I’m a pretty staunch subscriber to the Unified Mario Kart Alpha Theory. For the non-scholars out there, this theory dictates that, within a certain margin of error, a person’s first Mario Kart game will always be their favorite, and any subsequent Mario Kart experiences are spent trying to recapture that initial, and fairly specific, buzz of camaraderie, trash-talk, and impossible, shamelessly computer-assisted comebacks. It’s a theory that, due to constant and intensive iteration, actually applies quite effortlessly to a lot of games.
But Mario Kart serves as such a sterling example of this “first bite” phenomenon because we’re now all the way up to Mario Kart 7--though this is the first in the series to explicitly rub the number of times we’ve fallen for the exact same trick in our collective faces--and Mario Kart expectations are intensely, almost dogmatically codified, and have been for years. In a way, it makes the already subjective process of writing a game review that much more nebulous. What is one even reviewing, exactly? The variations from one Mario Kart to the next can be extremely subtle, and whether a specific modulation is good or bad rests almost entirely in the hindsight of the player. That there has never been more than one Mario Kart on any given Nintendo platform further complicates things, and comparisons to other racing games--hell, other kart racing games, not that there have been any of particular merit in quite some time--are a moot point entirely.
As someone who, in the face of the above-mentioned theory, doesn’t really have a favorite Mario Kart game, what can I tell you about Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS? Well, it’s about as good as it is familiar. Yes, it introduces brief aerial and underwater sequences to break things up, further kart customization, additional power-ups, and as many brand-new courses as courses it recycles from Mario Karts of yore. Even if it’s all incredibly safe stuff, which it most definitely is, these modifications and additions seem good, or at least, do not contribute negatively to the previously established Mario Kart formula. To put it another way, if you like red sparks and hate blue shells, Mario Kart 7 is probably for you. To put it a third way, if this is your first Mario Kart, it seems like a pretty good one to kick things off with.
The fundamental action of hop-drifting around corners, trying to capitalize on boost pads and risky shortcuts, and deciding on the perfect moment to deploy your power-up remain the still-beating heart of Mario Kart. Of course, you’ll regularly have strong performances up-ended, and weak performances propped up, by the game’s unapologetically weighted power-up system, but if you didn’t, that wouldn’t really be Mario Kart, right?
You can run single races on one of the game’s 32 tracks, or compete in four-track grand prix cups. There are battle modes alongside the pure race events, but the open arena, proto-car-combat model feels more and more vestigial with each iteration. The single-player experience feels as anemic as always, with no structure beyond those grand prix cups, and no motivation beyond the promise of unlockable drivers and kart parts to keep playing. Online play seems snappy, even with a full load of eight players, though again, similar to the single-player experience, if the person you’re racing isn’t in the same room, online victories feel hollow, and there’s no one to punch when you lose at the last possible second. Well, no one that deserves it.
Local multiplayer remains the gold standard for Mario Kart 7. Eight players, each with their own copy of the game, would be ideal. Single-cart download support--which limits who and what you race, but not which tracks you can race on--seems generous, though load times are pronounced. It’s still quite fun with less than eight, but let me be clear that I cannot in good conscience recommend this game if you don’t have anyone to play with locally.
As is de rigueur for Mario Kart, 7 incorporates some of its platform’s native trickery in some conspicuous manner. Now you can opt to play Mario Kart by “turning” your 3DS as though it were a steering wheel, which is precisely as awful as it sounds. Worse, actually, because moving the 3DS around all but cancels out the game’s stereoscopic 3D effects, which I found more transfixing than I have in most 3DS games I’ve played. It’s the only 3DS game where, over time, I’ve found myself turning the 3D slider up, rather than the other way around.
Regardless of your appreciation for 3D effects, this is a crisp, colorful game, and maybe it’s just a matter of scale, but it might just be the best-looking Mario Kart yet. The track designs are impressive as well, and their scale, thematic ingenuity, use of 3D space, and smart but measured incorporation of underwater and aerial segments seem that much more impressive when compared directly to the classic tracks included.
Despite the game's slavish adherence to the Mario Kart formula, Mario Kart 7 has moments where it shines simply by executing that formula really well. Still, other than your personal history with Mario Kart, your enjoyment of Mario Kart 7 will likely hinge on your continued appreciation of that formula, and friends to enjoy it with, more than anything else.