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Mario Kart 7 - 3DS Review

Game Info
Mario Kart 7

3DS | Nintendo | 1-8 Players (local multiplayer) / 1-6 Players (online versus) | StreetPass Support | SpotPass Support | Out Now
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28th December 2011; By KnucklesSonic8

For some reason, my initial response towards Mario Kart 7 was a bit neutral when it was announced. It's not often that my gut feeling leads me astray, but I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt considering all the love I've had for the franchise up until this point. And it looks like my lack of enthusiasm was more than just something to get over. Mario Kart 7 just isn't as prestigious as everyone wanted it to be, and while it is a good game, there are several minor things that prevent it from being a total blast to play.

    Taking hints from Diddy Kong Racing with its land-air-sea approach, the main shtick with this new entry is the ability to glide through the air and trudge through underwater areas. Along with that has come an improved focus on car customization that plays on the mix-and-match component first introduced in Mario Kart: Double Dash. Racers can apply different gliders and wheels to different kart choices, tailoring such attributes as Speed, Acceleration and Handling. Dispensing with the class-specific karts, all players are given equal opportunity to use any of the unlocked karts. Some of them have been brought back from preceding titles, including the B Dasher from Mario Kart DS, and the Barrel Train from Mario Kart: Double Dash. But many of the new ones feel very safe and, on the whole, less creative than the new ones designed for Mario Kart Wii

    Many familiar characters return to enroll in the circuit-based gameplay, but there are some new additions as well. Shy Guy, Lakitu and Wiggler are noteworthy additions to the roster, while Honey Bee feels like a coin-toss choice. It's for that very reason that I absolutely love ramming her with a Star! It's strange to see characters like Dry Bones (one of my personal favourites) and even Waluigi disappear completely, but people will have different opinions on who's in and who's out. I think most will agree, though, that Mario Kart Wii had a much more satisfying selection in comparison.

The goal of each race is still the same: race to the finish and use items wisely to get ahead. As you'll quickly discover, there are enough changes to what goes on during races that you might consider it an adjustment to get used to everything. But if you've played Double Dash before, it won't seem like there's as big of a learning curve.

    Picking up the game for your first race, I was impressed by how intuitive the controls felt. You can easily get into them and have no trouble whatsoever getting used to the setup, especially if you've already been exposed to previous Mario Kart titles. This is just one of the many benefits that the Circle Pad affords with gaming on the 3DS. All the button commands are located in correct places, with the A or Y Buttons for acceleration, the B Button to Brake, and the L or X Buttons for items. Like in Mario Kart DS, R is used for hopping and, when combined with the steering of the Circle Pad, it's also used for drifting. One thing to keep in mind with respect to physical comfort is that playing can be a bit hard on your thumb at times. Also, depending on how you hold the system, the bottom edges may produce a small groove in the palm of your hands if you keep it in one set position for most of the time.

    Using the R Button as you go off ramps and small bumps in the road will perform a brief trick, a new feature for the handheld Mario Kart games. I would always jump off bumps anyway in Mario Kart 64, so in revisiting some of the Retro stages (which I'll be getting to soon), it felt quite nice to have this little touch as part of the action. Going back to the drifting for a moment, as someone who drifts regularly in Mario Kart, I observed that the boost effect in this game felt kind of slow and not nearly as rewarding as drifting systems implemented in the past. That was disappointing to see.

Likely to promote the gyroscopic capabilities of the device, Nintendo has also added a new feature where, for the first time, players can enter first-person view by pressing Up on the D-Pad. It's not bad at all, but drifting obviously takes some getting used to. I do feel that they work better here than they did in Star Fox 64 3D, if only by a slight margin. Another new feature is the reintroduction of a Coin system, where the more Coins you acquire, the greater your top speed. You can hold up to 10 Coins at a time, with any remaining Coins being sent to an invisible deposit box attached to your personal profile. Collecting certain amounts will unlock new car customizations, but because there's no reference point to give you assurance of how close you are to a new unlockable, it feels like a surprise. I wasn't a fan of the way some Coins would just disappear instead of bouncing off walls completely, but the system itself is still a positive addition to the gameplay.

    Since we're on the subject of gameplay systems, let's talk about items for a while. So the question surely on the minds of many is whether or not the Spiny Shell (or more commonly referred to as the Blue Shell) is tamer. Well, the first thing to point out is that they now travel on the ground again, meaning that the possibility of hitting other opponents along the way is present once more. It gets worse, though. Throughout my experience with Mario Kart 7, there's always been this one "constant" if you will that occurs so frequently that it becomes a clear flaw. In short, the Blue Shell is extremely predictable!

Whenever I played offline matches, the Blue Shell was fired during the second lap nearly every...single...time! There was a point when it started to appear in the first lap or the third lap, then it became not as predictable. But then it returned to the way it was before. The same is true in online games, and sometimes this is made even more frustrating. Two Blue Shells in a single race is bad enough, but when I see three of these items being fired in the same race, then there is clearly a problem! Although it does fluctuate enough that it's not unquestionably predictable, the fact remains that the Blue Shell in this game is a considerable turn-off.

    So now, how about the rest of the item system? It's a complete mixed bag in all honesty. First in addressing familiar favourites, while the Lightning works with the way opponents return to normal based on their rank, the Bullet Bill feels a tad slower than usual. On a similar note, the Super Star power-up doesn't feel as special in the sense that players can still keep within a close distance and not feel very threatened by the upgrade. Additionally, I think it's logical to assume that getting hit by a Star would steal some Coins, but it doesn't. Blooper is still annoying as always, and furthermore, I can't imagine why they insist on keeping him. Red Shells can home in on you while you're airborne, which is a good thing, but when those same Shells would sometimes turn around and hit you in the face, I knew then that they could've done some more tinkering.

With respect to the new additions, I think the Fire Flower is a worthwhile one, albeit it's often unreliable because of the range differences with which these fireballs travel. The Super Leaf was clearly just thrown in just because Super Mario 3D Land brought it back, and while I somewhat like the idea of having a new item-deflection technique, I'd be surprised to see it returning in an inevitable future Mario Kart. On a more positive note, the Lucky Seven item is definitely creative, presenting risks to both the player and even others who may try to take advantage of the other player's success in acquiring this item. But when you put everything together, both the new and the old items, there are a total of 14 items now. Ignoring the fact that some of the good ones have been removed (like the POW Block), that's really stretching it in my eyes. If there's one thing this illustrates, it's that "more" does not always equal "better".

    Now that we've established that the items could have benefited from work, the next question is: What about the AI? Well I have to say the rubberbanding seen in previous games seems to have improved, and even instances where you'll get hit by item after item after item in the span of a few seconds seem much less frequent. But in making this subtle change, other aspects of the AI have become flaws in themselves. Case in point: Mario Kart 7 is probably the easiest game in the franchise in terms of difficulty. I never used to be able to catch up so easily on 150cc, and even when you do, enemies seem a lot more casual and friendly even when you pass them. As an example, I managed to catch up to a group of opponents on Maple Treeway who looked like they were trying to cross the finish line together by the way they were huddled together! Considering how quickly I caught up to them, it seemed as though they were actually taking their time! And then, of course, a Blue Shell came and hit them all. But I mean it's moments like this where I feel like there's an equal amount of reasons to be happy and dissatisfied over the decisions they made here.

Track design is where it all counts, though, and this is something that I always look forward to with each new Mario Kart title. Some highlights include the all-new Wario's Shipyard, where you'll spend much of your time underwater; the dark, Arabian-like Shy Guy Bazaar; as well as the sweet new Rainbow Road track, which has players dodging asteroids in the sky and even driving on a moon! More inspired tracks include Music Park (in the vein of Wii Music) and even a track called Wuhu Loop that resembles the Cycling mini-game in Wii Sports Resort. All I needed was a Mario Party-based stage and I would've been set! Within some of these newer stages, there are also nods to past games, as shown by the climbing staircase and the pipe tunnel in Mario Circuit. And while I did appreciate the effort on some of these stages, I found there were more stages I couldn't warm up to than I would've liked.

    Neo Bowser City, for example, is alright, but it feels like something that suits E. Gadd more than it does Bowser. The Piranha Plant Slide track has references to Super Mario Bros., but the actual layout isn't that great. Same goes for Rosalina's Ice World which, in my opinion, is not a likeable stage at all. And while I'm at it, what were they thinking by having an underwater portion in Bowser's Castle? The eyebrow raises continued when I encountered Maka Wuhu, a continuation of Wuhu Loop. My first thought was, "Oh there's another one? This should be worth it." But aside from one part that referenced Pilotwings, everything else was merely decent. In my books that's not good enough and it's with a good number of these newer stages that I find myself thinking how much more I appreciate Mario Kart Wii's level designs. Here, I feel like I'm only drawn to about half of the collection, and that disappoints me greatly. 

I found the Retro tracks were more pleasing by comparison in their range. I was thrilled to see Daisy Cruiser and Dino Dino Return return, and both these stages are more enjoyable in part because the controls work as well as they do. Seeing the Rainbow Road from the original Mario Kart was another nice touch as it really feels like a two-for-one deal! They also took some great picks from Mario Kart 64 as well, with Koopa Beach and Kalimari Desert reappearing -- a stage I never thought I'd see again. With each of the retro tracks, they've added a few ramps here and there to amplify the trick and gliding systems, but with certain tracks (e.g., DK Pass), sometimes you feel like the picks don't all fit succinctly. But for the most part, the Retro track selection is definitely a highlight.

    Mario Kart 7 sports some of the most impressive visuals on the 3DS with great use of colour, background effects and lighting in many stages -- Shy Guy Bazaar being but one example. Because everything looks and feels like it's been approached with the mindset of a console gaming experience, you almost have to remind yourself that you're actually playing on a handheld. Turning the 3D Slider up will allow for a bit more depth with items around you, opponents coming in from behind, and item boxes that you pass. But for the most part, it's very indistinct. However, given how great the game looks already, it's very easy to forgive the lack of worthwhile 3D incorporation.

More on presentation, while I did enjoy some of the jumpy tracks (e.g., Rock Rock Mountain) and even though some of the remixes were kind of nice (e.g., DK Jungle), overall I felt the music wasn't as memorable as the bulk of Mario Kart music seen over the years. I did like the new menu theme and eventually felt it was superior to the one from Mario Kart Wii -- which I loved. I also enjoyed the pinball sound effects in Waluigi Pinball when picking up items and arriving at the final stretch.  But as a whole, Mario Kart 7's music doesn't impress that much. 

    Straying away from the Grand Prix option, you're also given your usual other modes: Time Trials, Balloon Battle and Coin Runners. Generally, I found time attacking in this game to be very enjoyable, especially because of the improved ghost data incorporation where up to seven ghosts can race you at the same time. This serves as a great motivating factor, not to mention this feature makes Time Trials more exciting with the ability to compare with other players in real-time. Despite the many concerns I had with the game, this is one area of Mario Kart 7 where I was actually really happy with Nintendo's approach to this new title.

    The battle modes is another area of the game where I found myself feeling very disappointed, and that's saying something considering I normally love Balloon Battle and Coin Runners. Sadly, the more I played these modes, the more I lost interest in playing. Balloon Battles still features a respawn-style of gameplay instead of survival matches. This is something that grew on me in Mario Kart Wii, but here it just doesn't feel as fun for some reason. With Coin Runners, you're only allowed to hold up to 10 Coins, which I thought was kind of stupid. Regarding the battle stages, I was happy to see Big Donut return, and I thought Palm Shore was kind of interesting with the orientation of the camera when underwater. And as for the newer courses, I liked Wuhu Town, but Sherbet Rink is just mediocre, and Honeybee Hive feels claustrophobic and rigid. 

Do my feelings on this aspect of the game change when playing online? I could easily play the battle modes online for long periods of time in Mario Kart Wii, and further, I still jump at the opportunity to play Coin Runners as I continue to derive much enjoyment from it. But here, I feel that certain decisions just bug me and have effectively amounted to a reduced amount of fun. I will say that the CPU's are great on Hard as they feel like actual players in their behaviours, but that isn't enough to make up for my attitude towards this portion of the game. I never thought I'd see the day when I found Battle mode somewhat unappealing.

    More on the subject of online multiplayer, Mario Kart 7 does a pretty good job of presenting players with multiple things to do. Aside from the eight-player races and battles, the new 'Communities' option allows you to play using custom rulesets. Some of them aren't as fun as they sound (like using only bananas in the Peel Out Community) but it's great that we get this sort of option for groups of people to get together online. In terms of execution, I encountered slight lag from time to time where I would hit someone with the Super Leaf tail, for example, but the effect wouldn't transpire until two seconds later. There were also more than a few times where I would start racing but everyone else was still at the starting line...until it was announced that an error had occurred. I also really disliked the fact that the trailer theme played during the online waiting rooms. But a few issues aside, the online incorporation is what makes  Mario Kart 7 sustainable for solo players. Related to that is the Mario Kart Channel, an area where the game regularly makes use of SpotPass and StreetPass to provide you with new ghost data and alert you to new official Communities. So that's another positive as well.

I've put in over 20 hours into this game, yet I still find it hard to form a definitive opinion on the gameplay since there are a bunch of things that weigh the game down. They may seem inconsequential, but the resulting atmosphere makes Mario Kart 7 feel inferior in spite of the fact that it also feels like it's trying to excel. I'm not denying that there have been some noteworthy gameplay improvements with respect to the common complaints, but at the expense of repairing these, new concerns have arisen. This amounts to a mixed bag affair that doesn't quite reflect the same level of class previously attributed to past games. While it has its moments of fun, the aforementioned issues prevent the gameplay from resonating and having that timeless solidity that Nintendo has been known for. 

    You might look at all this and feel that I'm being too hard on the game, but the truth of the matter is that with the amount of time this series has been progressing, there are certain expectations that we have come to appreciate. And when those aren't always met and even new previously-unseen issues come into the picture, you can't help but feel like the game could've used more polish -- and that's not something I typically associate with Nintendo. In some ways, Mario Kart 7 tries to surpass what was seen in other titles with its level designs and gameplay improvements, but this is usually done with mixed results. To be sure, Mario Kart 7 is more than a serviceable title, but there are definitely flaws that hold the game back from achieving perfection, "best Mario Kart" status, or anything close to that nature.

23/30 - Good

Gameplay 7/10 - Controls are great, item system needs work, mixed tracks, some improvements, a bunch of seemingly minor flaws, kart customization
Presentation 8/10 - Graphics are very impressive throughout, 3D is hardly noticeable but forgivable, music is good but many songs aren't memorable
Enjoyment 4/5 - Feels just so-so in places, difficulty has gone down, battle isn't as fun as it could've been, online is enjoyable, flaws hold it back
Extra Content 4/5 - Balloon Battle and Coin Runners aren't as fun, Mario Kart Channel, StreetPass and SpotPass use, good online mode, Time Trials are fun

Equivalent to a score of 77% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System

Review by KnucklesSonic8

Mario Kart 7
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