One of Mario's longest running spin-offs could use a tune-up
Ah, the good ol' mascot kart racer, one of the most popular forms of platformer spin-offs in the market. The trend was set by none other than Nintendo's leading man himself in 1992 with Super Mario Kart, a game that not only had a dozen dazzling tracks and multiplayer functionality but also introduced Mode 7 to the SNES, allowing for a more dignified, flat racing experience. Needless to say, gamers fell in love with the title, and it became a critical success. In tandem, Nintendo released a Mario Kart game on nearly every system afterwards, and even collaborated with Namco to develop an arcade version. The tight mechanics of the Mario Kart franchise contrasted it from the slew of realistic sports racing games that were soon to come, and as the then-brand-new 3DS showed up on store shelves, as predicted, so did Mario and his excited cohorts in their trademark vehicles.
Has the Mario Kart series, however, gone stagnant? Did Mario Kart Wii forewarn the series' inevitable failure? Is there just not enough in Mario Kart 7 to satisfy the common gamer? Well, if we're going to get these questions answered, we better rev up our engines and take Mario Kart 7 for a spin.
To start, I was not very impressed with how Nintendo thought they innovated the genre. Okay, fine, the ability to glide is actually a nicely-implemented, well-received feature, but they also touted being able to swim underwater as a fresh, invigorating mechanic in the genre when, in reality, it's the same as driving above land except with a slight sway in your drift and a minuscule propeller protruding from the kart's engine. I understand that not much can be done to the genre to make it stand out, but if you're touting these mundane mechanics as the most outstanding new features in your game then it doesn't add up to me.
Initial impressions aside, it's Mario Kart, all right. Most of the series' staple characters return for their 7th outing, although Waluigi is mysteriously missing from the roster, which is somewhat shocking considering his ongoing status as a regular spin-off attendee. The tracks are as bedazzling and varied as ever; you'll end up cruising through a bazaar, a futuristic neon-embossed city, and even Wuhu Island from Wii Sports Resort. Three items were added to the game's arsenal: the Fire Flower, which acts quite similarly to the Mario Brothers' Special Item in Double Dash!! by letting you hurl ricocheting fireballs at your opponents, the Super Leaf, which is a manually-activated barrier that allows you to attack karts from up close and deflect projectiles, and the Lucky Seven, an item which surrounds your kart with 7 random items at once. There are also gyro controls, but the ability to turn them on isn't really touted heavily or explained much, and even when you do figure out how to activate it the entertainment value wears thin very quickly.
My favorite part of MK7 is the kart customization feature. While there is a somewhat finite number of parts to choose from, you can unlock quite a few by racing and earning coins, which finally see the light of day again since the very first installment. Kart pieces are divided into three categories: chassis, wheels, and glider, and each of them can be customized and ridden by every character in the roster. Want to drive a spike-driven muscle car with monster truck wheels as Princess Peach? Go right on ahead! Yearning to fit the mighty Bowser onto a small, pipe-framed kart with puny wheels? You can do that as well! Heck, there's even gold vehicle parts that you can strive to collect. Sure, their stats are somewhat miserable compared to the other parts, but shut up, it's gold.
Online returns as a prominent feature from the previous game, Mario Kart Wii, and this is where Mario Kart 7 shines above all else. You can instantly connect via Wi-fi and race with opponents across the globe, compete to earn VR points (which, above all else, serve as bragging rights points, aside from unlocking one of the golden vehicle parts) and even join small, online communities to face off in a grand prix. You can instantly join any of your registered friends and play them online with others and host private sessions of your own. Plus, any coins collected online transfer over to your offline savings, which means repeated racing online can earn you some sweet new parts. My only gripe is that disconnects can happen subsequently, and as far as I know, there is no option to quit during an online match, which sucks if I have to take a bathroom break or if I have other important business to attend to. Local multiplayer also takes off without a hitch, allowing you and some friends to take on a Grand Prix, race against yourselves or duke it out in Battle mode.
However, there's something about Mario Kart 7 that irks me to no end. Despite the lengthy description I gave above, Mario Kart 7, as it seems to me, fails to back up all of these amazing features with a shockingly decrepit amount of existing and unlockable content. There's 17 unlockable characters, 32 courses (half of which are redone versions of tracks from previous titles), and only 3 new items. Contrast the character roster with Mario Kart Wii's, which includes 24 characters, in 12-man races. Okay, yes, it is a handheld, so I shouldn't expect Retro Studios and Nintendo to cram the game with as many furnishings as they can, but the 3DS, from a hardware standpoint, is PERFECTLY capable of holding all of that stuff, or at least it should be. I'm EXTREMELY tired of games delivering just what was shown in previous trailers; companies need to not be as predictable and pack more crap into their games that we're not supposed to know about, instead of giving us what amounts to what we've already seen advertised. Think of Super Smash Bros. Melee, for example; how many people knew Ganondorf and Mewtwo were going to be in the game before it was released? I'd imagine not a whole lot of people. Do something like that! Make your games more surprising instead of showing us what you've done and letting us experience it for ourselves!
Mario Kart 7 is a hard case to judge. On one hand, it signifies and emphasizes on what Mario Kart fans love, and the kart pieces and online functions drive it home. In retrospect, though, the game shows up with a dull amount of content otherwise, and the replay value wears off quicker than its previous outings. For fans of the past and people who haven't tried it yet, Mario Kart 7 does a great job of maintaining its cutting edge and I would recommend checking it out, but refining itself is just about all it does.