The game play here is par the course for Mariokart since it adopted true 3D features and the analog stick back in the 90s with Mariokart 64. One button makes you go, one button (that you never, ever use) makes you stop, another fires off the items you pick up on the track and yet another lets you hop and slide into turns. Shaking the analog stick back in forth during the turns gives you a small boost and these boosts along w/ a small boost you get from hitting jump just as you go over a jump comprise a great deal of what's going to separate the best players form those who are merely good. Additionallly fans of the original Super Nintendo and GBA Mariokart games may be pleased to see a return of coins, which you collect for a small speed boost and are critical to winning on the toughest tracks.
As far as play modes, you have your classic Mario Grand Prix mode where you compete against the computer in a series of races. You earn points to win and receive bonus stars based on how you raced (which is based on some annoyingly unexplained criteria). There are also time trials where you try to beat your best (and others' best) times on a single race. There are two more modes here which can be played single player but are really only interesting in multiplayer mode. There is a balloon battle mode where you compete to see who can pop the most of the other players balloons. (Note that unlike in previous Mariokart games this is not a survival battle the winner is not the last kart w/ balloons but whoever has the most points at the end.) Additionally, there is a coin battle where you race w/ others to collect the most coins from each of several levels. Between these and multi-player, most will find themselves enjoying dozens of hours of gameplay. The lowest difficulty settings for any modes are mind-numblingly easy on all play modes but as you work your way up the difficulty levels the challence scales nicely. Trying to get all stars and gold cups on all cups is enough to make for a game in itself and that's w/o taking into the extensive multiplayer capabilities.
You have to opportunity to race or battle w/ randomly selected internet denizens or to join or create groups with like-minded gamers. You receive a number of virtual racing (VR) points depending on how you place in each race and Nintendo uses this to pair you w/ other racers. It works relatively well and I found myself facing tougher and better racers as I improved myself. Naturally though, this is Mariokart so it's designed such that a stroke of luck in item pickup can let a bad racer get the best of a good racer in a single race. However, over time, it feels like this tends to work itself out and you are rewarded in terms of wins for practicing and learning the course. Still, Mariokart 7 in standard mode will be maddening for the uber-competitive but those who feel the best racer should always win in all circumstances can start and join communities which prohibit the more exasperating items. With its plethora of options, the multi-player mode will provide for easily as much gameplay as single play mode.
The tracks in general are quite a lot like on previous version but with innovative touches here and there. As always there are new obstacles and settings but now there are underwater and flying segments of many races which are a minor part of playing when all is said and done but adds depth and some new experiences as well. We are also treated to some tracks as well which illustrates the series progression from simple, skill-based tracks to the vast and fun tracks we tend to see today. They are all quite fun and each has it's ups and downs and tricky, fun, satisfying bits as well. My one complaint might be the battle areas of which there are only six, three of which are rehashes from older games. We might hope for Nintendo to release some more tracks as downloadable content but for now there is really little to improve upon in terms of tracks and design.
At the end of the day, if you like Mariokart, you will like this. If you don't you'll hate it just the same as always. What it lacks in innovation, it easily makes up for in fun playability, just don't expect the most serious and fair competition when you play online and you'll undoubtedly have endless fun w/ this one.