Mario Kart 7 reminds us once again that little has changed in the franchise’s long history. The imaginatively titled sequel eschews the tiniest gimmicks these games have entertained over the years, like the bikes of the Wii version, the team-based mirth of Double Dash!!, or the DS version’s benefit of being the first in the series to have online multiplayer. 7 for whatever reason decides to scale things way, way back to basics. Like as basic as the first three games in the series. For a new game on a new system in the year 2011 that’s kind of pushing the boundaries of indolence.
The few new things in Mario Kart 7 include three new items and kart customization. Customization makes the careful selection of a character and individual kart irrelevant now that it’s possible to swap out the chassis, wheels, and gliders before each race. Stats like speed, weight and acceleration shift ever so slightly with each modification, turning the beginning of each match into busywork for all the impact it has. Maybe this is supposed to grant a great sense of ownership for each customized kart made or a leveling of the playing field between heavyweights like Bowser and lightweights like Toad, but I hardly noticed a difference between each change. Coins return to grant insignificant bursts of speed when collected and the more coins collected, the more kart parts get unlocked. However, you can’t choose for yourself which parts get unlocked and you’re limited to collecting ten coins per race to ensure you don’t unlock everything too soon. How thoughtful. No, wait! How restrictive.
Flying through the air and driving underwater provides a cheap visual thrill. You would think new flying and swimming sections would play heavily in the course design, like there would be of risk/reward scenarios such as forks in the road — choose the underwater path, the flight path or the straight and narrow. But no, tracks feature little to no deviations from what I could find and driving underwater just means the screen turns blue and the kart drives a little slower. The inclusion of these segments means nothing major at all. With the exception of the obligatory Rainbow Road, the 16 new tracks are the least memorable in a Mario Kart game yet. The unlockable tracks from past Kart games aren’t too bad, though I wonder how many out there clamor to play the drab Kalimari Desert from Mario Kart 64 or any of the Wii game’s tracks again. The SNES version of Rainbow Road stages a welcome return, so if you base your Mario Kart opinion entirely on the amount and quality of Rainbow Road tracks available then Mario Kart 7 actually does pretty well.
The three new items — the Lucky Seven, Tanooki Tail and Fire Flower — offer mixed results. The Lucky Seven gives players seven already established items at once. It’s cool to go from the invincibility star to the red shell to the lightning bolt in succession, but the only way to come across it is to be in 7th or 8th place, or at least very near the end of the pack. Like all previous games, Mario Kart 7 rewards weaker players with the most powerful items so they can get a leg up on the competition. But even then, the Lucky 7 can screw you. Since the items orbit you, another racer could collide with your star and steal it or detonate your Bob-omb and take you both out. It’s a tense, high-stakes kind of item. The other two don’t fare as well. The Tanooki Tail finally brings a defensive item to the series although it’s a pretty useless one. I deflected a shell maybe once with it. All other times it just hogged my item slot when it randomly appeared. The Fire Flower is a weaker, rapid-fire version of the shells with minuscule stopping power. I hardly saw it get the job done right.
The 3D effect barely affects gameplay. I kept it on only because I got so used to the depth of illusion it caused. When I turned it off I noticed no remarkable difference in the way I played.
I admit I did get invested in the online multiplayer mode. Winning against random players around the world brought some satisfaction my way, especially now that snaking appears to be gone. In case you don’t remember that major annoyance, players online just chose Toad and “snaked” their way to victory by abusing the drift/boost move as much as possible. Racing became less about skill and maneuvering and more about who can rapidly hit left and right on the D-pad as fast as possible. It ruined playing Mario Kart DS against strangers online. With snaking kaput I enjoyed the online races much more. Now if only Nintendo made it easier to quit out of the online multiplayer mode. After a certain point the only way to back out of the mode is to restart the 3DS. Some day, some day, Nintendo will figure out this online gaming thing.
And, yeah, all the other basic things are there: ghost races, local multiplayer even for players without the game, a coin running battle mode, and the usual balloon battling mode except it’s no longer possible to blow into the microphone to regain lost balloons. Deleting data isn’t as obvious either. Rather than a simple option in the menu it’s required to hold the A, B, Y and X buttons down as the game logo boots up to get that process started.
Mario Kart 7 is basically a prettier version of Mario Kart DS with a less interesting course and character selection (Where’s Boo? Where’s Dry Bones?) and no annoying snaking. It isn’t a bad game. I wouldn’t say no to it if it fell in my lap. It’s just a very, very familiar one, something I seem to say that a lot these days. It’s disheartening Nintendo couldn’t out-do themselves this time, especially since we’re on the cusp of 2012 and the formula has barely changed since 1992. They delight in taking huge risks with their hardware — a handheld with two screens, a standard definition machine with motion control, a handheld with two screens and THREE-DEE! — but they rarely take any risk with their software. Maybe, after 20 years of playing it safe, it’s time to back away from safe tradition and try some new ideas.
Originally published: Dec 24, 2011