Though it kinda forgets that it's a handheld game, 7 contains no doubt the best gameplay it's series has ever seen yet.
Mario Kart 7 is nothing new. In it's core, it's the same Mario Kart game we are playing since the SNES release. That's of course not a bad thing since it's still as fun and addictive as ever. Without any new changes however Mario Kart 7 would probably fall short a little, which is obviously not the case with Mario Kart 7.
In addition to the familiar gameplay we all love there are 2 new additions that spice things up, the hang gliders and the underwater propeller. With hang gliders, you are able to float over the track for a little before landing, whenever you drive over a blue ramp. It adds incredibly lots to the gameplay, as these hang gliding sections make up for some interesting and exciting action and even some shortcuts. The underwater sections of the game are also a great addition. As soon as you go underwater, a propeller appears at the back of your kart. Underwater, your kart is a lot more floaty and a little slower. The underwater sections slow down the pace a bit but add more variety along the tracks. At rare times I did find the controls to get a little sluggish, but otherwise these underwater sections are a treat.
The familiar elements of course are also refreshed. The racing is fast paced and satisfying, up with some very responsible controls. Drifting feels great and getting a boost is very satisfying. The drifting is the same like Mario Kart Wii, so no making boosts by yourself, though you have to drift sharp in order to get these boosts. The game is once again pretty luck based, with lots of item boxes everywhere. It's not as unbalanced as in Mario Kart Wii, but it still can get a little frustrating at times. Bananas feel a little overpowered in this game, and the lightning bolt appears a little too often, it never appeared this often in a previous Mario Kart game. Still, the racing is some of the best we've ever had in a Mario Kart game. It reduces the drivers number from 12 to 8 again, which is one of the reason it's not quite as unbalanced as Mario Kart Wii. There 3 new items that appear in the game, the fire flower, tanooki tail and the lucky 7. They come of the cost of the added items in Mario Kart Wii like the giant mushroom, powerblock and lightning cloud. Though the powerblock and giant mushroom were pretty cool items, I'm so happy that the lightning cloud does not appear in this game. It was no doubt the worst item in a racing game I ever came across. Plus the fake box is gone, which I don't have anything against since it was a frustration whenever you got that item and were unable to block a red shell. Back to the new items however, the tanooki tail and the fire flower are great additions. The tanooki tail in particular is a great item, as it not only allows you to flip every driver's kart you hit, and these hits are very satisfying, but it also lets you block other items like shells. Meaning it's a very handy item for when you're in first place. It does disappear after a short time again, don't get your hopes too high. Fire flower is probably just like you've expected, for a short time you can throw fireballs at your opponents in front or behind. One fireball makes the targeted driver spin around once. It's a pretty neat items as well, and hitting other opponents with fireballs is satisfying. The lucky 7 is also cool, as you get a set of 7 items that keep spin around your kart, and the item in front of you is always the one you activate, but timing is needed. Throw a bomb at the wrong time and you explode with it and gone are all the other items that were still remaining around your kart. And if somebody hits your star by luck, well, then say good bye to your hopes. It can get a little unbalanced, but it's still a really cool and unique item. But speaking about unbalanced, the blue shell, though now hits everybody that gets in his way, is more brutal than ever, now pushing your driver to one side, which makes falling of a cliff therefore if you're near one possible, and that can get very frustrating.
The controls get an extra mentioning even though I've mentioned them before as well. Mario Kart 7 controls very similar to Mario Kart Wii. You've got to use the circle pad and not the D-pad, much similar like to Mario Kart Wii, and though the circle pad doesn't feel quite as responsive as the joy stick of the nunchuk for Mario Kart Wii at the beginning, after only a little time of getting used to you and the circle pad will become best friends in this game. The kart physics are also a lot like those in Mario Kart Wii, not like the physics in Mario Kart DS, where you had the feeling your Kart had some kinda magnet that always pulled you towards the ground. That's of course another plus point for Mario Kart 7.
In single player, Mario Kart 7's fine gameplay is split up into 4 modes, grand prix, time trials, balloon battle and coin runners. Yes, those 4 modes. This brings me right to the biggest gripe I have with the game. Nintendo just removed versus mode from the Single Player. Which is laughable, especially since it's a handheld game. Though grand prix and time trials are fun for a while, the lack of versus mode weakens the value again. Which means when you are on the go, want to play Mario Kart and, well, have nobody to play with, you are forced to play grand prix and that means always 4 tracks restricted into one specific cup. And since that's one of the biggest advantages about handheld games, that you can play them wherever you are, it just feels dumb to not have a versus mode where you can just customize your races and pick any track you want to play alone against the computer AI. It's a real shame.
Versus mode beside, at least the single player options Mario Kart 7 does have are pretty robust, to a certain extend. Grand Prix is like always, select a difficulty class, 50cc and 100cc are pretty easy while 150 cc does test your skills, then you select a driver, a kart and a cup. First on there are only 2 cups free, but by placing at least third in one cup unlocks a new cup. And placing first in a cup unlocks a new driver. There are 8 beginning drivers, and 8 unlockable, and your Mii. Yes, that's 16 characters plus Mii. Which is disappointing. Mario Kart Wii had 24 characters to choose from, so I expected something like that in Mario Kart 7 as well. The characters to choose from are good, we've got our 8 starting drivers, Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Toad and Koopa, and then there are some unlockable returning ones, like Wario and Daisy, and even Rosalina made it into the bunch. The new characters like Wiggler, Lakitu, or Shy Guy (I don't count his appearance in the download play of Mario Kart DS), are great, and Metal Mario, though I first complained about him, is one of my second favorite drivers in the game. He's heavy weighted, but not oversized, and he's got a really cool voice. However Honey Queen is an outsider. She just doesn't fit into the game very well, and she really only appeared in the Mario Galaxy games one or two times. Plus she's got a terrible voice clip. There are so much better choices for a character in this game than Honey Queen. But seriously, there just should have been more characters in the game anyways. Till now I was also expecting Hammer Bros and Kamek to finally make an appearance in Mario Kart, and where the heck are Waluigi, Dry Bones, Bowser Jr. and King Boo?
Luckily, when choosing your kart the game does not fall short. For the first time in a Mario Kart game we can customize our own kart, and though not incredibly deep, it's really fun just trying out all the different kart variations and figuring out which variation fits the best to you. You can choose a kart body, a tire and a hang glider or a para shooter. The drivers hold the main stats, but with the karts and tires you can tweak and change those stats here and there. You'll be able to unlock more kart peaces by always collecting more coins. Which really makes you want to keep playing this game until you've got all. Which kart piece is unlocked is random, which is good so nobody unlocks the exact same kart peaces in the exact same order.
I must say this way of unlocking is a huge improvement to the Mario Kart series, as you are not forced to play through 50cc and 100cc, except for one specific kart peace I won't spoil now. So I skipped 50cc and 100cc totally and just jumped right into 150cc. And believe me, the game first gets really started in 150cc. The speed pumps up in 150cc a lot. 50cc is pretty boring, 100cc is okay, but 150cc really brings speed to the party. This is also where the 3D comes in handy. Mario Kart 7 is a game you really should play in 3D. Not only does the 3D look outstanding, but the racing seems to have more speed with the 3D effect on.
Except the speed 150cc also picks up surprisingly good in difficulty. While 50cc is embarrassingly easy, and 100 cc is also mild, 150 cc first puts up a proper challenge. Sure, after enough practice you'll probably also find yourself sometimes winning every one of the four races in one grand prix cup in 150cc, but it's still an improvement over the previous Mario Kart games. Especially Mario Kart DS which had an AI difficulty in 150cc that had belonged into 100cc. It's surprising for me to say this but Mario Kart 7 has the fairest AI yet of any Mario Kart game. With that I just mean that the AI drivers actually really challenge you because of good driving skill and clever items usage, and not because of unfairly high speed. Though, of course it's far from perfect. Still remaining is the rubber banding a bit. AI drivers with less points let those with more points most of the times always pass, which makes me wonder why they even drive with, it sometimes actually really feels like your only driving against 3 drivers about the first place, not against 7, and you'll also find that as soon as you get in first place the AI starts to drive much better than if you are in the pack. Also, the AI isn't as competitive as in Mario Kart Wii, where you did get more of the feeling that all drivers were participating in these races, not only 4 (including you). Still, the fact that the AI is more skilled in weapon usage and driving and not too unfair anymore does mean something in this game. Sometimes I did encounter AI drivers that had some mushrooms left and just didn't activate them even though it was the last lap and they were right before the finishing line, and other rare times a AI driver let a banana peal drop right before the red shell hit into them, so instead of wanting to block the red shell (which most normal drivers would want to) it seemed like that AI driver was just wanting to get hit from the shell. However, most of the time the AI was surprisingly clever with the items. I was convinced.
The AI is pretty competitive in this game, which is one of the most important parts that make this game so good. However, just as significant is of course that Mario Kart 7 has no doubt the best selection of both new and old tracks ever in a Mario Kart game. If there's one thing that stands out in Mario Kart 7, it simply is the fact that the game has such good tracks. Like in previous entries, Mario Kart 7 has 16 completely new tracks put into the upper four cups and 16 retro, remastered tracks in the lower four cups. First the new ones. Which are the best tracks the series has ever seen. Not one single track of these are boring, not even the more simplistic ones like Toad Circuit or Mario Circuit, even those prove to be strong in this game. However tracks like Wario's Galleon, Bowser's Neon City, DK jungle, or in particular of course Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road are absolutely outstanding this time around. They've never been this exciting and fun to race on. One reason for this are of course the hang gliding and underwater sections. Especially the Bowser's castle is profiting of these features, especially the hang gliding section at the end/beginning of that track is awesome. Of course there can't be any underwater sections in the Rainbow Road track but the hang gliding sections of that track are of course especially awesome. Rainbow road also has got that one big lap feature. Instead of three little laps Rainbow road is one huge lap, which is great since that way the developers had more chance to put more ideas into that track, and it definitely worked out awesome in the end. The other 2 tracks that have got this one big lap feature are the 2 Wuu Huu tracks, which are also really cool. I think it was a great Idea to use the Wuu Huu Island for 2 new tracks, since those 2 tracks are also very well designed and use the Wuu Huu Island environment and features in a good way. Though I'd better let it here out: As much as I love every new track, it just kills me that Wuu Huu Mountain Loop has that one glitch were you can skip a big part of the track, which ruins the whole track when playing world wide. It's a real shame, and I hope there aren't any other huge glitches in any of the other new tracks, it was already a problem in Mario Kart Wii. But back to the tracks themselves. The 16 retro tracks are also surprisingly good. Seeing tracks like Koopa Beach from Mario Kart 64 or Dino Dino Jungle from Mario Kart Double Dash return makes any gamers heart warm, and every retro track gets refreshed. There are some nice underwater and hang gliding sections built into the retro tracks that make them feel a bit new again, and of course add some nice new shortcuts.
Talking about shortcuts, there are a lot of them in the game. The 16 old tracks get some totally new ones, but the new tracks especially have lots of neat shortcuts hidden throughout the drive. Some of them are hidden very tricky, while others require good driving skill.
Are we still in category game modes? I think so. Anyways, let me cover time trials now. Time trials had me really surprised on how fun it actually was. For the most part it's still time trials, the way we know it and love it. Here you can try and make best times for a track, and then you can race against either your ghost or the ghost of a developer. But that's not it, this time. Sure Mario Kart Wii also lets you drive against other ghosts of other people in the world, but it was always random against who you'd drive (how good he was) and on which track. Mario Kart 7 on the other hand always gets new ghost data over spot pass about every day. Now you can pick against which ghost data you want to drive, and see how good you are and compare your time with others. There are some real pros out there. Even better though you can now have a real race against 7 other ghosts at once. This makes it simply more fun to try to beat everybody and get a good time. You can also see how good you really are, if you can hold up with those in the very front or are stuck in the middle, or if you fall behind with the last few drivers. It's a cool feature definitely. And it's also great how the game always gets new ghosts for 4 tracks per day via spot pass.
Street Pass is also used in a cool way in this game, though I've never been able to experience it myself yet, sadly. But I know that it also lets you exchange ghost data and the most recent community data.
At last, there is balloon battle and coin runners. Balloon battle is similar to that in Mario Kart Wii, now it's about who pops the most balloons, so don't worry if you lose all 3 balloons, you only lose one point and can play farther on. It's about points, and in the end of all the battles, the one with the most points wins. Coin runners has the same structure, but here it's about collecting the most coins before all the battles are played. It's fun, but nothing you'll play as long as grand prix.
Of course, the real meat of Mario Kart 7 lies in the multiplayer. Mario Kart contains both local and online Multiplayer. I've not yet experienced Local Multiplayer yet, but it's pretty much like the one in Mario Kart DS. You've got Versus mode and Balloon Battle as well as Coin runner, and I also think grand prix if I'm not mistaken. Of course versus mode is the star of the local multiplayer. Here you can choose between how many races you want to drive, which difficulty setting the AI should have, which cc your kart should have, if you want to play in teams or not and even choose if you want to play with all items or only a specific group of items. It's definitely one of the strongest parts in Mario Kart 7. And it makes me only more sad that there's no option for me to play versus mode when playing alone. Oh and you can have a group of up to 8 players locally, and of course online. So let's just get to the online, shall we?
Online Multiplayer is thank god one of the best parts of Mario Kart 7. The main mode in the online multiplayer is just like the one in Mario Kart Wii. You start with 1000 points (VR) this time, not with 5000, but it has the same concept, win races and you get more points and lose races and you lose points. You of course mostly only get connected with other persons who have similar VR to you, which means you only drive against other drivers who have about the same skill level as you. Sure, that was supposed to be the case with Mario Wii as well, but that didn't work out so well. This time, you really most of the times only get connected with other drivers who have similar VR to you. And that's great. After you chose a driver and a kart and have been connected with other people, you choose a track to race on and then the game picks a track by random. And then the race starts. It's easy, you can just hop into any race, and it's real fun. And since there isn't any single track I dislike (except Wuu Huu Mountain Loop because of that glitch), I had no problem with any track that was picked. That's not what I could say about Mario Kart Wii, which had enough tracks that made me mad when they were picked.
The online play does have a few lags once again, and disconnections weren't as rare as I hoped for, but for the most part the online play worked quite well. And I should note that that was also probably because we had bad weather here in Germany since I've got the game. (Well rainy weather, bad for most people, but as long as it doesn't make online play frustrating for me, I actually love that weather more than any other).
New to the online feature are the communities. Here you can join a community and race in a grand prix out of 4 races. Of course, everybody chooses a track again and then the roulette decides which track will be raced on. Communities all have their own rules. Some will be 50cc, some 100cc and some 150. Then it's also decided if all items appear in the races or only a specific group of those. It's definitely a great addition to the online play, though it's not without any issues. Some communities are offered to you over spot pass, but only a limited number of them. For the rest you have to share a code to others in order for them to join that community. I've faced a lot of communities that didn't do well, and I still didn't come across a big community with 150cc races and with all items activated. Simply put, I'd wish that more communities would be offered via spot pass in order to have a bigger selection. That with the code just doesn't work so well.
Another feature of the online play in Mario Kart 7 is that you keep track of the 100 most recent persons you've drove against. And if their just in a race right now, you can simply hop into their races by selecting so. This is also a way, if you're very lucky, to find new communities. It's definitely a nice addition.
Mario Kart 7 is fun. It's definitely fun. It's no doubt the best entry into it's long running franchise yet. Mario Kart 7 boasts the best track selection and an awesome kart customization where you'll have dozens of fun figuring out new, cool kart variations. The racing physics are the best ever in a Mario Kart and the 2 new additions to the gameplay, underwater and hang gliding, should become a main part of the Mario Kart franchise from now on, especially the hang gliding. It's multiplayer features are impressive and playing against other people around the world or especially locally is incredibly fun and competitive. It's just a shame that, as a handheld game, Mario Kart 7's single player is disappointingly weak, because of the absence of the versus mode for which there is no explanation at all. One of the biggest features of the handheld gaming is that you can play the game where ever you are. And except if you've got some kinda connection to the Nintendo Network in your pocket or bag, or a friend(s) who want(s) to play this game with you, your left alone with single player, which simply falls a little short in it's offering. Grand Prix is fun for a while so is the much improved time trials, but the lack of Versus mode in particular and possibly also the lack of mission mode is a big bummer. Mario Kart 7 is a blast to play, alone for the first few days or weeks and with other people for months, if not years, but as a handheld game, it does not quite fit that "playing on the go" feature of handheld gaming as well as lots of other games do. For all it's great features to the multiplayer and the amazing gameplay that takes place in these races, Mario Kart 7 just seems to forget a little what it actually really is, a handheld game. Though don't start to worry now, it's not like the single player is bad, it's still quite entertaining, and of course, as long as you've got a good connection to other people with the game, may it be via online or local, this game is the top one game to buy for the 3DS.
+ the best racing yet in a Mario Kart game
+ both the new tracks and retro tracks selections have never been this good before
+ the hang gliding and underwater sections add a lot to the gameplay
+ kart customization is not very in depth, but still awesome and fun to toy with
+ 3D looks great and makes the racing feel speedier
+ tight controls
+ great multiplayer features, both online and local
+ spot pass and street pass are used in a great way
+ great visuals and some catchy music
- no mission mode and particularly no versus mode weakens the value of single player a lot
- limited character roster
- finding and joining communities isn't that easy as it could be
- occasional (very) long load times
Review Score: 8.5/10