Review: Mario Kart 7 (Nintendo 3DS)
by Mark B. on December 20, 2011

Mario Kart 7
Genre: Kart Racing
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 12/04/11

Way back when I reviewed Mario Kart Wii, I made mention of the reputation the Mario Kart franchise has developed of being belligerent and frustrating, by way of using an XKCD comic to illustrate this point:

Right. Well, Nintendo generally releases a new Mario Kart for any console they release at this point, and since the 3DS was basically a risky proposition for Nintendo from the get-go and wasn’t getting any better in the weeks after launch, it makes sense to shove one out the door to get gamers good and frustrated interested in the console. With the 3DS library mostly consisting of a bunch of ports of older games, only NOW IN 3D, as well as a bunch of cash-in stuff no one wants, having something that is both important and “original” in the sense that it’s only on the 3DS is a big selling point for the console, and so we have Mario Kart 7 ready to go in time for the holidays. What’s interesting, though, is that Mario Kart 7 is the first game in the series to have its release number in the title; prior releases in the series tend to have subtitles, such as Mario Kart: Double Dash! or tend to be titled after the console they’re released on, such as Mario Kart Wii. The sudden change to numbering releases, which also ignores the arcade releases, oddly, might not have any bearing on anything, but it gives the impression of burnout, of Nintendo saying “Eh, here, take it” and handing the player another Mario Kart instead of trying to do something really special with the game.

I mention this point because, well, that’s kind of what the game feels like.

As with its numerous predecessors, Mario Kart 7 continues the grand tradition of racing down the track, dodging shells and banana peels the whole way, leaving you, depending on your place, struggling to keep the lead or keep up. As normal, there’s no story of any significance to the experience (everyone decided to get together and drive around in circles), but the franchise works not because of its plot, but because of the gameplay options. If you’re looking to play solo, you can jump into various Grand Prix tournaments, run through time trials, or jump into a Balloon Battle or Coin Runners battle against the CPU. You can also jump into games with friends locally or jump online over WiFi to play against other online Mario Kart players. As is standard, there’s plenty of stuff to do with the game, alone or with others, and while the bulk of your time will be spent either unlocking everything you can in the Grand Prix or playing against others, there’s certainly enough to do with the game that you won’t feel like you’re shoehorned into those modes in the least.

Mario Kart 7 makes a solid transition to the 3DS screen, and is a good mid-range experience, visually, between Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart: Double Dash! overall. The visuals are fully 3D and the characters are instantly recognizable, as one would expect. The environments are colorful and represent the Super Mario worlds as one would expect, and both the new tracks and repeated tracks are well designed and look nice as you race on them. The game obviously doesn’t stack up to its Wii counterpart, but given the confines of what the 3DS can handle, Mario Kart 7 is, so far, one of the best looking games on it, both mechanically and stylistically. The 3D effect used in the game is also pretty fantastic, and while racing games generally seem to do a solid job with 3D effects on the console in general, Mario Kart 7 makes the best use I’ve seen so far of the technology, both in the genre and overall. Aurally, the game music is, as expected, standard high-quality Mario fare, with the various tracks fitting the themes of the courses exceptionally (the tracks in Mario-themed courses are upbeat and bouncy, the tracks in the Bowser courses are menacing and foreboding, etc). There’s a solid amount of voice work in the game, as is expected, and the voice work matches up to its counterparts in the other franchise titles, and as expected, the sound effects are top-notch and absolutely perfect for the sort of silly racing game this is, meaning you’ve got squealing tires and lots of explosions and they all sound good. Sadly, no one here is easily able to take up the role of “aggressively sore loser” to the level Waluigi did in Mario Kart Wii, but one must make do.

If you’ve never played Mario Kart, Mario Kart 7 still won’t be hard for you to figure out. A and Y are the gas, B is the brake, X and Left Trigger use items, Right Trigger is your jump, and the analog stick steers, boom, there you go, you can play. The game isn’t just about racing and steering, of course, as Nintendo has added in various little tweaks throughout the series that have actually kind of turned Mario Kart into a solid racing game all its own, albeit one with ridiculous power-ups. You can hold down the jump button as you’re going into a turn to power-slide for a turbo-boost coming out of it or jump as you go off the edge of a ramp for a boost, for example, though you’ll still have the standard mechanics you expect to work with in addition to the more advanced concepts. Mario Kart 7 brings a new control scheme to the table, however, that makes use of the gyroscope in the 3DS. By pressing up on the D-pad you enter first-person view, allowing you to steer by tilting the 3DS as well as with the analog stick, depending on preferences. It’s a neat concept, and while it doesn’t work well with the 3D on, it’s amusing enough to play around with and adds a little something to the game.

Of course, Mario Kart has never been about just racing around the track; it’s also about completely ruining everyone else’s day with powerups of all sorts, which is a tradition Mario Kart 7 retains proudly, featuring new and old powerups guaranteed to bring a frown to your opponent’s face. Your standard powerups belong to one (or more) of three categories: things that benefit you (turbo mushrooms, Bullet Bill, Invincibility Stars), things that mess up individual players (the green, red and blue shells), and things that hurt large groups of players, or in some cases, ruin EVERYONE’S day (Blooper the Squid, Lightning Bolts). Half of the fun of Mario Kart is driving well, to be certain, but the other part is nailing someone in the back end with a shell just before the end and stealing First Place at the absolute last second… I mean, sure, sportsmanship is great and all, but schadenfreude is hilarious too. As is normal, most of the more interesting power-ups make their return to this game, with the nastiest power-ups being handed more frequently to the least performing players, along with new ones such as Fire Flowers that let you shoot fireballs, Lucky 7 which has some more random properties, and the Tanooki Tail for enemy repulsion needs. While these aren’t as immediately and obviously useful as the other power-ups carried over from prior games, they fit in fine and work well enough that players should find them to be as useful as anything else.

Now, as one might expect, Mario Kart 7 brings new mechanics to the table for this release, removing elements and replacing them with all new concepts and ideas to help freshen the game up for its new home on the 3DS. The big new change this time around is the ability to completely customize your ride from a series of parts instead of having to pick a pre-built go-kart, allowing you to totally decide how you want to race from the ground up. You can choose the body type, wheels and glider (more on that in a second) that you want to use for your cart independent of the actual racer, so you’re given a bit more influence on the actual performance of your kart, meaning that you’re no longer stuck playing as a specific character if you want a kart that handles well, so if you want to play as Bowser but hate slower karts, hey, go nuts. You’ll unlock new parts by collecting (and keeping) coins through a race, making holding onto coins and avoiding taking hits or falling off of things more important, as this not only pushes you back in the race pack, but also means you’ll be waiting longer for new upgrades. The other new addition to the game is gliders, which pop out of the back of your kart when you take a particularly big jump, allowing you to glide along to ground level. This can give you a big boost in the race and potentially allow you to grab airborne power-ups as you glide along, and if you nail a jump right you can get a nice speed boost once you land your glide session. This also opens up new pathways for travel in some courses, and some of the older courses have been tweaked a bit to allow for this mechanic so it doesn’t feel like a waste on the retro courses in the game.

If you’ve never played Mario Kart before (and how did THAT happen?), you can jump right into the race cups in single player, which, as normal, are helpfully divided into 50, 100 and 150cc classes; aside from changing the speed at which the races take place, this also indicates the general difficulty of the races, with 50cc being good for beginners and 150cc being good for practicing throwing your 3DS through a window. You can also race the various time trials and download ghost trials to see how other people make their times in races, if such a thing amuses you, and you can also play with the Battle Modes, Balloon Battle (pop opposing players’ balloons with powerups) and Coin Runners (collect coins and steal coins from opponents). These are team-based affairs that play partially like kart racing, in that you’re driving around the tracks, but place more of an emphasis on ruining your opponents than anything else, and while they’re not as good as the actual kart racing, they’re fun and amusing on their own. If you’re looking to unlock stuff, you’ll find the game offers you plenty, as you can unlock different parts and characters by collecting coins and winning at various different races as you go. You can also play the game with friends, both locally and online, so you’re not stuck playing the game alone and have just as many options to play with others as the console version owners would. As such, Mario Kart 7 has a lot of content and variety, as the franchise often does, so you should be able to pick the game up and play with little difficulty.

That said, however, as was noted when discussing Mario Kart Wii, the game is essentially identical to every Mario Kart title, ever, and while the ability to choose your parts to build the ride that performs right for you is a nice addition… that’s all the game has to show you. The glider mechanic is, literally, such a tacked-on addition that you will neither notice it nor care about it two races in, and frankly, getting hit with a Blue Shell in the middle of an unavoidable jump and losing six places is something that should never have made it past testing. It’s wholly understandable that Mario Kart, as a series, is a completely different game for the first place person than it is for the last place person, and the first place player is “racing” while the last place player is basically giggling and saying “U MAD BRO?” constantly. Fine. But mechanically, Mario Kart 7 is in a place where one power-up, used at the right time, can cost you the race and over half of the coins on your person in one shot, bringing the game to a level where freaking Saint Monica would break the 3DS over her knee. But even outside of that, the only significant addition is the ability to customize your carts, and even then this does little more than, say, playing as a different character would in other games. Yes, it’s nice that you can make Mario a heavy character in seconds, but this is hardly a significant innovation, and considering that Mario Kart: Double Dash! and Mario Kart Wii added more, mechanically, to the series, this seems like a step backwards, especially when the game basically removes every change made by Mario Kart Wii EXCEPT the one that can completely tank a race.

Look, it’s not like Mario Kart 7 is bad or anything, but it’s basically less interesting than the two games that came before it, and the sum total of its additions to the franchise can be summed up as “letting you tune cars in a way other racing games have been doing for a decade”, so while it’s fun, it’s not terribly impressive. There are still lots of game modes to play and the game looks and sounds good, the 3D in the game is well implemented, and the core Mario Kart gameplay is as functional as it ever was. If you’re a big franchise fan you’ll find that the game gives you just what you want with its racing action and tons of unlockables and it’ll easily be a game that stays in your 3DS for a while, whether you take it online or not. However, the game does absolutely nothing you haven’t seen in other racing games before, and of the additions, the 3D is expected on this console (good or not), the glider mechanic is unexciting at best and excessively frustrating at worst, the ability to steer with the 3DS was done with the Wiimote a game prior, and the kart customization is either long overdue or ultimately inessential, depending on your perspective. It’s not that Mario Kart 7 is bad by any means so much as it is that it’s unoriginal in nearly every aspect, and while it’s a fine game on a presentation and mechanical level, it’s also a disappointing game from an innovation front, as it’s basically just, well, Mario Kart, again.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The score sums it up: Mario Kart 7 is an enjoyable game that really doesn’t strive to be anything else, and while it’s likely going to disappoint fans looking for something a little fresher, it’s a fine, if unoriginal, experience. There are still lots of modes to play with, the game still looks and sounds fantastic, and the game is still easy for new players and old hands to pick up and work with. The game offers online and offline play options of all kinds as well as a large variety of unlockables to discover and collect, and there are enough new mechanics to the game to freshen the game up a little bit for the player who’s seen it all and loves it all quite a bit. The game carries over the frustration of Mario Kart Wii‘s aerial segments (or, more specifically, the “getting hit with power-ups in the middle of” aspect) with the otherwise unspectacular glider elements, and otherwise the game adds nothing of note to the series, leaving the game less exciting than its predecessors at best and wholly unoriginal at worst. If you’re not looking for anything but more Mario Kart, Mario Kart 7 fits the bill nicely and will fill your need with no trouble, but for anyone eagerly anticipating innovation in the series, you can go back to your Double Dash! because you sure won’t find it here.



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