which breathes new life into a mode usually only pursued by bored solo players. You can also collect people’s Miis and find them showing up in Grand Prix mode or else race against them for real online. You can access all the relevant data on the Mario Kart Channel located on the main menu.

Mario Kart 7 is an overwhelming success and the most continuously engaging game in the series. Even without local multiplayer I’ve clocked up more than thirty hours with the game and counting. It’s a quality package very well presented with some of the best and crispest graphics yet seen on the system. The stereoscopic 3D brings decent depth to the racecourses but doesn’t offer much improvement in the gameplay department – aiming those green shells is as tricky as ever. And although the frame rate doesn’t suffer with the 3D slider at max I ended up mostly playing in 2D, mainly because maintaining the 3D sweet spot on crowded tube trains is a bit tricky. The only minor quibble I’ve yet to mention is the reduced size of the character roster which drops several characters in favour of such newbies as Wiggler and Super Mario Galaxy’s Honey Queen. Bringing in these creepy crawlies ahead of more obvious choices isn’t a major crime exactly but the omission of Waluigi is puzzling given the inclusion of Waluigi Pinball among the retro tracks. Other than that it’s a brilliant package that introduces a lot of successful new features and has rightfully given its host machine the boost it needed.

Verdict

 Presentation – 8

Clear menus and balanced arrangement of modes allow appropriate ease of access for players of all skill levels.

Design – 9

A great set of courses packed with the greatest variety of shortcuts yet to be found in the series.

Gameplay – 9

Extremely tight, addictive and satisfying to play with perfectly judged handling controls. Only the underwater sections are a slight let down.

Graphics – 9

Every bit as colourful and polished as you’d expect from Nintendo and Retro. The new courses are all lovely and even the most old-school tracks have received a good makeover.

Sound – 7

Generally to a high standard but most of the tunes aren’t memorable, the odd little accompaniment for Rosalina’s Ice World and the stirring Rainbow Road tune aside.

Difficulty – 7

The relative ease of one player Grand Prix modes is remedied by the much greater challenge to be found online.

Longevity – 8

The absorbing nature of the gameplay and addictive online experience give the game serious legs.

Overall

Despite a few small quibbles Mario Kart 7 is the most complete experience the popular series has yet produced with the online features taking centre stage. If this game had been available at the launch of the 3DS one suspects the console’s early sales might have been considerably healthier.

9.2

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