Let me take you back to 1992. A year when the biggest battle in videogames was Nintendo versus Sega. A time long before Sony even ventured into the console market. When Microsoft was still purely a computer company. When a handheld console was the size of house brick and played games in good old black and white.
It was in this year that Super Mario Kart hit the shelves, a game that, as a kid, I bought second hand and didn’t enjoy. Ah, the folly of youth. It took a while for the charm of the game to sink in, but it soon became a must-play battle between me and my dad to shave seconds off each other’s scores to gain those important rankings.
Since that initial release of the first Mario Kart, the arcade racer has spawned a new version on each subsequent Nintendo console, adding 3D courses (N64); portability (Super Circuit, GBA); allowing for two racers and better graphics (Double Dash, GameCube); Internet play (DS); and 12-player matches (Wii). And naturally, Nintendo have released a 3DS version to take advantage of its stereoscopy and motion sensitivity.
Continuing the recovery of the 3DS hand-held console after the impressive Super Mario 3D Land of a fortnight ago, Mario Kart 7 lands in shops just shy of its 20th birthday next year. But does the 3DS version of the popular kart racer continue the increasing quality that Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart Wii brought, or just lead to more claims that it’s not as good as the SNES original?
For me, the DS version is the best so far, due to its well-designed courses, excellent handling and catchy music, but most importantly, its multiplayer opportunities and Internet play. The 3DS version builds on this trend.
Frankly, there’s not much in Mario Kart 7 that really strays from the formula set aside in that first game. You still get to pick one of a handful of Mario characters, choose a kart and race around a series of Mario-themed courses divided into different cups, all in the aim of gaining a high ranking and unlocking further cups, karts and characters. Thrown into the mix are weapons to attack your competitors with, obstacles on the courses, and the skill of power-sliding around corners. But, in this version, there are several new additions thrown in, along with some gimmicks, to make it fresh.
The game is divided into three areas: single player, local multiplayer and online multiplayer, which are all self-explanatory. You can also access a Mario Kart Channel, where you can edit a message to view online, customise your Mii vehicle and create your own custom grand prix of four tracks.
There are other features as well, such as the ability to swap data with fellow 3DS users you meet in the street via StreetPass or SpotPass, such as ghosts (track records to race against). Weirdly, I thought this would install to the 3DS dashboard like the Wii version, but this doesn’t seem to be the case, but new data received does come up on the notifications menu like it does for other content.
Single player is based around four different areas: Grand Prix, which comprises eight cups of four tracks each, features 16 brand new tracks, and 16 cherry-picked from previous games in the series; Time Trials, where you have to beat your previous records or challenge ghosts to get the best times; Balloon Battle, a take on the classic levels where you have to burst your opponents’ balloons strapped to their carts; and Coin Battle, where you have to collect as many coins as possible.
Obviously, a game like Mario Kart 7 lives and dies on its variety. Luckily, there is a fair bit. You start with eight classic characters, but it’s soon possible to unlock some extra Mario characters and, as in the Wii version, your own Mii. Coupled with this, you can now customise your kart more. Instead of being limited to particular kart designs, the shells and wheels of your karts can be combined in a garage screen, along with other special items unlocked as you progress, to tweak characteristics such as speed, acceleration and handling even more, shown on a basic stats panel.
Graphically, the game is up to the standards of the Wii version and perhaps, I say cautiously, even better. Whereas some of the karts and tracks in the previous DS version were decidedly rough around the edges, here everything is smooth, bright and colourful. The 3D effect, though not used to a particularly eye-popping degree, is comfortable to view over long periods, and used sparingly but pleasantly in scenes where leaves or confetti blow out at you, or when items like your glider (more on that shortly) or the trophies you win pop out of the screen.
Before mentioning the courses, perhaps it’s worth noting that when it comes to game mechanics, there have been several tweaks. It’s now possible to do some different things in a race including glide – when you race up tall or steep ramps, a glider appears, meaning you can float over gaps or past racers, and choose to some degree where you land back on the course.
This is possibly the most fun addition to the game, and adds some challenge and, on some of the retro courses, tweaks are made to make gliding better, though it’s not perfect in some courses, like DK Pass where you can theoretically glide over some barriers and skip a whole corner, but the game throws you off like you’ve left the course.
They’ve also added in sections where you can drive underwater, which adds some great variety but, in several instances, slows down the speed of the game.
Coins also make a return from the original game and GBA instalment, which allow you to unlock the extra customisations for your karts mentioned earlier. Whether they have the same effect as in previous games isn’t really made clear and, if they do, it isn’t obvious. You are, though, limited to collecting ten coins per race – and you lose these as you hit certain obstacles or fall off the course – and unlike previous games, they re-spawn on the course, meaning there is less incentive to grab them to deprive your competitors of the rewards.
Nintendo has also dropped in an optional first-person view as well, giving you a cockpit-view of the courses as you drive round, with driving either controlled using the circle pad as usual or by tilting the console which, in the most, doesn’t distort the 3D and works, but it’s maybe a little too sensitive, and restricts what you can see from a weapon and competitor point of view, so takes a little bit of getting used to.
So, back to the courses themselves – and they are varied. For the new 16 courses there are a variety of styles, from road races to snow-based levels. The standout new course for me would be the Super Mario 3D Land-inspired Piranha Plant Pipeway, which is basically 1-1 and 1-2 of the very first Mario game in the style of the new one, complete with grey underground sections, the old-style trees and a finish line in the old blocky castle.
But tracks such as the Arabic-themed Shy Guy Bazaar, Wuhu Island Loop (based on the Wii Fit/Wii Sports Resort course), Melody Motorway and DK Jungle are all delights, with very clever sections and great nods to Nintendo’s impressive archive. Several courses, including the new Rainbow Road, dismiss laps entirely to form three-section-based courses that are truly varied and very clever.
The 16 courses that return include ones from all the previous games, which all look much shinier and graphically impressive than ever, with tweaks for gliding and water sections, plus a lot more polish compared to their original iterations.
The courses have all been well designed, with hidden shortcuts scattered throughout, plus neat tricks including floating blossom, fire, ticker tape and lots of other great graphical touches spread throughout, which you often miss in the heat of the race. Karts drip after they’ve come out of the water; the drivers look around at other characters; and enemies have an impact on the environment, such as the SNES Rainbow Road Thomps that now cause ripples to occur in the road, which can be used, like other obstacles, to get a boost when you jump at the right time, just like the motion controls did on the Wii version, this time though with a quick press of the jump button.
Weapons are pretty much standard compared to the more recent games, but they are brought somewhat up to date with the Tanooki tail, which appears for a limited time on the back of the kart and can bat away shells, enemies and bananas (and realistically floats when under water); fireballs and Lucky Seven, which puts seven random weapons around your kart to be deployed in order.
The usual rules of racing apply in Grand Prix mode, with the eight racers (mimicking the DS and not the Wii) with the more powerful weapons being dolled out to lower-ranked players to try and even the balance; the ability to drift around corners for a boost; and the ability to beat the AI getting progressively harder as you go from 50cc, to 100cc, to 150cc, with 50cc being pretty much a walk in the park. Or at least a drive around a desert.
The Time Trial section pretty much speaks for itself, and is the meat on the bones and where you’ll spend much of your time in solo play, trying to shave those extra seconds off your score. Balloon and coin battles are, as always, good fun, but benefit from playing against friends for that added battle of beating a real person rather than a piece of code. Local multiplayer works as well as you’d expect and, like the DS and Wii versions, is the most fun, as you can battle against your friends.
Online multiplayer is as simple as in previous versions, with one press connecting you to the network, pitting you against seven other players either worldwide, based on your 3DS friends list (no individual friend codes here), or in special communities which you can set up with limited options such as speed and which weapons to use, or join by entering a special code, allowing you to play in a walled garden.
Online play is obviously dependent on the quality of your Internet connection, but in my experience, is painless and straightforward, with just two problems. Sometimes, in close matches, the ending of the race isn’t always clear – I once finished a race in fourth place, but was ranked sixth. Secondly, it’s not clear how exactly you leave Internet races when you’ve had enough, without having to return to the home menu and wait an age for the system to catch up.
Playing matches online boosts or damages your score ranking depending on your successes or failures, so you can see how you compare to others. From looking at who I was matched with, it also seems to pick opponents on a similar ranking and experience level to you. The 3DS now, though, does connect to the Cloud, allowing a much more varied of places you can indulge in some Internet matches, rather than being tied to your router at home.
Overall, Mario Kart 7 contains everything you’d expect from the series. The courses are as inspired as ever and guaranteed to make you smile, with plenty of shortcuts and challenges to keep you interested. There’s a lot of elements in Grand Prix to battle through, with a steady and increasing challenge, and Time Trials are addictive. Plus, if you have friends with a 3DS, playing against them either in races or in battles will be where the most time will be sent, and if not, the online multiplayer is a vast improvement on previous, restrictive attempts by Nintendo that, although not perfect, is pretty near it.
If you’ve enjoyed previous entries in the series, then you’ll love Mario Kart 7. There’s not the excitement in picking this up as there was with the DS version, as it’s building on rather than innovating the formula, but it’s a definite A-list title for the console. It’s fun to play, full of retro nods for the long time player, with enough challenge to satisfy even the most demanding player.
Plus, with its incredible longevity through beating both your own scores and your friends’, it’s arguably the best value-for-money game on the 3DS.