There’s nothing that stresses me out more than the last lap of a Mario Kart game. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before: You’re in first place on the last lap of a grand prix. You’re just about to take the last hairpin turn on Rainbow Road when suddenly you’re hit with a blue shell. Immediately after your sloppy recovery, a red shell slams into you. Then one racer bowls you over. And another. And another until your first-place finish is replaced by a paltry fourth.
The blue-shell dispatcher is always the same. For me, it’s Daisy. She and I have played this unnerving game of cat and mouse ever since her debut in Double Dash!! She’s always ready to screw me right over.Call her my Mario Kart rival if you would.
I’d like to say it gets better in Mario Kart 7, but I’d be lying if I did.
The game controls just as you’d think it would: Players speed through courses in hopes of hitting a rainbow-colored question-mark block that contains one of many power-ups. You either use said power-up right away, drag it behind you to deflect projectiles or save it for the moment you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Most of the old favorites return, from the tried-and-true mushroom to the show-stopping blue shell. The three new power-ups introduced in Mairo Kart 7 are welcome additions to the series’ formula. The tanooki tail allows you to deflect projectiles and make racers who dare venture too close spin out of control with a simple slap — a mechanic I’ve missed since the inclusion of the punch move in Double Dash!! The Fire Flower lets players huck fireballs to their 12- and 6-o’-clock positions for a limited time. It’s incredibly satisfying to unleash a barrage of flaming justice behind you in any of the game’s many tunnels.
The Lucky 7 item causes seven different power-ups to spin around your kart, much like the three-shell item. The power-ups range from the ink-hurling Blooper to invincibility stars. Just like the three-shell power-ups, Lucky 7 lets you decide when and where to deploy any of the items at your disposal. This gives the power-up its own set of advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, you can save that invincibility star for areas where going off-road for a few seconds will ensure victory. On the other hand, any passing racers can activate an item merely by touching it, the results of which are rarely beneficial; either the item thief makes off with a mushroom or star, or he or she triggers the ink-spitting Blooper. Or worse: The racer who bumps into you may just detonate the lone Bob-omb circling your kart.
In addition to item boxes, coins litter the ground throughout the tracks in Mario Kart 7, a feature that’s been missing since the series’ handheld premiere on the Game Boy Advance. Each coin you collect increases your kart’s top speed for that race slightly, topping out when the tenth coin is collected. Once the race is over, every coin you earn (up to ten, unfortunately), is set aside. At the game’s outset, every 50th coin collected rewards you with a random part with which to customize your kart.
The parts available are variations of kart bodies, wheels and custom gliders. Bodies typically alter weight, top speed and acceleration most while wheels modify a kart’s handling and off-road capabilities. The gliders do little besides change the aesthetic of a vehicle while it’s in the air. There are 20 parts in all and a grand total of 5,000 coins is required to collect every one. It’s fun to test out the various combinations of bodies, wheels and gliders, but at the end of the day most of these Frankenstein-esque creations prove impractical; the kart configuration you start with works for pretty much the entire game. The fact that these parts are merely awarded instead of purchased is also a bit of a let-down. Maybe if Nintendo had decided to include fewer parts in favor of creating a system where personalization required more compromise on the player’s part, this feature would have gained more traction. Instead, it’s merely a distraction on your way to the track selection menu.
Just as in every Mario Kart title from DS onward, the seventh installment in the series offers players 32 different tracks to choose from, half of which are recreations of stages from previous games. While the retro tracks are fun callbacks to the days of yore — Waluigi Pinball, in particular, is magnificently redone — I won’t hesitate to claim that the course offerings in Mario Kart 7 are the best the series has ever seen. Part of this success can be attributed to the fact that karts may now traverse sea and air in addition to land. When racers hit certain ramps and go airborne, their karts will sprout a hang glider. Once in the air, racers may descend immediately to hit the ground running or soar over obstacles and sometimes even other racers. This addition alone provides the kind of depth necessary to shake up a formula that can too easily grow stale.
It’s unfortunate that the underwater sequences aren’t nearly as effective as the experiences on land and in the air. Control beneath the surface is a bit wonky, with karts slipping more than they should and floaty physics disrupting the natural flow of the race. The aquatic environments are gorgeous, so it’s a shame racing through them isn’t as fun as it should be. Fortunately, very few tracks force you underwater, and when they do, it’s merely for seconds at a time.
The game’s best stages do an incredible job of allowing racers to interact with the environment. My personal favorite is a music-themed track where players dart over piano keys that emit different sounds as they’re pressed. Two of the game’s courses forego the traditional lap layout every other installment in the series has seen, instead opting to take players from one end of a track to the other. After playing Mario Kart 7’s take on Rainbow Road, I don’t know that I want to play any other.
Just as before, there are three speeds/difficulties players may choose from as soon as the game is booted up: 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. Players begin with eight available tracks. Earning a trophy in the grand prix for any of these modes opens a new cup and four tracks until all 32 are unlocked. Bronze and silver trophies allow players to progress through the game, but taking the gold in any given cup unlocks a new racer.
The online matchmaking in Mario Kart 7 is also one of the features that set it apart from its predecessors in that it’s the best the series has seen. I’ve rarely had to race with fewer than the maximum of eight a random online match so far, and the chances of this continuing seem pretty good when you consider how well the title is selling. The ability to create custom communities where you can restrict item is a welcome addition to the series, but one that’s executed poorly. Once you start a community, the parameters for each race must be the same. For example, I created a community where the only item allowable was Bob-ombs. If I wanted to set different race parameters, I had to create a completely different community. I also couldn’t merely create a lobby for my all-bomb races and allow other players to find it; I’d have to create the community, post the code somewhere online and hope others would be interested in joining. Oh, did I mention that each community has its own version of a friend code? Well, they do.
The framework for excellent online multiplayer is there, it’s just not used to its full potential. Still, it’s at least one option more than either Mario Kart DS or Mario Kart Wii gave us.
The 17-character roster in Mario Kart 7 is serviceable if not a bit of a letdown. The newest selections aren’t nearly as interesting as the racers they replace. And the inclusion of Miis as playable characters a la Mario Kart Wii wouldn’t be nearly as infuriating if it weren’t for the fact that they make the most god-awfully horrible sound imaginable. I sure as hell don’t sound like Birdo in real life; I’d appreciate it if my onscreen avatar sounded at least a bit human.
The drift turn is also as simple as it was in Mario Kart Wii, to this title’s detriment. Instead of requiring players to move the circle pad from left to right while drifting, it’s just a matter of waiting for red, then blue flames to appear beneath the kart once the turn starts. I know it’s all in the name of preventing folks from snaking through courses, but the turn radius of any given vehicle and the layout of most tracks is enough to quash this concern; you’d be hard-pressed to drift turn on a straightaway without going off-road and, even then, the courses are pretty curvy.
As I said before, the series’ penchant for unfair de-thronings in the final lap of a race returns in full force, which can cause some frustration when you’re aiming to achieve a gold trophy in every grand prix. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in Mario Kart Wii, but the fact that you can lose a race and your overall standing due to circumstances that are completely out of your control is one thing that will always bother me about this series. Then again, what would Mario Kart be without a bit of involuntary cursing?
Regardless, you can’t deny the fact that Mario Kart 7 boasts the best track layouts and multiplayer options the series has ever seen. Even if the fourth-place lagger ousts you from a win every so often, skill will prevail over dumb luck just enough to keep you coming back. Besides, it’s as fun a Mario Kart experience as you could hope for, especially when you start a community that allows nothing but explosives during a race. Maybe I’ll see you around. Just make sure you don’t play as Daisy, otherwise you’re in for a rough race.