London MCM Expo October 2011: Mario Kart 7
Why is Mario Kart 7 not called Mario Kart 3D? It’s a question which probably has no satisfactory answer. The series has never adopted a numerical naming system before, nor is there any significance to the number – or this particular iteration of the series – which would warrant a big red 7 being plastered next to its title. The instant assumption one might make is that Nintendo is trying to distance itself from its own machine. With disappointing sales (for a Nintendo console) and an even more disappointing lack of games, is Nintendo growing ashamed of the 3DS? If so, there’s a degree of irony in the fact that Mario Kart 7 should receive the brunt of such shame. As one of a number of 3DS games shown at MCM Expo in London at the end of October, it undoubtedly impressed us the most.
That’s not to say that the 7 in the game’s title is indicative of any significant evolution or advancement of the series. This is Mario Kart as everyone knows it, with all of the implication that may bring. The usual components are predictably in place; the same characters, items, handling and graphical style persist, but – encouragingly – we get a Mario Kart DS, rather than Mario Kart Wii vibe from the overall feel of the game. The series’ portable titles have been more refined experiences than the likes of the sluggish Double Dash!! or 2008’s improved – but shaky – Wii outing, and Mario Kart 7 hints at a continuation of this trend. For one, the visuals are impressive, not just for a 3DS game, but for a Mario Kart game in general. Vibrant, smooth and colourful, they have a pleasant, clean sheen to them which extends – possibly for the first time – to the obligatory 3D.
While it won’t cure your eyestrain or general apathy for the gimmick, the joy of dropping a banana skin and having it seemingly jump out of the screen and into our face remained amusing for well over the five minute longevity quota which Nintendo seems to consider sufficient for their questionable novelty excursions these days. We sound cynical – and we are – but only because Mario Kart 7 gave us brief whiffs of the quality attainable with Nintendo’s underperforming machine.
Notable changes come in the form of a basic customisation system available when choosing your kart. A selection of wheels and chassis’ allow you to experiment with handling and weight – and in turn determine how much heft you can throw around when ramming other racers – as well as a ‘gadget’ feature. The only such gadget available in the build we played was the much-publicised hang glider attachment. When hitting certain boost-pads this pops out of the back of your kart and lets you glide for a certain amount of time, letting you skip sections of the track and giving you some leeway in regard to shortcuts. But, again, its novelty factor and overall effect on the racing was limited in the three courses we got to play. Far from the Diddy Kong Racing-style experience we expected, we found that the gliding had little impact beyond a bit of visual flair and the chance to skip some sections of track.
This holds true for the underwater sections, in which a propeller emerges from the back of your kart and allows you to drive normally while submerged. These sections certainly looked nice – particularly the 3D effect – but they had no real tangible impact on the racing that we could discern. It’s good, then, that the standard racing mechanics are as solid as you could hope for from a Mario Kart game. Drifting around large bends at speed and waiting for the orange sparks which signal a double boost, or navigating past bottomless pits is still as rewarding as ever, while – from what we could tell – the item distribution remains fairly reasonable. The coin system from the original SNES game returns as well, impacting your speed and defense, suggesting further levels of strategy hidden under the game’s accessible exterior. The three tracks we got to try out, while not particularly complex, had hints of the added depth we might expect to see in the more advanced cups. In particular the obligatory Donkey Kong-themed track – complete with the new Tiki enemies from Donkey Kong Country Returns – was both visually pleasing and suggested some further shortcut-related uses for the gliding system.
While the 3DS’ performance thus far may be shaky, Mario Kart 7 is nothing if not reassuring. It retains occasional hints of the fickle, scattershot gimmick-laden approach Nintendo has recently become known for, yet it also shows the console at its best by playing to its strengths and giving a tantalising hint of what the 3DS’ future may hold. Provided that the gadget feature plays a bigger role in later – hopefully more complex – courses, and that the vital multiplayer component retains its appeal, this may prove to be one of the best 3DS titles, and perhaps even one of the better Mario Kart instalments around.