Preview: Mario Kart 7

News Previews Family 3DS Racing Nintendo

Nintendo has all but mastered the art of same-room multiplayer, and at the top of that list is Mario Kart. The manic, half-skill half-luck madness keeps its racers close together, ensuring exciting races almost every time.

So why would you mess with that formula? In short – you wouldn’t. And besides a few minor changes in each, Nintendo haven’t. They’ve persisted to give us a Mario Kart title on each of their consoles and handhelds, with each tweaked to suit the needs and abilities of the particular machine.

With that in mind, I expected a samey but solid game for the 3DS version, titled Mario Kart 7, with the most obvious new feature being the 3D effects. But it looks like it will almost act as a “best of”, a selection of the best features from the various iterations of the series, as well as some new additions that will drastically affect the game.

As we’ve seen in trailers, Mario Kart 7 introduces underwater racing and the ability to glide with the use of a kite-like attachment. It’s easy to dismiss these as shallow gimmicks, but in play they do make a difference. Kinda.

During my hands-on time, I got to play a full Cup of four races, and although I didn’t get to try out all the features I’ve seen in gameplay videos, what I did play was the type of fun you’d expect from the series, with some slight variations. Firstly, the game handles well, essentially using the same control setup as the DS version, with steering made easier by the thumbpad.

As expected, the 3D looks great, and its influence in your depth perception and distance judgement is stronger than you would think. It definitely makes it easier to dodge that banana or line up that green koopa shell. And when you fly over a jump and see your first 3D vista, remember to keep driving. Enjoy the view as you go, but try not to let it overwhelm you into crashing. I may be slightly exaggerating, but it’s still damn pretty.

The most touted new gameplay additions are the sky and water sections of tracks, but their input varies. In one of the tracks I played, the race dives into a lake for a small section, and the difference it made was next to nothing. Yeah, the physics make it a little heavier, but really, there’s not much point to it, for the amount of promotion Nintendo have been giving it. If there are certain karts that handle better underwater, or certain weapons that are more effective underwater, then maybe it’s worth it, but I didn’t see anything to that effect.

Gliding on the other hand is a game-changer. Drive over a jump of sufficient height and your kart will sprout a hang glider attachment and take off. There’s strategic value in deciding whether to maintain a glide or just drop to the ground. Push up and down alternately to continue a glide, and you can effectively fly for ages. It can make for a very handy shortcut, as you glide over any obstacles on the ground, but steering takes you on a wider turn circle, so you can’t exactly make sharp turns, and you probably won’t hit many item boxes. Not to mention that it will take a bit of foresight to predict where you’ll land – a mistake I once made, descending straight down a cliff in the middle of an S-bend in the road. And if an opponent hits you with a weapon midair, prepare for an immediate crash-landing. In some cases, it might be better to stick to the low road. With tracks designed around the trade-off of “to glide or not to glide”, the usefulness of this new mechanic remains to be seen, but the potential is there.

Customisation has been offered in a small way in the past, but it’s something that hasn’t really been explored in Mario Kart. Now players can choose between different sets of tyres, frames and gliders to best suit their racing style. Certain tyres may have stronger traction, improving grip off-road but weakening your sliding. A light frame means longer glides, but more vulnerability to bumps from other racers. Mixing and matching kart parts will let players figure out what works for them.

The 3DS’ gyroscopic controls are also available to use in a fashion similar to the Wii Wheel, which everyone tried once and abandoned. Personally, I stuck with it and mastered it, so the possibility of using the 3DS itself as a steering wheel is sort of intriguing. But of course, to do so famously messes up the 3D effect and can make you look like a tool on the train, so maybe it won’t be all that useful. I’ll give it a go, anyway.

While my demo session was single player only, multiplayer is where the franchise is at its most fun, and the online functionality of the 3DS doesn’t go to waste here. Players can race online with up to eight players, via a Wireless Internet connection or local download or multicard play. Streetpass will allow players to exchange ghost data directly, or Spotpass can download them automatically from anywhere in the world, if you happen to pass through a Wireless Hotspot.

As for returning features, the Tricks system from Mario Kart Wii is back, whereby performing aerial maneoveurs off a jump will give you a speed boost upon landing. And an oldie that has been mysteriously absent for the vast majority of the series – coins. The iconic collectable coins were scattered around tracks in the original Super Mario Kart, increasing your defensive power against weapons and your overall speed the more you pick up. They provide an incentive to tackle the riskier path, or to attack another player to steal theirs. Their return should allow for some new strategies, as many younger fans may not have played the original.

I didn’t encounter them with my limited time playing, but several new characters and weapons have been announced. Metal Mario, the powerup from Super Mario 64 and antagonist in Smash Bros Melee, can be seen driving his shinymobile in the video below. Also playable for the first time in anything is Lakitu, the koopa that throws spiky guys at you from a cloud in the platform games, and who’s often seen in other Mario Kart games carrying the “ready-set-go” lights and rescuing players who fall off the track. While it’s unclear who will fill in for him in his lights duties, Lakitu can be seen driving his cloud around in the video below. We’ve also been promised others, but the devs are keeping tight-lipped about them for now.

Weapon-wise, only one newbie has been announced, and it’s an oldie – the Fire Flower. Never before seen in a Mario Kart game but present in most other Mario branches, the Fire Flower will, as expected, allow players to shoot fireballs forwards and backwards. but unclear to me from the video is how it works exactly. So far it seems to act like a green shell, going in a straight line and spinning out any karts it comes into contact with. I’m not sure what the difference is, but the player in the video seems to use an awful lot of them from a single pick up. How many do you get? Does it last until you get hit by something? Can you fire as many as you want within a certain time limit? I’m not sure, but unless the answer sets it apart from the green shell, its inclusion is questionable.

More new weapons are implied, but again, they aren’t telling. But hey, we need some surprises for launch day.

With a franchise as reliable as Mario Kart, Nintendo could quite easily have just slapped 3D graphics into it and called it finished, then sat back and watched the money pour in. Thankfully, they’ve at least tried to make the game stand up on its own merits, meaning that the “gimmick” of 3D actually takes a backseat to the other exciting features on offer. With all those features listed above, as well as the generous promise once again of 32 tracks (sixteen new ones, with an additional sixteen classic tracks from previous games), this looks to be the most complete Mario Kart experience yet.

Mario Kart 7 will be playable at the upcoming Nintendo Connection Tour and will be released early December. Have a look at the video below for some more details on the game.

Gaming since the days of Lemmings and Wolfenstein, and writing since Scamper the mouse in Grade Three.