Pros: Visuals, Online Mode, Kart Customization, Some very good elements in the gameplay
Cons: Some very annoying elements in the game play too, Should've been more tracks
To think that what began as a side series to hold fans over for the next Mario game. The Mario Kart series would go on to carve out its own legacy in the world of gaming. One would think the reason this series has enjoyed such a successful run is solely because the name Mario is attached somewhere in the title. They would be so wrong it wouldn't be funny. Making it's 7th appearance on the 7th Nintendo console, Mario Kart 7 sticks to the same formula we're all familiar with. For some that's a good thing and to others not exactly so. Speaking for myself, of course, the game maintains plenty of things I love about the series plus introduces some extras, and at the same time brings back things I loathe about it.
Mario Kart DS
Mario Super Circuit
Mario Kart 7 is still a fantasy racer set in the world of the Super Mario Bros. It still features up to 8 characters to begin: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Koopa Troopa, Toad, Donkey Kong and Yoshi. There are also 8 additional characters to unlock, and I'll leave them for new players to find out. There are once again 3 engine settings that act as the difficulty: 50 being easy, 100 being normal, and 150 being hard. There's clearly a difference in the difficulty settings you will quickly notice.
There are only two courses to start on in the beginning, with one additional course unlocked after each one is completed. There are a total of 8 different cups, 4 tracks each, with a total of 32 tracks. The first 16 in the top row are completely brand new tracks, and the other 16 are retro courses selected from the previous games. Completing 150 is the only difficulty that really has something to offer, because here is where the characters are unlocked, plus you unlock the Mirror Mode which you replay the tracks backwards; the only catch is you must win gold or you're not unlocking anything.
In the beginning, a majority of your time may be spent in the Grand Prix. Although 50 and 100 setting have nothing to offer, they still need to be completed for the sake of picking up coins in each track, which brings me to one of the games features. In the previous games, the characters all came with their own racer attributes, with smaller characters automatically being the fastest, and larger characters having very slow acceleration. The karts can be customized to suit the drivers preference, which is a very interesting twist to the driving. When you pick up the coins during the tracks and reach a set number, then kart frames, wheels, and gliders can be randomly unlocked. You can choose a body where speed and acceleration can be your focus, add some small tires, and you can move a little faster, or you can add big wheels and you will have better traction when you go off road. At first it felt like mere window dressing to me, but I did notice some type of change with karts when I began to experiment. This is definitely one of the stronger areas of the game.
The track selection this time around is OK at best, with a few very interesting tracks such as Bowsers Castle, Music Park, and Rainbow Road being the most creatively put together. The tracks overall aren't exactly bad, in fact, most of them are fun, but I find Mario Kart DS to be much better here. The tracks still must be completed in three laps, with some of them being done in three sections now. This is a pretty cool addition, because you get to see various backgrounds instead of the same scenery and obstacles three times over. Rainbow Road is clearly the best here providing the best road and visual experience. The tracks feature the usual hazards with sharps turns leading to drop offs, various obstacles in the roads leading to spin outs, and rising fireballs or flames found in the castle stages. As usual, the main game is far more fun on 150, as it provides that break neck racing which works very well with the zany feel of the game, plus the competitive AI makes every single race a nail biting, hair raising, some times frustrating experience. One thing is for sure, a majority of the time when you come in first place, you will definitely feel like you earned it. I'm also glad to see if you lose the race by coming in 5th place or lower, you don't repeat the course, and the race still continues with you earning some points anyway. This was a great feature when it was introduced earlier in the series and I hope it never leaves.
The tracks also introduce under-water levels that are accessed when just going under-water in certain stages. At this time, a small propeller sprouts from the back of the kart. Pretty cool way to spice up the racing and some stages handle this feature a lot better. The addition of air-gliding is a welcome treat in some ways. When the kart hits a certain icon, then the kart takes off in the air and sprouts a glider. Again, some stages handle this a lot better, while in others it just seems pointless and random. I can see Nintendo heavily expanding on this element in the next installment (and there will be another one, count on it).
While trying to complete the courses, the scattered coins help provide a small speed boost, plus the weapon icons are of course present. Nintendo kept the cooler ones around, such as the three green and red shells, star man for invincibility, and triple as well as extended mushrooms for speed. There are also three new ones; the Tanooki leaf that sees the car sporting a raccoon tale to slap other karts, the Fire plant that has the player tossing fireballs either in front or behind the kart (I'm actually surprised this didn't make it to the series a long time ago), and finally the Lucky 7 icon, which surrounds the kart with 7 rotating icons. At the same time, two of the most annoying icons make it in the forms of the Lightening that shrinks everyone, and the single worst one in the series being the Purple Shell that can find you anywhere, more on those two later.
Nintendo did this latest version a great justice adding in the online multi-player to play against players all around the world. The setup is pretty cool, with the Mii characters presented across the world. You can build up communities and play with friends on your profile, as well as against complete strangers. When I got deep into this game I preferred playing against strangers, because some friends just didn't want to put this game down. The game doesn't suffer from lag, and this was even during the tightest of races when the tracks are completely crowded, and you could find yourself moving from first place to eighth, to fifth to second, and back to seventh all in the course of about 5 seconds, but I did see problems where the game wasn't completely in sync. For example, the info relay was some times slow, with rankings coming in kind of late if you finished with other racers around you. I would think I came in at third, only to finally see that I came in fifth. These are small gripes though. Nintendo managed to pull the on-line experience off better than I seen in some console games. However, on-line isn't exactly perfect because you could find yourself injected in races that has already begun, and most of the time when you play against strangers, you could find yourself down to half of what you started out with due to rage quits.
Additional modes like Battle and Coin Runners return. Battle pits you against other racers with a time limit, to nail the other karts with various objects. I preferred the elimination from the DS game, the possibility for those one on one encounters at the end could have created some memorable battles. Coin Runners follows the same time limit formula, where you try to pick up as many coins as possible, and at the same time knock coins away from opponents. This can be pretty fun too.
Mario Kart 7 definitely has its problems and it's all in the game play to the point where I don't really know where to start my complaints.... OK then I'll start here, unlocking parts for the karts. I find this very frustrating as well as lazy on the part of Nintendo. I'm not sure, but I heard it takes 5000 coins to unlock all of the parts for the karts. I quit this a long time ago, because you can only pick up 10 coins per track, and if you're lucky, very lucky, you can grab 10 coins each track. The problem is, you have to continue playing these tracks over and over again, and quite frankly, these 32 tracks will get boring. This is not an RPG, it's a racer and there's no reason for coin-grinding. This was a very lackluster technique to add replay to the main game.
Now there's a thin line between a game being competitive or cheap, and Mario Kart 7 steam rolls across that line to cheapness. The AI can be very cheap, and this is where the two most annoying items in the game come into play. If you manage to hang around in first place a good deal of the time, then expect to fall victim to many Purple Shell bombings. This also goes for the lightening attack that shrinks everyone; the annoying part about this, you could see yourself falling out of first place for good often, by being hit while making jumps that sends you down bottomless drop offs. The items also knock away whatever item you're storing up. This is definitely a problem when trying to come in first place and unlock new drivers, or trying to get a perfect three star rating in the main game. The AI isn't the only problem with this; pathetic players who hover in 8th place online get these items quite a bit too. I wouldn't have such a problem with these items if they didn't surface so frequently. It feels as if Nintendo wants players to pay for working on their skills throughout the years. The previous entries such as Mario Kart DS suffered from these flaws as well, but I been developing such a hatred for it that I'm tired of it now.
The track selection in the retro mode also feels lackluster. Now I enjoyed the advancements made in several tracks to suit this game like Mario Circuit 2 for example, but stages like Daisy Cruiser and Bowser's Castle 1 could have been dropped for one of the advanced Ghost stages, or one of the more creative versions of Bowser's Castle. Honestly, I would have rather seen every single track from the franchise in place of the Battle and Coin Runner modes. This would have added enough variety in the tracks to where the coin-grinding may have been more tolerable.
The game is too wire-tight in this category, it's about as perfect as perfect can be. First of all, Nintendo reworked the drifting technique to were it comes out much easier. I didn't have a problem activating it every time in the previous entries, but you need some type of edge here, since the AI can pull off speed burst which seems like at will a majority of the time. The rocket start's come out easier as well, and controlling the kart is mainly based on your customization, for example, if you build your kart with poor handling, then that's exactly how it's going to perform and winning races like that won't be easy at all. However, if your handling is well built, then you'll be making the sharpest turns with ease. Handling and letting off items perform well, and the game uses all of the buttons. The control stick is used to move the kart, while the directional pad activates first-person mode. I have heard many complaints about how first person just isn't meant for Mario Kart, but I actually enjoyed playing like this against the AI only. The game uses the Gyroscope, which requires you to manually move the 3DS to make your turns. It may feel gimmicky, but the system uses it very well.
Visually, this game is far more polished and heavily detailed than the previous games. The backgrounds were the first thing I checked out for to see if they were lazily handled in the slightest. No such thing here, and this is mainly worth noting for the section race tracks. The backgrounds do not repeat themselves, and you will see different scenery as you trek through these courses. The backgrounds continue to stand out with good detail when seeing things from a distance, such as signs way off alerting on left turns. The character designs aren't the least bit jagged, with some well rounded textures for the polygons. Even characters noses don't appear overly pointy and have a realistic detail about them. I also like plenty of the stage designs, with Shy Guy Bazaar being among them with its Arabian influence. Bowser's Castle definitely has a menacing feel that fits well with the character. You will come away from that track knowing full well that's his house.
The frame rate is magnificent as it can handle so many karts with so much action on the screen, with no amount of slow down I've seen. I also love the camera work in which they clearly expanded on since Mario Kart DS. Waluigi's Pinball track from the DS stood out to me with amazing camera work, but the camera found here in the newest Rainbow Road is a sight to behold; this stage has moments where the tracks twist and turn into swirls that can probably feel dizzying to some. Personally, I think Mario Kart 7 overachieves in this area. The first person view also looks very good here, as you can see the bottom of the kart screeching when drifting, and it captures that realistic feel of driving by you not being able to see completely around you. And when someone uses the Blooper to toss ink across your screen, you really can't see anything most of the time. This is a good example of attention to detail I just can't overlook.
Nintendo really did dig in the crates for the sound effects though. Nothing here really stands out since it's all something you heard before. Whether that's a good or bad thing is really up to the individual; it doesn't bother me, since I'm glad voice overs from Daisy and Toad are untouched because I really like those two, and Luigi is still ultra annoying to me. The music is once again handled well and fits perfectly with the style of the game. It's unfortunate though, for me anyway, that Waluigi's pinball track in the retro course still utilizes the music best, when capturing that frenetic energy on what the game is all about. Not saying the newer tracks are bland or anything like that, they just don't reach out and grab me like that one.
After many replay sessions in the main game; I still think Nintendo dropped the ball with the coin-grinding for unlockables. 32 stages, with only 16 being brand new just isn't enough to keep me wanting to play in order to unlock these things, hence, I had the game since its release date and I still haven't unlocked all of the pieces. That should give even more insight on what I think of that. The multi-player kept me occupied for a long while, and I will say I'm tired of it, but that's mainly because I prefer to beat games and then move on to something else rapidly. Those who love that social-gaming atmosphere will find themselves invested in this for many months to come, and to them, I would say the 3DS is worth picking up for this game alone. The main game on the easy and normal modes can be completed in a matter of 40 minutes or so, but you will spend a lot more time than that in the harder modes trying to win gold and unlock characters.
I will come straight out and admit my full complaint is in the gameplay alone. Challenging AI never has and never will bother me, however, a cheap AI with many advantages will always annoy me. I have to make this part very clear; I don't have a problem with a game being even slightly hard, but the outcome of these races especially against the AI has little to do with skill, and more on how often you're going to suffer from multiple Purple Shell bombings among other things. The AI has too many ways to one up the player, such as deliberately colliding with your bomb and making you lose all your items with the Lucky 7 item due to the explosion. I would enjoy this game a lot more if pure skill had everything to do with it. And again, the coin-grinding with only 16 brand new tracks really bothers me. I would actually give the game a 31/2 if possible, since it's very strong in all other areas. I would definitely recommend this to anyone a fan of the Mario Kart series, or to those who really love online gaming.