Review: Mario Kart 7

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The big red “7” in the title of the latest Mario Kart offering—as opposed to, say, a more obvious choice like “Mario Kart 3DS”—gives the impression there’s something unusual under the hood of Nintendo’s long-driving series as it crashes headlong onto Big N’s not-so-new handheld. Those who’ve spun a kart wheel and hurled their share of red and green shells know better. Like its garagefull of predecessors, this Mario Kart sticks to the basic formula it’s been rocking for years.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Every Mario Kart crashes or surges based on its tracks. A whopping 32 tracks comprise the lineup here, a strong mix of the new and the remastered-for-3D. Although I’m not thrilled to have not one, but two of the eight Cup events in Grand Prix mode end with the frustrating/momentum-killing Rainbow Road, I have to say that overall, the selection is generally awesome. Even familiar tracks from the series’ two most recent entries, like Waluigi Pinball from Mario Kart DS and Coconut Mall from Mario Kart Wii, feel fresh and interesting when rendered with a shiny coat of 3D. And while some of the new tracks are a little simplistic and stylistically familiar–the new DK Jungle isn’t that far removed from the re-rendered Gamecube track Dino Dino Jungle–others, like the re-imagined Bowser’s Castle, are deviously difficult to navigate, even without Toad dive-bombing a shell off your fender at exactly the wrong moment.

3D’s not the only new trick tucked in Mario Kart 7’s tank. The glider attachments can be a great way to literally leapfrog the competition by going airborne—or, if you’re clumsy with your wind angles and landing approaches, to smash into a cliff and plummet into seventh place. Three new items improve the magic-box selection, including a lucky “7” that arms you with a spinning ring of awesome items to wreak havoc. The Tanooki Tail is supposed to serve as a defensive measure, but unless you can grow eyes in the back of your head, it’s actually more effective at swiping Bowser and Koopa over the frigid edge of DK Pass.

Extended underwater sequences are also new. At first, it seems a pointless addition designed simply to showcase some more 3D trickery—hey,look, fish!—but a few watery laps start to showcase the strategic value of diving deep, especially in a level like the remastered Daisy’s Cruiser, where aquatic shortcuts are the key to success on the higher-cc circuits.

Collecting gold coins—which can look an awful lot like banana peels when you’re drifting the curves at top speeds—are the key to unlocking kart upgrades, making it useful to try to finish each race with a full complement of ten. Good luck with that, by the way—getting smacked with opponent’s items, a turn of events guaranteed to happen at least once in every race, will cause you to drop most of your loot.

Other Mario Kart mechanics remain remarkably—and in some cases, annoyingly—the same as they’ve ever been. Even after seven iterations and five platform generations, cheap blue spiny shells and last-minute lightning bolts from the also-ran gallery can and will still ruin your perfectly driven race. The character lineup, meanwhile, is as puzzling as it is shallow. Collecting gold in all the cups unlocks our own Miis and Metal Mario (?), but no Shy Guy or Dry Bones? I’d love to believe these MIA faves might be made available in a future expansion pack, but as fans of the series know all too well, Nintendo doesn’t do expansion packs for Mario Kart. (Or anything else, for that matter.)

Dinging Mario Kart 7 for its shortcomings is like complaining about a Big Mac or a Michael Bay flick: You know exactly what you’re getting when you step behind this wheel, and the driving action is as satisfying as it ever was. Besides, we’re better served focusing on the bigger picture. In the course of a few weeks, the 3DS has landed two must-have titles. Guess Mario Christmas came a little early this year. Jam the pedal to the floor and enjoy it.

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Pros:
+ It literally is what it is—a racing formula that still shines, even after seven games
+ New items are entertaining and useful without upsetting competitive balance
+ 3D effects are awesome, even adding a great new sheen to classic tracks like Waluigi Pinball and Airship Fortress

Cons:
– The list of “new” additions isn’t that long
– Rainbow Road. Twice. Really?
– Even after seven iterations and five platform generations, cheap blue spiny shells and last-minute lightning bolts can still wreck your race to the cup

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Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: 12/4/2011
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-8
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.