A Mario Kart For The Ages

User Rating: 8.5 | Mario Kart 7 3DS
For every Nintendo system that is released, fans that purchase that new platform go through a very familiar ritual: the anticipation of a few recurring franchises that are astonishingly regular in delivering simple fun gameplay. And the first one that usually comes to mind is Mario Kart. For seventeen years, many competitors have appeared to try to steal Mario's crown, but through all six previous installments, Mario has remained as the supreme king of the kart racing subgenre, because though hundreds have tried, none have succeeded in capturing the delicate magical aura that envelops the different Grand Prix that happen within the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario Kart 7 does not throw any established formulas out the window, and it will definitely not surprise long-time fans, but it does what the series does best: solidifies itself as the definitive arcade racing game of this young generation, which in itself is a pretty amazing achievement.

If you have been gaming for long enough, you know how it goes. Mario Kart 7 has all the traditional modes the Mario Kart series is known for offering. You can race on thirty two distinct courses, which make up eight different Grand Prix that can be played in four different difficulties: 50 cc, 100 cc, 150 cc and Mirror Mode. The pack sixteen new tracks falls behind what was offered in the two previous installments of the series in terms of quality and creativity, but there are some stunning highlights such as Music Park, where racing takes place on top of pianos, drums and other music-related objects; Piranha Plant Slide, a pleasant old-school look at the sewer levels of the first Mario games; Wario Shipyard, a thrilling race in the midst of a massive ship wreckage; Neo Bowser City, which takes place in a rainy neon-lit metropolis and the three courses that consist of one long lap, the two loops through Wuhu Island, the setting of Wii Sports Resort, and the better-than-ever Rainbow Road. At the same time, the old-school tracks have been wonderfully selected and have suffered some surprising and pleasant modifications.

Meanwhile, the Balloon Battle has gone through some slight alterations on its structure. Now, instead of being removed from the battlefield once your three balloons have been popped by opposing players, your character will simply gain a new set of balloons so you can stay engaged in the fray, turning the battle into a competition of who manages to pop the biggest amount of balloons within the time that is given. It removes the frustration inexperienced players may have from exiting the battle too early and having to sit and watch while the fun goes on; however, it also takes away urgency and thrill from the equation, since there is no sense of danger. Coin Runners also makes a return, and while it will serve as a nice break from all the balloon-popping, but it will never replace Balloon Battle as the main choice for battles. The once solitary Time Trials have been vastly improved by the clever use of Wi-Fi functionalities as Mario Kart 7 will automatically get multiple Ghost Data online and allow players to race against another 7 ghosts simultaneously, turning time-grinding into an awesome activity.

Finally, there is the current pinnacle of Nintendo's online gaming; Mario Kart 7's online mode is devoid of the snaking that turned Mario Kart DS into a sliding competition, and the absurd disparity between karts and motorcycles that divided all of Mario Kart Wii's online races into two different packs, with players using motorcycles far ahead while kart users lagged behind. Saying Mario Kart 7's online mode is fair would be a lie, because Blue Shells still appear quite often, and going from first to last happens every once in a while, but it is mostly balanced – because the game pairs up players with similar VRs – and fun enough to keep you playing for hours after you said "I will just play one more race" for the first time. The game keeps track of some stats, even though Nintendo could have definitely added more information, and even maintains a history of all players you have raced against and how you fared in races against them. To top it off, the game allows the creation of communities with specific rules so that you can invite a select group of friends to play together without outside disturbance.

Historically, what has differed one Mario Kart from the other – aside from unique tracks – are the slight changes Nintendo implements here and there, which when tallied up through all seven installments, have dramatically changed the series, and Mario Kart 7 adds its own spice to the ever-growing formula. For starters, racing is now more varied in a vertical way, not only will racers glide through the air during long jumps, but they will also explore underwater environments as the karts gain a tiny propeller on their back. It may not sound like much, but these two additions add variety to the tracks and have allowed developers to create a whole lot of alternate routes in most of the new tracks. Besides, it is now possible to race in first-person whether by using the gyroscope on the 3DS or by sticking to traditional controls, this new control option will most likely end up as an occasional alternative to most people, but it is a blast to use every once in a while, and a very surprising addition to the series, perhaps the most surprising in the whole game. The game also marks the return of coins to the races, which are used to boost players' speed for a very short span once collected, and also to unlock new kart parts, since in Mario Kart 7 players don't just choose a kart, but must select the body of the vehicle, its wheels and the glider that will be used, creating a whole bunch of kart options to choose from.

If Mario Kart 7 inherits the good from its predecessors, it also inherits some of the bad. Rubber band AI remains as active as ever, especially on the hardest difficulty levels, where even when you are sure you are racing too fast to be possibly reached by anyone else, a CPU will soon appear in a humanly impossible pace right behind you, erasing any hard-earned gap as seamlessly as pressing a button. The game's characters also remain badly unbalanced, not due to their stats, which are equally divided, but because of the game's heavy reliance on items, which turns choosing heavy or average characters online into suicide, eliminating a large part of the character roster as likely choices for worldwide races.

With the usual blend of mindless fun, and flaws that are easily overlooked during most of the playing time, Mario Kart 7 once again proves that when it comes to kart racing, nobody does it like Mario. It is a must buy for anyone with a Nintendo 3DS, not only because it showcases the system's power with its colorful vivid graphics and nice soundtrack, but also because it is hard to find a game that is this fun to play in the library of any system out there. Even though its release comes relatively early in the 3DS' life, it is a game that is going to be played frequently until another handheld comes out, because although its single-player mode will run its course quickly, the stunning online is an endless source of fun. Mario Kart 7 may not be the Mario Kart among Mario Karts, but it is a Mario Kart for the ages.