Mario Kart 7
25th Nov 2011 | 16:34
Six very different roads have led us here to Mario Kart 7. Six roads representing six previous Mario Kart games across six different formats. Six roads that all follow the same highway code (red shells home, green shells roam) and share the same sights (from Mario Circuit to Bowser's Castle). And yet scratch underneath the tarmac and the journeys couldn't be more unlike.
Each Mario Kart is tuned and balanced significantly differently to all the others, to the point that it's almost impossible to find someone who can stomach them all. The result; a fractured fanbase, split six ways, who will each be approaching this latest entry in the series from a different direction.
See our roundup of the best party games for Christmas 2011.
Your hopes and expectations of Mario Kart 7, then, will shift according to which of the previous Mario Karts you consider to be your favourite. Are you hoping for the pure, precision racing of Super Mario Kart on SNES, or a chaotic pinball machine such as Mario Kart Wii? Mario Kart 64's multiplayer bent, or the DS iteration's meaty single-player mission structure? Double Dash's fearless innovation, or the safe pair of hands that was Super Circuit?
In the event, it doesn't matter which road takes you to Mario Kart 7, because the champagne corks will be popping whatever your sensibilities. This time, Nintendo's mechanics managed to balance everything perfectly. Let us introduce you to Mario Kart 7, your new favourite Mario Kart.
Mario Kart 7 is the best in the series so far, and it carries itself like it is too. Throughout, there is a sense of triumphant, exhilarating culmination that rings out loud like the doom-siren of an incoming red shell. It's no longer enough for Mario Circuit to skirt round the edges of Peach's castle - now, the drawbridge is lowered and the track leads directly onto the royal red carpet, leading you through the main hallway before spitting you out high above the Mushroom Kingdom. Conversely Bowser's Castle opens its portcullis outwards, so you can screech around the hideous smelting factory that passes for a moat in the King Koopa's neighbourhood.
And then there's the traditional pièce de résistance, Rainbow Road. Apparently bored of being a lonely heavenly body, our favourite rainbow loop has decided to up sticks and weave itself around the contours of a nearby solar system, incorporating features such as a planetary ring system and a moon crater into its design. It makes for a breathtaking finale, a straight A to B point race that throws up a new surprise round every bend.
But you'll realise long before you take your place at the back of the Special Cup grid that this is a racer that trades on verve and wonderment. Think of MK 7 as the Mario Galaxy of the roads; a racer with the fertile imagination of a child's mind, and the attention span to boot.
You'll coo as the Piranha Plant Pipeway transitions from a Super Mario Bros 1-2 underground homage to a Mario 3D Land tribute in the space of a single hang-glide. You'll grin when you discover that the Melody Motorway is made entirely out of music, the corners comprised of various percussion instruments, each note playing in turn as you powerslide over them. There are many more.
These are the hallmarks of a series - and a developmental team - that's brimming with confidence. Of a series that, like Mario's platformers, has long since established the rules of the world it inhabits and is now trying to push against them. Just when you think that there's nowhere left to go, Mario Kart 7 pushes a little bit harder, deconstructing its most hackneyed settings and rebuilding them as something fresh and new. Into Peach's castle, onto Saturn's rings and beyond.
Perhaps Mario Kart 7's swagger stems from Nintendo finally deciding on how the karts should handle, after nearly two decades of experimentation. Six previous Mario Karts have yielded six very different drifting mechanics, but it seems that Nintendo has finally found the biting point they were looking for; Mario Kart 7 controls exactly like Mario Kart Wii on manual settings (sans motorbikes, of course) - not only in terms of the 'weight' of the karts but also in how the mini-boosts are activated (a two-tier system, activated by prolonging your powerslides). You can even pull stunts at the tip of jumps, just as you could in MK: Wii.
In many ways, it's the same game engine, and this is most telling when you revisit the returning Wii retro tracks such as Maple Treeway and Coconut Mall, where you can exhume your old racing lines to instantly rack up decent times. When you stop living in the past and hop into one of the sixteen new tracks however, it's immediately obvious that this is a Mario Kart with a completely different racing ideology.
For all that was good about Mario Kart Wii, you couldn't in a month of shy guys claim that it was much of a competitive racer. Like dogs and their owners, Mario Karts take the form of their host machine, and as such MK: Wii was a party game first and foremost, which every inch of its design crafted to ensure that the odds kept the racing pack bundled in as closely to each other as possible. From there, it was up to the chaos gods to decide who wound up on the podium.
Mario Kart 7 (designed for what's being positioned as a 'hardcore' handheld device remember) doesn't share the same inclination to play nicely with grandma. Quite the opposite. It wants your grandma to tumble down the nearest pit, NOW. Those of you who came into this review via the SNES and GBA roads stand up and applaud, because this one's the meanest, most spirited Mario Kart in quite some time.
To facilitate the attitude shift, Mario Kart 7 has shorn the field from 12 down to eight, a change which impacts on the flow of the races in two substantial ways. Firstly, with a third of the pack out of commission there are noticeably less lightning bolt/star/blue shell shenanigans, meaning the actual racing itself gets some much needed breathing space. More importantly, it also means that Nintendo are able to hem in the wide, open spaces that passed for tracks in Mario Kart Wii.
Courses are tighter and more treacherous than they've ever been in the 3D era, and the track space only gets tighter if you're weak enough to be tempted by the various shortcuts MK7 dangles in front of you. Some, such as the craggy catwalk which promises an express route to the DK Jungle finish line, are only wide enough to accommodate one kart. Something tells us our grandmas will be taking the long route round.
However, canny drivers will never have to worry about sharing track space. The new tracks are positively riddled with shortcuts. Some are glaringly obvious, such as the aforementioned jungle gambit. Others only manifest themselves to the naked eye as seemingly inaccessible boost strips which meet the track where the two routes converge. Many shortcuts were so well hidden that we found ourselves abandoning the race in mid-flight to stop dead in our tracks, hop around on the spot and retrace our steps so we could finally find out where the heck the shortcut's entrance funnels out from.
Many of Mario Kart 7's alternative routes play on the verticality of the courses, and this is where the two most eye-catching new additions to the Mario Kart formula come into play - the hang-gliders which deploy when you get enough air, and the propellers which pop out of the back when you tumble into water.
Although the two new gameplay types have received equal billing, there's a definite pecking order on the race track - the higher you are, the better off you'll be. That's why it's so satisfying to shoot a fellow glider out the sky with a mid-air green shell, or shunt a title rival into the traction-challenged, penguin-infested waters of Rosalina's Ice World.
Although the worry in some quarters was that the new bolt-ons would dilute the racing, in practice it only enhances the classic Mario Kart mayhem; instead of forcing the recipient to silently fume as Lakitu hauls their caboose out of the drink, they're forced to dust themselves off and rejoin the race on a disadvantageous racing line. It's already caused several permanent rifts in the CVG office, and with link-up play supporting up to eight 3DS consoles, we expect there will be tears before hometime for a long, long while to come.
Mario Kart 7's 16 native tracks offer enough variety that the potential of both the hang-gliding and the aquatic sections are properly realised, but what's impressive is how well the new mechanics mesh with the 16 retro tracks, too. Excellent work here from Donkey Kong Country Returns developers Retro Studios, who were tasked with retrofitting the old courses with rampways and dampways - many of the returning tracks are not only capable of supporting the gliders, but are actually enhanced by them.
How better to start off a round of DS Waluigi Pinball, for example, than with an eight-way joust in the sky? On the other hand, underwater sections had never previously featured in a Mario Kart, but a few timely alterations mean that the propellers can come out to play too.
GCN Daisy Cruiser's locker is now a flooded haven for snap-happy clams, for instance. The remaining courses play up to the 3DS' impressive stereoscopic screen. DS Airship Fortress' Bullet Bills are suitably intimidating as they fly into the screen, while the ripple effect which occurs when SNES Rainbow Road's Star Thwomps hit the ground has to be seen to be believed.
Lairy Tail Ending
There's one other major difference that distances Mario Kart 7 from Mario Kart Wii - the items themselves. Almost all the goodies introduced by MK Wii have been discarded - so its farewell to the Raincloud, Mega Mushroom, POW Block and other gimmicky items which although fun, were introduced primarily to keep everyone at level pegging. In their place, a range of tactical options which Nintendo won't be able to dispose of so easily. These are the best additions to the arsenal since the original cast of bananas and mushrooms were formed.
The Leaf, which allows you to sideswipe foes with a newly-sprouted racoon tail, is our favourite. On first impressions, it's primarily an offensive weapon, but a little on-track experience soon reveals its surprising true nature; it's best employed as a defensive safeguard against on-coming shells or unseen bananas.
It's much more effective than the previous technique of dangling an item behind you (as it can take out hazards approaching from all angles), but since you can only hold on to it for a certain amount of swipes, a new game of cat and mouse develops. How long can you go without activating it, and can you time your swipe correctly when a red shell is quite literally on your tail? While powersliding down a grand piano?
The Fireflower on the other hand is more of a short-distance barrage weapon - a sea of bouncing nuggets of inaccurate flame that can be lobbed either behind or in front of you as needs must. At its most useful, it's Mario Kart's equivalent of a battering ram - foes hoarding a barrier of green shells (or the Lucky 7 item) can be disarmed sharpish with a few well-aimed blobs of hotness. Finally, there's the Lucky 7.
The Lucky 7 should be the most powerful power-up in Mario Kart history. It gives you seven items - shells, bananas - the works - and you can use them in any order you want, too. But the reality is, it's like having a bob-omb strapped to your waist. Because you do. And a blooper. And a star that's ready to grand invincibility to anyone nearby who stumbles into it.
Blagging the Lucky 7 is like having a world of potential circling around your feet, but it'll make you neurotic and anxious and you'll likely end up running your kart off the road in blind panic. From a psychological standpoint, it's one of the most fascinating power-ups we've ever seen in a game.
All three items are quite unlike anything Mario Kart has seen before, and they're welcome additions. The weapon balance needed a proper, meaningful refresh and Mario Kart 7 finally gives us exactly that.
The package is rounded off with the usual window dressing. The time trial portion of the game looks like it'll be a particularly compelling competition this time around, thanks to robust online leaderboards and kart customisation options which allow you to mix and match the various car chassis and wheels - a process which we found made it easier for us to break down and digest exactly how our choice of carriage was affecting our lap times.
The Battle Mode continues to be marginalised, but at least it's not exclusively a team-based affair anymore - now it's a competition to see who can score the most hits in an allotted time limit. Hardly the Mario Kart 64 glory days, but we can see ourselves playing it a lot more than the semi-disastrous offerings on DS and Wii.
It's hard to single out any real criticism of a game that does what it sets out to as assuredly as Mario Kart 7. (Aside from one very un-Nintendo moment in Alpine Pass, where the camera angle makes it difficult to determine where the falling boulders are coming from. It's immensely frustrating in a way Nintendo games usually manage to avoid being).
Any perceived flaws that the game has are the flaws Mario Kart has always had, and MK7 embraces the shortcomings as eagerly as it does any other part of the series' heritage. Is it a bit on the easy side? A little. The 50cc and 100cc races are still boringly easy, and although victory is never a given in 150cc, it feels like the difficulty level stops about another 50cc too early.
Is it a tad unfair in places? A lot. Although it never reaches Mario Kart Wii levels of chaos, the weapons are still there primarily to disrupt the natural order of things. Skill can overcome misfortune nine times out of ten, but an untimely blue shell will always prove fatal if encountered in the final furlong.
But you know what? That's okay. Because you'll have to go a long way to find another racer on any format that works as hard for your £35 than Mario Kart 7 and its endless carousel of joyful, inventive frivolity. We've got a new favourite Mario Kart, and all roads point to you having one, too.