Mario Kart 7

Mario Kart 7

The latest member of the hardcore love/hate category of games is sure to be Mario Kart 7, which champions the same mass-appeal-cum-tinge-of-hardcore as the previous few entries in the franchise have adopted. It’s a heck of a lot of fun if you don’t expect an influx of sweeping refinements—but by the same token, you’ll still likely be cursing the exact same aspects of the series that you always have. Nevertheless, it’s certainly one of the stronger Mario Karts to date, and the online play is nothing to sneeze at—effortless and smooth!

One of the new rare items gives you an assortment of deadly weapons
One of the new rare items gives you an assortment of deadly weapons

The template is conventional: 16 all-new tracks and 16 returning classics spanning all other previous Mario Kart installments; a wide array of familiar items with a couple of additions; and selectable characters (12 in all) with customizable karts (bodies, wheels, and hang-gliders).

Speaking on that last note, a handful of clever gimmicks also applies. For starters, unlike in previous iterations, the larger ramps and jumps in the game now result in a transition to hang-gliding mode, where you can choose to stay airborne (at the eventual expense of speed) or swoop down to the surface to continue land-based racing. Some areas feature bonuses such as rings which boost you forward while airborne or bunches of coins suspended in the air.

That would be the second notable addition: coins. Remember those beloved golden monies from the SNES and GBA versions of Mario Kart? Well, much to the delight of the general fanbase, they’ve finally made a return. Coins once again provide incremental top speed increases up to a maximum of 10, and likewise, they’re dropped in groups of three each time you’re hit by an item or fall off the edge of the course. It’s a welcomed return of some much-needed complexity to the series that, at least to some extent, helps to separate luck from skill.

Fireballs are a great alternative to shells

And it’s too bad they didn’t go further, really. As nice as it is to feel like you have a respectable amount of influence on your ending position in the race, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that no matter how well you power slide, stunt jump (by synchronizing an R-button press with the passing over of the top of a ramp), and coin collect, you’re still at the mercy of the stray Blue Spiny Shell. It’s probably the worst thing that has ever happened to Mario Kart, and regrettably, it’s alive and well in Mario Kart 7 in all its explosive destruction.

But if you don’t mind the odd Blue Shell or (mostly tolerable) Lightning Bolt, the rest of Mario Kart 7 has the right idea. It doesn’t try anything dangerously creative, but it does look and play darn well; it focuses on the core ideas and embraces them. The track designs are truly some of the best yet, with multi-leveled and dynamic routes that keep things interesting beyond the scope of the usual shortcuts. You’ll often be met with the option of choosing either left or right, up or down as your path to success, with one path leading, say, underwater, and the other one across floating ice platforms above. Meanwhile, as in recent games, track obstacles such as animals and other modifiers shift locations and come to life as the race progresses, rendering each lap slightly different from the last.

A select few of the tracks don’t even feature laps, but instead break one giant route into thirds—making for a pretty cool, different sort of experience. Rainbow Road is one of these, and it’s probably the coolest Rainbow Road yet, featuring undulating tracks, planetary rings, and gravity changes… and awesome theme music, of course.

Mario certainly knows how to get tail
Mario certainly knows how to get tail

What is there to play for? Better kart parts mostly, as well as a few unlockable characters (8 are available from the start). There are also the usual Time Trials with multiple staff ghosts per track—a cool addition.

And then, of course, there’s the online. Shock of shocks, it’s actually hassle-free and includes some pretty cool interface improvements, such as track voting (well, a randomized graphical representation of the selection process anyway) and quick match-making. Up to eight can race together online, and it truly is a painless experience. You can even join communities to race with certain groups if you so choose, and naturally, you can even partake in Battle Mode matches (where there are six different arenas total, including a few returning modified arenas). Offline play also allows for versus and Battle Mode (up to four players total), and you can even play a single track with someone who doesn’t own the game via Download Play.

Ah, sweet memories...
Ah, sweet memories…

Again, it’s really a safe evolution of a popular series—and whether or not that tickles your fancy depends on your perspective. The game is sure to be criticized by some as failing to innovate or progress the franchise, but I don’t have as much of a problem with that; to me, Mario Kart is still the epitome of kart racing games, and I like the formula (aside from the aforementioned hang-ups). Rather, my criticisms stem from a need, in my opinion, for fewer Blue Shells and simultaneously more content overall. The 16 included tracks are certainly some of the best in the series, but it’s almost starting to feel a little cheap that we aren’t getting, say, 30 tracks instead, with perhaps 10 additional classics revived on top of that. Perhaps we’re getting spoiled as gamers these days, but the experience just flies by pretty quickly. Even unlocking the most elusive items of all (which happen to be special gold-plated kart parts) doesn’t do enough to offset this sensation.

The one thing that does make up for it to a large degree, however, is the excellent online gameplay. As I said previously, it’s painless and extremely smooth—and it’s probably Nintendo’s best effort at online infrastructure to date. Serious fans will remain satisfied for some time simply due to that alone. Everyone else will certainly enjoy the experience, but you might find yourself wishing there was just a little more here.