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Mario Kart 3DS: Can Retro Studios mix up the old formula?

Pimp my kart/barrel/pram/shell/eggmobile...

Good ol' Mario Kart, eh? Safe, predictable Mario Kart. In this scary new world order of controllers-that-are-also-TVs-that-are-also-golf-tees, Mario Kart is the one dependable constant in our lives.

When Lakitu lowers that start sign, he may as well be dangling a pair of well worn slippers. Even chewing on a red shell leaves a pleasantly nostalgic aftertaste, like Werther's Originals or Crisps They Don't Make Any More. And when you leap off a cliff, you fall comfortingly to your... HOLY MACKEREL! MARIO'S SPROUTED A HANG-GLIDER OUT OF HIS HEAD.

So Mario Kart has arrived on 3DS, but not to powerslide over old ground. This is a new approach, developed in conjunction with Retro Studios of Donkey Kong Returns fame. Together their first act has been to re-direct the Mario Kart franchise, Dick Dastardly style, down a route it's not visited before - say hello to customisable karts!

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CHIMP MY RIDE
But don't expect to have to choose between anything as base as aerodynamic packages or wheel alignment kits. (Although you do get to pick the size of your wheels - you can fit even the diddiest kart with massive monster truck tyres that sacrifice speed for off-road performance.) Instead, you'll get to make more surreal decisions, such as which kind of glider attachment you wish to pop out of your kart's backside once it goes airborne.

The glider is automatically deployed when your kart hits a blue boost panel, which are typically positioned on the edge of a gaping precipice. This enables you to soar gracefully over long distances, scooping up coins and (ideally) avoiding any obstacles that stand in your path.

In the first of the three levels we played, this took the form of several snaking green pipes that jutted out of the adjacent mountainscape. Who the heck does the plumbing in the Mushroom Kingdom, eh? Oh, right...

Purists might fume at this intrusion into their karting pleasure, but after a few laps of the circuit it soon becomes apparent that these mid-air sections are a continuation of the frantic racing action, not an interruption. The circle pad lets you tilt and yaw your glide-o-kart during flight, allowing the frantic jostling for positions to continue unabated.

Finely tuned karts can even sail straight into hidden short-cuts, although in classic Mario Kart fashion, the penalty if you mess up your approach is severe.

The propeller attachment met with a somewhat damper response. At one point, the curvature of the track plunged the wacky racers directly into the depths of a Cheep-Cheep-infested lake. Normally, this would be the cue for Lakitu to haul your soggy backside out of the drink, but not on Retro Studios' watch.

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Instead, your carriage sprouts a propeller and the race continues apace. These underwater sections are unnervingly similar to their platforming equivalents - the resistance slows down the karts considerably, making for a sluggish and slightly frustrating experience.

On a brighter note, we did find it hard to stifle a smile at the sight of the clams camped at the side of the racetrack, attempting to lure foolhardy racers into their cakeholes by using a single golden coin as bait.

COINING IN IT
The observant among you will have noticed that we've made several allusions to collectable coins. This marks the first time since the GBA's Super Circuit that the famous currency will grace us with its presence, although it was difficult to ascertain what its exact purpose was on the racetrack. Presumably its functionality will be similar (in Super Circuit each additional coin increased your top speed, up to a maximum of ten), but we'll have to wait and see if they have a galvanising effect on your kart's attachments.

They aren't the only thing that will be returning from Mario Karts of yore - the Airship Fortress and Luigi's Mansion tracks have been plucked from the 2005 DS title, while perennial favourite Maple Treeway also returns, this time from the more recent Wii title. Angry Wigglers in eye-rattling 3D? That won't be for the faint of heart.

But there were also plenty of brand new tracks on show, and one of the most impressive saw Retro revisit the scene of their last masterpiece. The DK-themed jungle race hosts big bouncy tropical flowers and Tiki Goons that blunder up and down the road, just waiting for a kart to careen into them.

This is looking like it's going to be one of this winter's essential 3DS games. It's not safe. It's not predictable. But underneath it all, it's still good ol' Mario Kart.

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