By Ishaan . November 30, 2011 . 5:30pm
At one point, Mario Kart 7 made me extremely vexed, which is something that no game has been able to do in years. I don’t mean this in the “Tsk” sort of way where you click your tongue and sigh after you miss a jump in a game. I mean I was really incredibly upset and ready to yell at anyone I could find (sorry Laura and Spencer!). It takes a while before you learn to accept that everything you know about racing games is almost useless in Mario Kart 7.
Here’s an example: It’s the final lap of a frantic race. You’re in the lead, both hands in red-hot agony from the inhuman way you’ve been contorting them to drift your way around corners and follow the most efficient racing line. Bones and tissue weren’t meant to bend this way, but it’s OK. You’re winning! You’re in the home stretch. In fact, there’s the finish line, right ahead! You’re getting there! Almost… almost… *WHAM!* Blue Shell.*WHAM!* Red Shell. *WHAM!* A speeding Bullet Bill smacks you out of the way and right off the edge. After three consecutive assaults on your person, you’re in 8th place, and the race just ended without you even finishing.
Get ready for this sort of thing to happen very, very often.
The sooner you remind yourself that Mario Kart has always been more of a hilarious party game than a competitive racer, the sooner you’ll learn to enjoy it. In my case, it took a day before I was calm enough to start actually consciously enjoying the game. That said, the fact that I kept playing one online game after another, even while I was ready to throw my 3DS at a wall, really says something about Mario Kart 7.
Mario Kart in general isn’t known for being radically different from game to game. There are always a few tweaks here and there to add a little “extra something” to each new game in the series, but for the most part, it sticks to the same framework. Mario Kart 7 is no different, despite actually having quite a lot of new features. To sum it up: 16 new tracks and 16 old tracks. Gliding and underwater sections. Multiple paths through the same track. Kart customization. Community features.
So, why does it still feel like there’s not much that’s new to see here?
Let’s talk about the tracks and their design first. 16 new tracks is a fair bit, but I got through each and every one of those in an evening. Gliding is a lot of fun, too, but how useful it actually is depends entirely on which track you’re on. In some, you can use it to fly over obstacles that you would normally have had to drive around. This is great, because once you learn how to get the most out of flying, you can find shortcuts and gain a few seconds over the other racers.
In others tracks, the flying is just there to add a little variety to the race and to hinder you if you can’t time your descent properly. It’s on linear sections of the track, and there isn’t really any shortcut to be found. The only difference is that you’re in the air, instead of on land. While flying is always fun, at times like these, I wished it served more of a purpose. Finally, underwater racing portions are no different from regular racing, aside from the fact that gravity’s a little different, and a propeller sticks out from the back of your kart. As with flying, these are interesting when they give you alternate routes through tracks, but otherwise, they feel a little pointless. Multiple pathways through tracks are one of the coolest new features in Mario Kart 7 in general, but I always wished that there were more of them, and that the tracks gave you a little more freedom to decide if you want to spend more time on land, in the air, or underwater, and chart your own course out through each track.
It isn’t that Mario Kart 7 doesn’t have new features. It has a lot of them. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily use them in the smartest way possible.
For instance, when you have 16 new tracks, isn’t it a little bit of a waste to only allow players to race on them, over and over again? Once you’ve seen all the tracks, even though they remain fun to keep playing, they stop surprising you. A new mode — perhaps even the Balloon Battle mode using the regular tracks — would have gone a long way toward giving players more to do using the same set of assets.
Customization options are new to Mario Kart 7, too. As you race, you can gather coins on the track. These increase the top speed of your kart during the race, but after the race is done, they unlock new kart parts that can be used to customize your vehicle. Parts are divided into the body, the wheels, and the kind of glider you want to use. Each part has its own stats that influences the kart’s speed, acceleration, weight, handling and “off-road” performance.
The problem is, with how much influence items have on Mario Kart races, it can be hard to tell if your new kart configuration is making any difference at all. When a race is filled with a constant barrage of Blue Shells, Red Shells, Bullet Bills and Banana Peels — and they always are — the effects of customization might be lost on you.
For instance, I picked a kart with high speed, but acceleration on the slightly lower side for online races. I lost every single online race I played for the next hour. This was because, while my top speed was great, I couldn’t drive on a stretch of track for very long without a Red Shell or Lightning or some other item hitting me and bringing me to a complete standstill. Since my acceleration was low, it would take me that much longer to speed up again from a complete halt, and this effectively made that particular kart configuration useless.
From then on, I revised my kart configuration to place an emphasis on both top speed and acceleration. After a little experimentation, I even began to ignore the handling stat, as the ability to drift offsets the shortcomings of low handling. I wonder if other players will ultimately reach the same conclusion as well, which would mean that a lot of online races will have players with similar configurations competing in them, with only minor stat differences to set them apart. If customizing your kart only has such a negligible effect, the feature may as well have been left out of the game altogether, since every other aspect of Mario Kart tends to be so obvious and boisterous.
That said, the online races are amazingly fun to play, and this is the game’s focus.
The first day I found myself being pounded with Blue Shell after Blue Shell, I was livid. Despite this, I would keep playing because of how easy it was to play one race after another. You can race with random players from around the world, with Friends/Opponents, or with communities. If you choose to race against random players, once the game has grouped you with a bunch of people to play against, the lot of you can keep playing race after race with very little delay. Every player chooses a track (or picks the “Random” option), and the game picks a track from the various selections at random for you to race on.
If you’ve raced against a random player, they’ll show up in your “Recent Opponents” list in the Friends/Opponents racing section. If they’re playing online, you’ll be able to highlight their name and tap the “Join” button to join their next race. In the meantime, you’ll be allowed to Spectate their current race, but this isn’t much fun, as the camera only follows a single player throughout the race, and doesn’t let you change who it’s locked onto.
I’m usually in the habit of playing racing games with the D-pad, but in Mario Kart 7, you can’t use the D-pad to steer. At first, I was a little worried by this, but it only took a couple of races for me to realize why the decision was made. The amount of control the 3DS’ analog Circle Pad affords you while drifting around corners is astounding. While in a drift, you can almost move your kart sideways and remain in perfect control of the angle you’re pointing as you come out of a turn. The most satisfying parts of Mario Kart 7 are when you’re drifting around a narrow bend, deadly close to the edge of a cliff, and manage to keep your kart perfectly steady on the racing line without falling off. If you do feel like you’re a little too close to the edge for comfort, a little twitch of the thumb will pull you back. Once you get used to the game, you’ll find yourself making these slight positioning adjustments without even realizing it.
It’s even more satisfying if you can remain in a drift long enough to charge up a nice speed boost. This works exactly the way it did in Mario Kart Wii, where a short drift gives you slight speed boost, and a longer drift (with red sparks coming out of your wheels) will give you a greater burst of speed. There’s no snaking here like there was in Mario Kart DS.
I haven’t had a chance to try out Mario Kart 7’s Community feature yet, although I did set one up for Siliconera. Communities can be set up by anyone, and one player can create up 8 communities in total. You can assign a name and a logo to your community, and the game will generate a 14-digit code that you can share with other players over Internet forums and the like. Once a player has your community code, they can become members of your community, which means they’ll be able to play with other community members without having to add them all to their 3DS Friends List individually.
When you decide to join a community race, the game puts you and other players in a lobby. You can select from a lengthy list of predetermined messages like “Hello” or “Shall we begin?” or “Let’s wait for more players” and so on. I haven’t had a chance to try community races with anyone, but the variety of messages available to exchange in the lobby will likely get the job done, as far as communication goes. We’ll release the Siliconera community code once the game is out, so our readers can play together.
Something else regarding communities: when you create a community, you can choose what speed class and item options you want for community races. As far as items are concerned, you can either choose to turn all items on, turn them all off, or limit them to Shells or Bananas or Bombs. I’m very curious to see if limiting the number of items during community races — and the usual item-driven chaos by extension — helps the kart customization options stand out a little better. Ultimately, I think the Community feature will be Mario Kart 7’s greatest strength once the game is out.
Food for thought:
1. One last cool feature in Mario Kart 7 that I really like is the ability to race in first-person view. This hasn’t been in any of the previous Mario Kart titles. Being able to race in first-person is challenging, and while you’ll probably be terrible at it in the beginning, it does give the game a very nice sense of speed.
2. You can steer your kart by tilting your 3DS in first-person mode, which is fun, but also incredibly difficult. I checked to see if you could use tilt-controls in the regular third-person view, but you can’t, unfortunately.
3. The 3D effect in Mario Kart 7 is subtle. Nothing pops out at you. Instead, it’s simply very pleasant to look at, and it feels very natural. Turning it on also made spotting the direction turns bend in a little easier for me. That said, I turned it off for online matches, because I tilt from side to side way too much while racing, and this breaks the 3D effect.
4. The Tanooki tail, which is one of the three new items, is an awful lot of fun to use. It’s very satisfying to swat another racer aside with it, and it’s one of the more useful items in the Coin Runners mode, where the goal is to collect as many coins as you can before the time runs out.
5. Another new item is the Lucky 7, which causes seven different items to spin around your kart. This is a rare drop, but if you’re lucky enough to pick it up, you’ll have seven items at your disposal to use one after the other. The last new item is the Fire Flower, which lets you shoot bouncy fireballs at other racers.