Mario Kart 7 is the gaming embodiment of the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even though we've been barreling through the various whimsical racetracks of the Mushroom Kingdom for nearly two decades, the franchise still does a great job of retaining a fresh, entertaining feeling. New wrinkles, such as gliding and underwater segments, offer a fun diversion from the track, and the long-awaited inclusion of competent online racing make this the best Mario Kart to date.
The specifics of Mario Kart 7 should be familiar to anyone who's ever touched the franchise before, and it will be especially beloved by fans of the wonderful Nintendo DS entry. The game boasts 16 new tracks, all of which employ multiple routes, cleverly placed power-ups and exotic locales. There are no duds in the bunch, and that is quite a feat considering how many courses are available.
The most significant new gameplay addition is the inclusion of gliders and underwater segments, both of which are woven seamlessly into each track. Gliders in particular offer a fun change of pace, as players can dive to gain speed and then pull up to drift a bit further and enhance their flight. Clever racers will figure out ways to cut out a fair number of tricky turns and prickly obstacles by virtue of fancy flying.
The underwater sections are a bit less exciting, but they offer yet another way to traverse the already sprawling racetracks. Up until now, we've always sought to avoid all things liquid for fear of a visit by Lakitu, but now players can dive into pools and even parts of the ocean without fear. In fact, several tracks reward heading off the beaten path and into the water with significant shortcuts.
Perhaps the most rewarding use of the new mediums of transportation isn't in the new courses, but rather the 16 classic tracks Nintendo has imported and remastered for the new game. The first time I was bumped into the ocean on Koopa Troopa Beach, I nearly swore, but instead of slowing down, my kart simply switched to its water mode, and I was able to race beneath the surface and back onto the sand. It was a simple moment, but in experiencing it, I couldn't help but smile; now I could go back and rerun all my old favorite courses in a brand-new way.
The other new addition comes in the form of new power-up items, which are a bit of a mixed bag. The new Lucky Seven enhancement is a true game-changer, as the recipient is ringed in seven different power-ups that can be used or simply hoarded to act as a buffer against enemy attacks. Though Lucky Seven can be a bit unpredictable, it is still unequivocally awesome and one of the more clever power-ups to be introduced in years.
The other offerings aren't quite as impressive, and although they mean well, they fail to deliver. The Tanooki tail allows racers to swat away incoming shells or even other racers, but the fact that it is manually operated and its somewhat short spawn presence make it largely ineffective. Also, the new fire flower item lets you blast out a number of fireballs to take out competitors, but the fire behaves much like the green shells, making it more of a duplication of efforts than a truly new attack.
Offsetting any good will done by the new items is the return of game-breaking enhancements, like the lightning bolt and infamous blue shell. The only reason I can fathom for Nintendo keeping these power-ups is that it knows we hate them and the folks on the Mario Kart development team derive some sort of sick pleasure out of hearing us howl about them every time a new game is released. While abuse of the super-powerful attacks isn't as prevalent here as it was in Mario Kart Wii, you'll still lose a fair number of races you should have won due to nothing more than sheer bad luck. Again, the issues aren't as rampant as before, but it still stings pretty badly when it happens.
Mario Kart 7 also heralds the return of coins, which actually serve a significant purpose this time around. Collecting coins ostensibly grants a tiny speed boost in-game, but more importantly, every 50 coins, players earn a new piece with which to customize their karts. Enhancements such as bodies and tires significantly affect speed, acceleration and handling, so it's easy for racers to tinker until they get their desired racer just right. Now you may find yourself setting up turns to make the curve at top speed and also snag those last couple of coins you need before unlocking the next piece of gear.
For those wishing to play online, Nintendo seems to have finally nailed down what Sony and Microsoft perfected years ago, and it's finally possible to play with friends (or strangers) without the need for Friend Codes. Within a few taps, you can easily race with random opponents from around the globe, and those who are so inclined can join communities with special racing rules. Pro tip: communities that ban the use of blue shells are both popular and beloved. It's taken a while, but we now finally have the Mario Kart online experience that we've always desired.
From top to bottom, Mario Kart 7 stands as the best entry in the series. The new mechanics are enjoyable rather than distracting, and the inclusion of competent, buttery-smooth online multiplayer gives the game a nearly unlimited amount of replayability. If you've been playing Mario Kart DS and wondering when the next great kart racer will arrive, then search no longer. This is it.
More articles about Mario Kart 7