It's kind of hard to mess up "Mario Kart" at this point.
From banana peels to blue shells, the "Mario Kart" series has continually been a fun and entertaining racing experience, appearing on every Nintendo platform since the Super Nintendo. And the good news is that none of that has changed with the Nintendo 3DS installment, "Mario Kart 7."
But, some things have changed, the biggest being that karts aren't just limited to land anymore: they can now go both above and below the track, with propellers letting you drive underwater and gliders letting you fly through the air. And unlike the not-so-popular motorcycles in "Mario Kart Wii," these new racing additions feel so natural it's a wonder it took Nintendo this long to include them.
After years of racing with motion controls on the Wii, it is odd playing Mario Kart with buttons again. Luckily, Nintendo included a gyroscope based control scheme, which worked surprisingly well and was nearly as responsive as the Wiimote. The only reason the gyro didn't become my main method of playing was that it forces you to steer in 1st person view, which I can't stand, and moving the system also compromises the 3D effect. Although if the game let me race in 3rd person view with the motion controls, that might just have won out.
Visually, the game is beautiful. It's on par with the best we've seen on the 3DS so far, and it even rivals "Mario Kart Wii."The 3D manages to give a subtle depth to the whole experience, nothing too deep or too extreme. I've always favored the more is better approach in terms of 3D implementation, but for a game racing by at such speeds the simple approach works.
The courses only benefit from the improved graphics, and these are some of the best designed racing tracks the series has ever seen. I'm still surprised Nintendo is sticking with the 32 track(16 new, 16 old) formula, given that they probably could fit every single Mario Kart track ever made in one game by now, but it's hard to complain with the quality of the one's here already quite high(and it helps they brought back a lot of my favorites).
Other new features include the return of coins, which help increase your racing speed and can be used to unlock different parts for your kart. You can change your kart, wheel type, and glider, and while the customization is cool, it's not as fleshed out as one would hope.
My only main gripe with the game is the abysmal character selection. I don't know who the fuck thought that anyone was begging to play as Wiggler or Queen Bee, but it's not their inclusion as much as the other characters that were excluded that irks me. Where is Dry Bones(my main racer for the past two games?) What about Toadette, Boo, or even poor Waluigi, who has a course in this game, yet isn't represented? "Mario Kart Wii" had 25 characters and this game reverts down to 17, less than "Mario Kart: Double Dash" as well.
Just the same that limiting the game to 32 courses seems a relic of older technology, there is no reason under the sun that I will accept for why the character list is so bad(Read: I'm really pissed about Dry Bones). I could deal with a smaller roster, if it didn't contain the scum at the bottom of the Mario universe character barrel. It's also odd that racing through 100cc mode unlocks none of the characters, so you have to stick with the basic ones (plus your Mii) until you start clearing 150cc mode. Why Nintendo, why?
But, the real reason you play Mario kart is the multiplayer experience, and "Mario Kart 7" comes fleshed out with Nintendo's best online offering to date. The online infrastructure operates very similar to "Mario Kart Wii," down to the look and the feel. You can find and jump into a game with anybody on your friends list, and the game also keeps a recent opponents list that you can do the same for.
New is the community option, which allows players to make their own online groups that race under certain rules(kart speed, available items, etc.). You can then exchange codes for different communities and create personal little online bubbles for just you and your friends. Nintendo has also created communities that everybody can join in, so I'm hoping to see these be used like the online contests they ran for a while on "Mario Kart Wii." It's an interesting new feature, and one that looks to strengthen the game's online offerings.
Most importantly though, the online worldwide matchmaking was flawless. There were few other North American players on while I was testing the game, but I was racing worldwide against players from Europe and Japan with no problems. I only had one disconnect out of all my time online, and it's pretty awesome to see a handheld game that outperforms even the Wii's online infrastructure(Not that that's difficult, mind you).
Local multiplayer is also supported, and up to 8 players can race locally with or without their own copies of the game. It's a nice feature to try to get your friends involved, and you can also do multiplayer grand prix mode, which was missing from the Wii version and great to see back again.
Street Pass and Spot Pass options are also present, and the integration works to flesh everything out. Players whom you street pass can be then found and raced online, and ghost data is sent both from Nintendo via spot pass, and is swapped with other players via street pass. And, while I don't think Nintendo has said anything on the subject, given the light character roster, this would be a good time for Nintendo to step it up Spot Pass wise and send out some post-game DLC.
Lackluster character roster aside, the 3DS needed a killer multiplayer app, and "Mario Kart 7" delivers. The familiar Mario Kart spirit, along with a fresh coat of paint, the best track selections in the series, new flying and water portions, and a great online system combine to form a game that I expect to drown myriad hours into over the next few months.
Now just bring my Dry Bones back.
Note: For those of you with the game, I've created a City Newspaper community. To add the community, use the code: 19-5678-7103-7259. Hope to see you all online!