Tuesday, 31 July 2012

REVIEW: Mario Kart 7

Back in the days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the big developer we all know as Nintendo unleashed what is now one of the most successful spin-offs to a main series, selling in countless numbers to a mass of individuals around the world. More recent instalments in this series have been glued to the top in Wii and DS charts ever since they were first released, rather incredibly, a number of years prior. Of course, there's no way I could be talking about anything other than Mario Kart, the mustachioed plumber's manic, rampant take on not-so serious racing. This is a series that has truly evolved over the years, although many will debate that karting experiences with Nintendo's mascot have gone a little downhill of late, at least with the most recent home console effort.

If one were to hark back to the release that kick-started this best selling spin-off series, he or she would find a surprisingly inaccessible experience. Super Mario Kart was a particularly difficult to master affair when it came to actually steering your vehicle around a SuperFX-generated track, as the game was deliberately stapled with some of the most difficult to deal with handling in a racing game, even more so than the likes of WipeOut many years later. Of course, players could get 'in the groove' and become trapped inside a mind state of 100% focus - Focus on winning a race without allowing poor manoeuvrability to get in their way. Skip past several releases and you'll find that, by the time Mario Kart Double Dash!! on GameCube was released, this difficult to master gameplay was modified to become a much more accessible engine, soon after which a more varied mass of casual and 'core crowds got into the series. Many of you should know how much I oppose the phrases casual and hardcore and both terms' stereotypical effect on gaming, but in the context of this argument they simply have to be implemented. You see, the more recent Mario Kart experiences have forced many into two different, separately opinionated pigeon-holes. Using the boycotted Mario Kart Wii as a fitting example, many absolutely loathed the game for its undeniably unfair gameplay elements and outrageously difficult cups in the later stages of the solo experience (ironic, considering this particular release was more aimed at casuals than anyone else with its abominable advertising campaigns). Others, however, saw the strengths of the game and proceeded to ignore its unfair nature and simply have fun. So, this leaves us with a question, one that was already answered last December but will continue to be satisfied by yours truly: How does Mario Kart 7 on 3DS hold up? Rather well, actually.

One could describe Mario's third handheld karting experience, not to mention his seventh altogether (if you exclude the supposedly awful Namco-developed arcade game) with many words, but broken is definitely not one of them. The core racing found in this stereoscopic release is quite possibly as tight as you'll get with the series so far, even when compared to the DS iteration, the typical favourite amongst fans. But how does it hold up against its predecessors altogether? Yes, Mario Kart 7 features what is easily the most balanced gameplay in the series, a true god-send for those who loathed the Wii iteration's unfair nature, but that's not to say it's the best Mario Kart game ever. Keeping in mind that I haven't played the Nintendo 64 or GameCube versions, the lucky seven finds itself perched just a few branches below Mario Kart's Wii and DS experiences in my opinion, or for a more fitting analogy, in third place winning a bronze medal in the cup to decide the best game in the series. While I loathed Mario Kart Wii's unfair approach to what Nintendo thought was balancing the experience, I must admit that I had a lot more fun with it than the most recent karting effort available at this time.

The main reason for the seventh instalment's peak position of third place in my view is its surprising deprivation of content; It's almost as if Nintendo, even when paired with famed co-developer Retro Studios (Metroid Prime, Donkey Kong Country Returns - You should know these guys by now) forgot to pack some meat into an otherwise tightly balanced incarnation. Mario Kart Wii may have been frustratingly unfair, but its production value is admittedly leagues above what is available on 3DS. Still, when I conduct a synopsis what Mario Kart 7 does have to offer, I hope to show that it is definitely worth picking up if you don't already own it. In fact, I believe that racing around crazy courses with Mushroom Kingdom veterans is even better than partaking in stereoscopic platforming in the form of Super Mario 3D Land when it comes to 3DS-exclusive Mario titles, as you'll know from the score at the bottom of this review.

Up to seven other Mushroom Kingdom veterans join you in a typical Mario Kart 7 race. Fitting, but also impressive considering the frame-rate never drops in a race against CPUs.
Before the convoluted nature of that last paragraph seeps into this one, let's explore the core experience found with Mario Kart 7, starting with the new. The series' latest represents a great leap forward in terms of gameplay, while still retaining a fair, skill-based nature as aforementioned. The new additions to the gameplay formula are the main contributors to this strategic advancement, and each makes zipping around courses in multiplayer or attempting to set records in time trials all the more satisfying. Although, not every contribution to this wonderful development is truly brand-new; The Coins system, last featured in the GBA release Mario Kart: Super Circuit and before that the series' debut, makes a more than welcome return in the lucky seventh. In basic terms, coins increase the max speed of your kart, but they offer other benefits as well. Only if a player grabs and holds onto 10 coins after each race in a cup, they'll have filled in one requirement for a commendable 3-Star rank on that particular cup. Every Coin you earn following every race you partake in also contributes to a mass of currency, which gradually unlocks more and more parts for constructing a kart (more on this later) as you plow through the experience. This cleverly gives a reason for continuing to play the solo game, even if you've 100% finished it - of course, you still earn Coins in online multiplayer, but there's never been a driving force behind continuing to play solo cups in a past Mario Kart game upon completion so this still deserves praise.

Brand-new in Mario Kart 7 are the two new methods of transport you'll find your vehicle transforming into in most of the game's 32 tracks. While they take a page from the book of N64 racer Diddy Kong Racing, these all-new additions to Mario Kart are more than welcome and serve as another contribution to more strategic methods of navigating each course, as if the re-introduction of Coins wasn't enough. Most prominent of the two alterations is the glider, a mounted contraption much like the one found in early 3DS release PilotWings Resort... Only attached to a kart. Particular boost ramps serve as path into flight, as your kart activates its gliding capabilities soon after making the leap. Full 360 degree control while airborne is made all the more satisfying and effective with the Circle Pad, making you truly feel like you're making all the decisions when switching to this method of travel.

Before this sounds like a cheesy non-sensical description of an Andrex roll (although the Circle Pad really is brilliant), let's move on to Mario Kart 7's other new method of travel, the subtle yet welcome addition of the propeller activated when underwater. Yes, we've seen underwater segments in past titles, but only in the series' seventh is the handling of your kart shaken up a little when beneath the sea. Basically, the propeller only alters the drifting of your kart. In fact, it makes the handling feel exactly like the lightweight bikes found in Mario Kart Wii, which is no bad thing. It's true that the underwater segments in this release are a little underused, which is understandable considering half of the tracks are from past titles as per usual, but they're better off here than not and offer a welcome change of physics on the tracks they appear in. All three of the elements analysed in the last two paragraphs make for a much more strategic Mario Kart experience, which truly adds to the balancing. No one shortcut is better than the other, and players won't simply be following one given path this time around. Here's hoping these elements are included in future Mario Kart releases.
It's a shame that the glider feels like it's going to be a one-off for the series, because it's an incredible strategic addition to a franchise that has relied almost solely on luck in past releases. The underwater propellor holds up nicely, too.
I could go on about how brilliant the new additions to the already frantic Mario Kart formula help both shake up and balance the series' latest, but what's most impressive about this title, as with most instalments in flagship first-party Nintendo franchises, is the absolutely fantastic presentation. Mario Kart 7 is something of a stunner considering the 3DS' hardware specs, although that's not to say it's not believable. In terms of 3D, the game gets the balancing right with subtle yet outstanding effects that not only look great but also don't detract from your focus on the race at hand, something that is needed in every game that fits under this genre and past 3DS racers have messed up, so bravo to Nintendo for getting it right. In fact, they really don't mess anything up presentation-wise with this release - The menus are simplistic and slick, the new track designs are phenomenal and, hang on, the character roster... Well, it's in this regard that the game falls a little flat. Yes, this is the most abundant let-down contained in Mario Kart 7, linking back to the aforementioned bare-bones content that strays the full package away from becoming the series' best. Not only is the roster lacking in legends like Funky Kong and Dry Bowser, but a number of new inclusions found here are, simply put, pathetic. Honey Queen is a minor character from the Galaxy games who deserves no inclusion here, but somehow Nintendo did stick her in the roster as opposed to a number of other possible inclusions. If they're including Galaxy characters, why not Lubba, or better yet, The Chimp? And don't get me started on Wiggler, the other outrageous new face you'll find in this Mario Kart's roster. It's not all bad in this aspect of the game, however, as there are a few welcome additions. You can still play as your Mii, which is nice, and newcomers Lakitu and Metal Mario not only change up the roster but also the gameplay with their subtle weight-based alterations, even if the latter is basically just a re-texture of everybody's favourite plumber. Unless, like me, you've always preferred Luigi. Back on topic, let's be moving on...
Sprouting out of Mario's standard kart is the Tanooki Tail, a new item that allows for both offensive and defensive action. It can block oncoming items (including, if you get the timing perfect, Blue Shells) and trip up rivals. Handy!
While this iteration of Mario Kart's character roster falls flat on its face, it's really not that big of a deal considering the new customisation options involving the karts they race in. As aforementioned, a certain quantity of coins collected unlocks a new part which you can use to customise your mechanical steed before every cup, race or battle. Customising your kart is a necessity in this release; There's no presets to be found unless you count the standard parts you begin with. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind, as it once again harks back to the brilliant strategic elements I praised earlier. The customisation options you're given are basic and unfortunately don't add anything personal as you may think (even the DS iteration's emblem creation tools are absent, sadly), but their effect on the core racing is unprecedented by simply choosing a kart. Each individual part packs different stat boosts which alter the initial qualities of your selected character; Handling, weight, boosting power and so on. Picking the right parts for the right tracks is key to winning races, particularly when you take the challenge online with the game's multiplayer modes.

Speaking of which, let's move onto the multiplayer mode found in Mario Kart 7. Players who are familiar with Mario Kart Wii's excellent online will find a relatable experience in this handheld release; albeit one not quite as stable. Unfortunately, Mario Kart 7's worldwide racing is hindered slightly by animation lag and frame-rate drops, ones that don't occur too often but are a step-down from the near-perfect stability of the aforementioned Wii release. Still, if you can ignore these minor annoyances, everything you'd expect is in here: Various racing options, support for battle mode and points systems for both. Brand-new are Groups, which allow you to create guild-like communities with their own internal scoring, perfect for tournaments. All in all, stability issues aside, Mario Kart 7's online is what's going to keep you coming back for more upon finishing the bare-bones solo experience, even though I personally found Mario Kart Wii's functionality to be more enjoyable.

Sadly, it's the little things that leave a big mark on Mario Kart 7's exterior. It's lacking in content and the smaller aspects of the game, such as the character roster, let the scope down. However, there's more positives in this package that neatly iron out the negatives: 32 of the series' best track designs old and new, a number of excellent new additions to the already thoroughly enjoyable formula, and most importantly, the fairest, tightest racing in a Mario Kart game to date. It's just a massive shame that all you can do in this release is race offline and online. The presentation is stellar and it's difficult to fault the gameplay, but when there's little to a release that by default has to improve on its predecessors from a content standpoint, not take a step backwards. All it would've taken to shoot the score I've awarded this title up to golden levels is a re-hash of Mario Kart DS's awesome Mission mode. All this said, you should definitely purchase Mario Kart 7 if you enjoy the series, especially if you have access to an online setup. The multiplayer is thoroughly enjoyable despite a few technical issues, and as I noted in the previous paragraph, it's what's going to keep you coming back to the game. I'll end this review by re-establishing my response to a hefty question: Is Mario Kart 7 the greatest game in the series so far? Simply put, no, but if the next Mario Kart release packs the same racing as found in this instalment only alongside a satisfying heap of content, it will be. Until then, the seventh in the series offers a truly ace if a little flawed experience, one that you should check out if you can and haven't already.



ZeroSuitSamus2 said...

Great review :) I never bothered with MK7 though. Got a bit bored with the series after MK Wii. Might pick it up one day though, sounds good from your review :D

Noodle said...

It's a little shallow, but the racing aspect is just perfect in comparison to Mario Kart Wii, which was undeniably broken. If you find it cheap you may want to pick it up, yeah :')