Part of the appeal of keeping this blog is I get to review games that you may have heard of, but have never played. To modern gamers, particularly the younger generations, the names Dragon Quest and GRID 2 (review forthcoming) might ring a bell. But there’s a pretty good chance that some gamers have never played them. But Mario Kart 7 is about as mass-market and well-known a game as you could ever think of. If you buy Mario Kart 7, you probably know what you’re in for. My honest assessment is pretty simple: the series peaked with Double Dash, but if you want to carry Mario Kart in your pocket, the 3DS game is probably the best way to do so. Still, this one doesn’t have the sense of speed from the GameCube classic or even the N64 entry. It feels like you’re going 35-40 m.p.h. tops, and suddenly the items feel less important than knowing how to power-slide. It’s still Mario Kart, but the gameplay, aside from getting stale, feels kind of vanilla this time.
Let’s talk about the courses. They’re actually well designed here, but don’t reach the level of greatness seen in Double Dash. A big drawback is that once you’re off-road, even if your kart is equipped with off-road tires, you slow down like crazy. I guess the developers were trying to prevent people from taking too many shortcuts, but even if you accidentally go off-road only a few inches from the track, you can go from first place to third (or worse) very quickly. Courses that are especially winding are easier to win, because you can power-slide on the turns to get first place or maintain your lead once there. If you don’t know what power-sliding is, it’s like drifting in an actual car, but you get a speed boost at the end of it (because hey, it’s a kart-racer). There are thirty-two courses in all. Half of the courses are repeats from older games, a welcome change to the series that started on the DS game. The SNES and GBA tracks are basically all 90 and 180 degree turns, while the tracks from more advanced hardware contain more creative obstacles and shortcuts.
My favorite Mario Kart memories are playing multiplayer, and this is an area where a portable Mario Kart game will always fall short. The odds that you and at least one of your friends both have a 3DS and a copy of Mario Kart 7 are much slimmer than the odds that one of you has – for example – a Switch, a copy of Mario Kart, and two controllers. It’s nothing the developers did; home consoles are just more multiplayer-friendly machines. Mario Kart 7 offers both local multiplayer and online multiplayer, but I don’t especially enjoy online gaming. That ultimately leaves playing against the computer for most people, and the computer is simply brain-dead. No matter whether you’re playing 50cc (the easy option) or 150cc (the hard option), the computer fails to surprise you, taking a predetermined path through each course, avoiding shortcuts, and power-sliding sparingly. Maybe they just wanted something friendly for six-year-olds, but I like a game with more of a challenge.
The audio-visual experience does highlight what the 3DS is capable of. Maybe it’s a step below GameCube, but it’s certainly a notch above Nintendo 64. It helps that the hardware renders at such a low resolution, but a lack of pixels isn’t something to complain about when playing on such a small screen. Even if the polygons are higher in triangle count than on other systems, the level aesthetics are hit and miss. Toad Circuit, for example, is a total dud, with green grass, a blue sky, and a gray road. On the flip side, Shy Guy Bazaar is a delight, with an Arabian nights-style setting, and Shy Guys who ride magic carpets (awesome!). This is maybe my all-time favorite Rainbow Road, because you ride on the rings of Saturn and experience low gravity while riding across the moon. Some courses, including Rainbow Road, are divided into sections, like a winding line from beginning to end, while others are a proper circuit. The music didn’t grab me this time, and I played with headphones so I really listened. They just recycled Donkey Kong Country music for the DK Jungle stage. Even Rainbow Road borrows Mario Kart 64’s main riff.
Again, you know what you’re getting into when you buy a Mario Kart game. It’s a great time with friends, and it’s the series that invented the kart racing genre. Having seen livestreams of the Crash Team Racing remake, and heard wonderful things about the unexpectedly well-received Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, I am wondering if the Mario Kart games are getting outclassed by what used to be rip-offs. There’s still something good about Mario Kart 7. It’s a refined formula, but it may be getting a little stale. Maybe instead of repeating courses, characters, and items from older games, the next Mario Kart could be a brand-new formula. Brand new items, brand new courses, real world go-karts, rival racers… what do you say, Nintendo? This is the best pocket-sized Mario Kart, but it’s a far cry from the best in the series. The single-player can entertain you for three days or so, but local multiplayer is almost assuredly the best way to get your money’s worth. I will admit I was hooked on Mario Kart 7, but the thrill lasted a short time, and eventually I wanted to play something else.