Review: Mario Kart 7 (3DS)

I’m playing through Mario Kart 7 with a ferocity I haven’t had with the series in some time. Part of that was for this review, but the other is because I’m actually enjoying Mario Kart once again. I’ve made it no secret over the past few years that I hate Mario Kart Wii. There was a level of safe comfort to the game to be sure, and the online experience was a refreshing break from the madcap sea of douchebags on Xbox Live, but the wretched item balance, boring track design, unbalanced bikes, and totally broken Battle Mode (Spike shells? REALLY?) destroyed my ability to play the game beyond twenty minutes without suddenly being urged to smash a nearby piece of furniture through a household wall.

While Mario Kart 7 doesn’t do much to push the series forward, it also manages to restore much of the fun that was lost during Mario Kart Wii‘s decision to pander to the lowest common denominator. Let’s take a look at the lessons Nintendo has learned since 2008.

Game: Mario Kart 7
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EAD/Retro Studios
Genre: Kart Racer
Price: $39.95
Pros: Builds off Mario Kart DS (rather than Wii) to remind us what makes Mario Kart so great.
Cons: No Mission Mode or Quick Race options? Battle Mode (though improved) still weakest link.
Verdict: One of the best Mario Kart games since MK64. 

Acquired via Purchase

The first thing that instantly grabs your attention is the inclusion of the ability to glide off high ramps, and drive underwater. This evolves the gameplay, but doesn’t change it fundamentally. At the very least, Lakitu is out of a job (and becomes an unlockable driver), but the added swimming/flying sections really help to mix up the action and provide needed variety to the series. Even more interesting is how the retro tracks were intelligently modified to support the new features. First person mode has been added alongside new gyro controls. It certainly changes the way you look at a kart racer in a welcome way, but seems generally inferior to the traditional viewpoint.

Track design reaches new heights in MK7. Where as Mario Kart Wii’s tracks generally felt wide, empty, restrictive, and one-dimensional, Mario Kart 7 restores not only personality, but intelligent design. Each new raceway is vibrant and offers its own personality, different from the others. Like the series better installments, you can forge an emotional connection with each track because they have a personality. Of particular mention are the two Wuhu Island circuits, Wario Shipyard, and the new Rainbow Road (which could rival MK64 for the best Rainbow Road in the franchise’s history). Some may balk at the idea of modifying the Wii Sports homeland into a Mario Kart locale, but the tracks just spill over with originality and hidden ways to succeed. Mario Kart has toyed with the idea of track shortcuts in the past such as Yoshi Circuit’s cliff dive in Double Dash, or the breaks in the track barriers in the original Super Mario Kart’s Donut Plains. Mario Kart 7 takes it to a new level while never creating too much of an advantage for any specific player. It should be noted that each of the four tracks I listed above are point-to-point races rather than circuits – a first for Mario Kart. More of this willingness to break established formula would be welcome.

Most importantly of all, Nintendo finally listened to the complaints that started with Double Dash and reached near intolerable levels with Mario Kart Wii. Item balance has been restored. Most items can be countered or evaded, though a few situations will still present you with the traditional Mario Kart “FU” for laughs and giggles, but it’s far less frustrating and repetitive this time. Most specifically, the classic form of the Blue Spike Shell has returned. While it still nukes the player in first place, it now once again blasts everybody else it finds along the way, ala MK64. Three new selections of mention are the Fire Flower, which can be fired backwards; Tanooki Tail, the SMB3 inspired battering ram which lasts about 10 seconds (great for swatting oncoming red shells and other players off cliffs); and the “Lucky 7”. The Lucky 7 is now the rarest item in the game. It gives you a full load of items to blow at your competition. Seems crazy unbalanced, but one banana peel and they’re all gone. Once again – balance – is the key word in Mario Kart 7.

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