The kart racing genre has long been dominated by Mario.
Each iteration of the Mario Kart series has refined the genre it helped to define in the first place. Mario Kart 7 adds less to the mix than its predecessors, opting instead to polish and tweak the already phenomenal Mario Kart DS experience underpinning this release. There's a lot riding on its success – the success of the 3DS as a console notwithstanding.
Like only a handful of 3DS titles so far, Mario Kart 7 provides solid incentive to move the 3D slider all the way up. The pseudo-3D effect generated suits racing quite well, as it almost feels as if the player is directed into a tunnel, and this helps to focus spatial awareness in order to pick up items and accurately hit jumps. Due to the nature of the 3DS’ abilities, moving the device around when playing will cause a flicker that can occasionally send a kart spinning into a wall, but it’s not enough to deplete the overall advantage 3D affords.
Playing with the effect turned off after a long spell of reliance feels foreign and incomplete – it seems that subconsciously the brain becomes used to the extra information it has previously enjoyed.
The graphics engine feels like a slightly scaled down version of what was on offer in Mario Kart Wii, albeit with the advantage of the tight resolution on the small screen. Playing on the 3DS is an improvement over the DS version, which is all Nintendo really had to aim for with this title.
Graphical flourishes such as battle animations and the hallowed red sparks remain relatively unimpressive, however. One aspect the graphics department did manage to excel in are the environments; they are very well designed, look impressive at high-speed and are pitch perfect analogues of the classic courses they seek to emulate. It’s quite a pleasure to rip around N64 favourites in 3D.
The underlying racing mechanics of the game have been tweaked, and now include the ability for the race to shift underwater and the inclusion of hang-glider type attachments for the karts. Underwater racing gives the proceedings a change of pace, but hasn't really add very much more than that. The real addition to the game is the ability to fly during pre-determined sections of the course. By equipping a glider to the kart pre-race, the player can glide across chasms, catch thermal updraughts or swoop in low and fast for a speed boost. This action becomes critical in the later stages of the game, when any speed boost or tactical positioning the player can add to their performance becomes critical.
As in previous titles, there are three difficulty settings organised by speed and opponent aggressiveness. They're by no means the only similarities; the pick-ups are virtually identical to Mario Kart DS. The multiplayer component, while remaining excellent, only offers a race and battle feature over local wireless and online. The inclusion of the aforementioned gliding element makes for more interesting online play, but it’s really just another Mario Kart game on a slightly more powerful handheld.
The choice of characters from across Nintendo canon is decent, as is allowing the player to race as a customised Mii using 3D photos taken on the 3DS' cameras. It's a nice touch, although it can prove very time-consuming to arrive at a suitable self-portrait when taken at odd angles on the couch. Vehicle customisation is also a feature, and it's possible to unlock a variety of extra car bodies, wheels and glider attachments in exchange for the typical Mario bait – golden coins.
Mario was re-introduced to the baying Nintendo audience on the 3DS with Super Mario 3D Land, and similarly, Mario Kart 7 brings a familiar formula into the current era. Ever since his spectacular debut on the Super Nintendo, Mario has held pole position on racing titles across the Nintendo platforms. While Mario Kart 64 brought the series into 3D and Mario Kart DS gave gamers a proper portable version, it’s taken until now to combine the two into a better game, which is exactly what Mario Kart 7 has become.
It’s not doing anything revolutionary on it’s own, but serves the loyal audience with the best offering Nintendo can muster – and that’s pretty good indeed.