Mario Kart 7 is one of the best installments in the long running Mario Kart franchise. It's possible to say this because so many new tweaks and additions have been introduced. More focus has been put into driving well, and although there's still a good deal of luck involved (one wrongly timed Blue Shell can still rob you of first place), you'll be able to see yourself hold first place for longer periods of time when you get good enough.
The structuring of the Grand Prix is the same formula as previous games. There are a total of eight different cups comprised of four races, each playable in a 50cc, 100cc or 150cc class which are all available at the onset. 50cc is of course a breeze, while 100cc eases you into the more fierce competition of the 150cc. Once you complete 150cc, the traditional Mirror Mode will unlock for that last dosage of Grand Prix challenge. There is one noteworthy flaw to mention, however, and that's in finishing. Once you finish, the game locks in place the current position of the competition. This means that players who used to ruin an opponent's gain by knocking the out of position at the last moment can longer do so.
As per usual, Mario Kart 7 follows the trend of offering up 16 new tracks and recycling 16 retro tracks from all the previous Mario Kart games. The 16 new tracks are some of the best designed courses in Mario Kart's history, and this is thanks in part to new hang gliding and underwater mechanics. There are special blue ramps that when taken deploy a hang glider from the kart that lets you sore over obstacles and chasms and land right in front of the competition. It's a pretty neat feeling to see yourself soaring high above the pack. A propeller is deployed from the cart when underwater, and these portions of the game are also fun because they change up the physics on you. Many of the retro tracks also have seen hang gliding and underwater shortcuts added to them so even though you may know an older track by heart, it's still refreshing to discover new ways to get ahead.
Mario Kart 7's controls have been tweaked and refined to perfection. You can still powerslide along sharp turns and draft in someone's wake or tap a button right after a jump for a speed boost. It's a lot harder to earn boosts from simply sliding left and right, however, so the great equalizer has been dropped on those who loved to snake. For the first time ever in a Mario Kart game, you can also enter first-person and race from behind the steering wheel. In this mode, you can use the gyroscope feature to steer the car, and it works surprisingly well. If you were used to using the wheel in Mario Kart Wii, you'll be right at home with the gyroscope.
Coins have returned on the track, absent since Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the GBA, and they bring with them minor speed boosts when collected and also increase your top speed the more you hold. Brand new to the franchise are customizable kart parts, and they randomly unlock after you collect a certain amount. You have three parts to choose from: a body, wheels, and a glider. Each part affects a number of attributes such as acceleration, speed, weight, handling and off-road capability. The characters themselves are the main deciding factor of the racers' attributes, but at least with customization, you can give your favorite character a tweak in areas they were never adept in.
As for characters, only the big names have returned as the initial racers: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Toad, Bowser, and Koopa. The extra characters don't start rolling in until after you get first in the 150cc cups, and the offerings are a paltry sum. Only eight extra characters are unlockable, and a few of them have returned such as Daisy and Wario. More obscure characters from the Mario universe such as Metal Mario, Honey Queen, Shy Guy and Wiggler fill in the game's roster. It's because there are no baby variations that makes the character select screen appear so small. Still, these new players bring with them their own great range of emotions when battling it out on the track.
Mario Kart games have been known for their insanely tough rubber band AI and for the most part, the upper classes are still very tough, but a new balance has been struck. It is now possible to continue to inch further away from them each lap through skillful driving without having the entire pack miraculously catch up to you throughout the race. The downside, however, is that the blue shell continues to remain a very unfair wildcard catching you at your most vulnerable. It's much easier to win gold trophies in the game's 16 cups as a result, but the real test of skill and luck lies in trying to earn a perfect three star rating for each one.
A number of weapons have returned to help you in your pursuit of gold trophies. The staples such as banana peels and single green shells appear frequently when you're ahead of the pack, but items such as red shells appear a little more liberally to help you catch up if you lose your place. A new item, the Tanooki Leaf, bestows a tanooki tail at the back of your cart that swats obstacles and opposition out of your way, and is a pack leader's greatest friend. The Fire Flower dispenses countless fireballs that can be shot both ahead and behind you. It's a very efficient tool to hit numerous racers ahead of you as well as disrupt the progress of your pursuers. There's also a lucky number 7 in an item box that adorns your kart with a rotating assortment of items, including a deadly Bob-bomb that could blow yourself up.
When you're tired of playing Grand Prix, or just wish to play against human players, Mario Kart 7 features both local and online play. Online multiplayer is much improved, letting you join in random games worldwide, compete with your friends, or even join communities dedicated to specific play styles. A recent 3DS firmware update has also made it possible to join any game your friends are playing from your Friend's List, making pairing up with a friend very simple. The game also keeps track of any random players you race against and lets you rejoin game their games simply by tapping on them. Mario Kart 7's online Race mode lets you play any of the Grand Prix's tracks, while battle offers up four new battle arenas and four retro arenas. The game also makes use of StreetPass and SpotPass to send new ghost data to beat in the Time Trial mode. At the time of this review, there have been a smattering of communication errors, but once you find a stable game, the online performs smoothly.
Graphically, Mario Kart 7 is gorgeous. Not only is it one of the most impressive looking 3DS games available on the system, it looks a bit better than Mario Kart Wii, demonstrating the muscle packed under the 3DS's tiny hood. Sporting high-resolution textures and excellent use of colors and lightning effects, the game pairs it up with a constant 60 frames per second to display a game that's silky smooth. Cartoony special effects help keep up the jovial atmosphere and excellent camerawork help deliver the thrilling sense of flight when hang gliding. Mario Kart 7 unfortunately makes little use the 3D. Nothing really jumps out in front of your or comes alive, but rather the 3D is put to use to give the game a sense of body. Turn off the 3D having played it for a while and the game will seem somewhat flat.
Mario Kart 7 is one of the best sounding Mario Karts. Every single sound effect is classic Mario Kart, from the peeling out on banana peels to the detonations of the Bob-bombs to the ominous homing in of the Blue Shells. The characters are full of chatter, saying quips as they pass you up or exclaiming out of frustration when you knock them around with a trio of red shells. You may find the voice of your Mii to be a tad annoying, though. The new tracks are laced with some of the best composed original music ever heard in a Mario Kart game, and for the retro tracks, the returning music delivers a great deal of nostalgia, most notably SNES Rainbow Road's theme.
Nintendo has taken its sweet time getting a new Mario Kart to the 3DS and it shows. New elements, such as hang gliding, underwater driving and first-person modes in conjunction with tweaks to the enemy AI and handling help make the single player experience as fun as can be. New online features, such as a joinable friends list ensures that you'll never hassle with finding a busy game to be a part of. Great new track designs and customizable kart parts that allow favorites to be tweaked in new areas will give both players online and offline another memorable Mario Kart experience. If you own a 3DS, consider Mario Kart 7 to be a must buy.