Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: Mario Kart 7

Those of us at Adamant Ditto have a long-standing appreciation for Mario Kart, as our group Wii outings can attest to. Most people would call Mario Kart DS the best entry in the series, and while I have a profound appreciation for that title, I'm afraid I'm the only person I've ever had contact with who keeps fonder memories of Double Dash. 

Still, it's hard to deny that Mario Kart DS was a tremendous leap forward for the franchise. It was the first game to feature an online mode as well as to include retro tracks, and even its original tracks are some of the best in the series. It featured a robust Mission Mode with actual boss battles (!) and, hands-down, the best single-cart multiplayer on the DS.

So how does Mario Kart's next portable title hold up?

Pretty well. Mario Kart 7 is a fun, addictive game that I see myself pouring a lot of time into. The game's title certainly sticks out amongst the rest of the unnumbered Mario Kart games, but after actually playing the game for a while, I think it is a fitting handle. This game truly feels like an amalgamation of everything the series has built up to this point, and I don't just mean because of the selection of Retro tracks. 

The Pipe Frame is easily the coolest Kart.
 Coins from Super Mario Kart are back, affecting your top speed. While I do wish the option to play without coins was present, I actually rather enjoy the way picking up coins affects gameplay. The layout of the coins encourages you to drive on sections of the track you might not have otherwise, and the idea that choices made in the short run can affect the long run is a welcome change of pace that makes each lap of a single race feel fresh.

Also, the blue shell has been revised so that it slides along the ground, toppling any karts in its path as it did in Mario Kart 64, though it still explodes as it has in most Mario Kart games since then. I have mixed feelings about this; on one hand, it's nice that the blue shell explicitly helps the person who used it instead of helping everybody not currently in first place. On the other hand, though, I can't express with words how frustrating it is to be bowled over by a blue shell while in 5th place. But again, these new mechanics encourage you not to drive directly in the center of the track, which in some sense I applaud them for.

Finally, many of the available karts, such as the B. Dasher and the Barrel Train, are from previous Mario Kart titles; there's even a kart called the "Pipe Frame" that exactly resembles the basic go-karts that all characters used in Mario Kart 64.

Bowser looks threatening with the sky blue parachute.
Speaking of which, kart customization is fun, though a bit gimmicky; there are significantly fewer karts to select from, instead relying on different combinations of karts and wheels to make up a more diverse selection of stats. One thing that, surprisingly, does not feel at all gimmicky is the ability to glide and explore underwater. Almost every track (even the retro courses) includes some gliding or diving sections, and not one of them feels disingenuous; they feel like completely natural extensions of the way the game is navigated, and perfectly integrated aspects of the way the courses are designed. I would go so far as to say that unlike Wii's bikes or Double Dash's... double dashing, this is one "gimmick" that I actually hope to see return in the next Mario Kart game (And it will have to, depending on which tracks from 7 are chosen to reappear).

Though there are some stinkers, the tracks in this latest entry are mostly fantastic. They certainly picked the best selection of Retro tracks yet. The new Daisy Hills and Cheep Cheep Lagoon do a great job of showcasing, respectively, gliding and diving. The sights and sounds of Music Park make it an undeniable joy from start to finish. Piranha Plant Slide is a delicious pile of 8-Bit Nostalgia and a worthy successor to Wii's Koopa Cape (which, though butchered, is also included). Rock Rock Mountain concludes with a thrilling climb up a hill so steep that it is essentially a wall. But perhaps my favorite track is Wario Shipyard, which, though it has nothing to do with Wario, serves as a better showcase for diving than any other course in the game. It has you entering a sunken ship from underwater, driving up its tilted deck to the surface of the water, and turning around the ship's bow to re-enter the ocean on the other side of the ship. Going seamlessly from water to land and back again several times within a single lap goes a long way toward making Mario Kart 7 feel like a cohesive experience, and no track illustrates that better than Wario Shipyard.

One of the best tracks. Just sayin'.
The only thing I can really criticize about Mario Kart 7 is its lack of features; while I don't much care for any battle modes, it is still a shame to see the beloved Shine Runners mode from DS replaced by the inferior Coin Runners mode from Wii. As well, Mario Kart DS's Mission Mode gave it great longevity as a single player experience, and nothing of the sort is present in 7. There isn't even a single-player option for VS. Mode. And, though unabashed nitpicking, the character selection in Mario Kart 7 is terrible. Find me one person on this earth who was clamoring for Metal Mario or Honey Queen and I will retract this statement. Mario Kart Wii had an abundance of characters, not all of which deserved to be there, but at least they weren't edging out series titans like Bowser Jr. and Waluigi.

 No matter how much praise or criticism I can stir up, this is still a Mario Kart game, and it is still a stretch to call it "fair." You will still curse your screen as you find yourself caught in a Blue Shell explosion meters from the finish line, or as you are struck by lightning while gliding across a long gap. That's pretty much business as usual by now. But in spite of that, I expect Mario Kart 7 to be the definitive multiplayer experience on the 3DS for some time. It's certainly what the system needs right now: an easily accessible, mainstream title that will undoubtedly move units. And while it may not be the best game for the 3DS right now, it is certainly worthy of "system-seller" status.

Ricky thought this game was...

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