Mario Kart 7 is the latest installment in Nintendo's long-running racing franchise. New features include the ability to fly through the air and race underwater, alongside increased car customisation and 3DS SpotPass and StreetPass features, and, of course, 3D. We go hands-on with three courses and reveal the strengths of Mario Kart's latest additions.
Just when I thought I didn't need another Mario Kart game in my life, the 3DS edition proved me absolutely wrong. While Nintendo has shrunk the racer into the palm of our hands before - 2005's Mario Kart DS remains one of the series' finest outings - Mario Kart 7 still manages to come across as a bit of a marvel. Analogue control, well-implemented 3D visuals and an incredibly smooth framerate make an old favorite feel brand new again, but of course there's plenty more to it than a new lick of paint.
Mario Kart 7 screenshots
Gliders, propellers and big wheels
While a lot of things remain the same - there's the same cheeky array of power-ups, roster of characters and signature Mario aesthetics - there are three pretty significant additions; gliding, underwater racing and customisable karts. Special types of ramps will see karts propelled into the air, where gliders spring out the top of the kart, allowing players to gently float left and right, as well as back and forth to prolong their flight or dart back down to the track. While it's mandatory in some areas, with no obvious benefit apart from a nice sky view of the track ahead, there were a few sneaky shortcuts that take you over gaps and cut corners, shaving seconds off the lap times.
While gliding through the skies had some real tactical uses, underwater racing's benefits are harder to grasp. Submerging onto a seabed sees propellers sprout from the back of each kart, and while gliding essentially introduced new routes, here all it appears to do is dial down the racing speed, which could be an ideal time to unleash a few stocked up power-ups. Elsewhere, one course, which was mostly submerged in water, added a few themed obstacles such as passing fish and snapping clams. Finally, all karts can now be kitted out with different frames and wheels, which will have an impact effect on speed and grip as well as appearance. Interestingly there appeared to be more than one choice of glider to consider, too, suggesting further strategy for when you take to the skies.
Mario Kart 7 screenshots
Coins in, stunts and snaking out?
Other differences in this early playable build were subtle but could prove to be of real significance to more tactical players. Coins are making a comeback, which will increase a player's speed as more are accumulated. Their finite number means players will want to grab them before everyone else does, which is easier said than done when many are off the racing line, so such diversions could prove to be more costly than beneficial. Elsewhere, the Wii's addition of stunts when taking to the air appears to have been removed, and while there's a tiered boosting system when sliding round corners you can only notch them up on wide bends, meaning the contentious snaking technique will be difficult if not impossible to pull off.
As far as course designs go, they adopt the DS and Wii editions' flair for wide open expanses and novel ideas, such as a giant flower that can be bounced across, to swerving round stationary DK barrels littered in a jungle track and avoiding bouncing boulders as karts power up a mountain. Interestingly, while those recent editions featured both new tracks and remakes of old favorites, it's been hinted that everything in Mario Kart 7 will be original content and will include locales such as Wii Sports Resort's and Pilotwings Resort's Wuhu Island. Nintendo has confirmed a robust online suite for up to eight players, as well as 3DS specific features such as SpotPass and StreetPass, but specifics are still thin on the ground. But from what we know and have played, Nintendo are almost certainly onto another winner, and should give the handheld a real boost come Christmas.
Mario Kart 7 will be available on Nintendo 3DS in December.