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I've always had mixed feelings towards the Mario Kart series. I haven't played every instalment, but when I pick one up I often find that I have a visually-pleasing racer with woefully-scaled difficulty levels, belligerent AI and addictive mechanics that provide satisfaction and tear-inducing frustration in equal measure. I'll play these game over the course of weeks, months, even years, and not grow tired of being repeatedly screwed over by the shells of various colours, or many other power-ups that are inspired by the diverse cast of characters. Will Mario Kart 7 prove to be any different from its predecessors, or am I just playing these games for the sake of comfort and familiarity?
The first thing that players will notice with Mario Kart 7 is the wonderfully-rendered tracks and karts; each smacking of colour and the series' trademark visual charm. The frame rate is brisk and consistent, with Super Mario 3D Land being the only real peer in terms of visual prowess on the portable system. Even with a screen full of racers and power-ups in play, the action never slows: it is a wonder to behold.
I love the orange hues of Autumn
The thirty-two tracks in Mario Kart 7 offer a mix of the old and the new, much like Mario Kart Wii. The new courses are all a joy to tear through, and feature a variety of short-cuts and strategies to employ. I was somewhat disappointed by the choice of retro tracks as there is some overlap with the last instalment on the Wii. That being said, Dino Dino Jungle was included this time, so I wasn't too perturbed. There are some new power-ups added to the mix as well, with two in particular having some interesting defensive applications. Blue shells are still there to undo a perfect race, and the Bullet Bill, Golden Mushroom and Super Star power-ups seem a little overpowered given the brevity of some tracks. All things considered, the game adheres to the well-established Mario Kart formula; superficial changes to drifting and the new ability to glide after certain jumps don't significantly alter the pace and mechanics of the "standard" Mario Kart race.
Not as crazy as it looks
The custom kart system employed in Mario Kart 7 is an interesting departure from the character-themed vehicles found in previous iterations. Depending on your selection of chassis, wheels and glider, five stats ranging from speed to off-road ability can potentially be affected. Character choice also has an impact on your performance in different areas. I had a lot of fun experimenting with these combinations, but due to the randomized cruelty one often experiences in a typical race (above 50cc, that is), it's not something that really needs to dwelled upon. I also found the roster to be somewhat lacking. I'll try not to spoil anything, but the exclusion of Diddy Kong – and to a far lesser extent, Waluigi – will surely rank as some of the previous year in gaming's great disappointments. That being said, there's plenty of customization options and characters to unlock for those willing to invest the time… and endure the frustration.
The main problem I had with Mario Kart 7 stemmed from the difficulty levels, or rather, Nintendo's inability to properly scale the challenge across the game's four settings. 50cc presents nothing in the way of challenge and fails to prepare you for the cheap tricks that you suffer in 100cc, or the devastating twists of fate found in the 150cc and Mirror classes. Once I hit 150cc, the f-bombs started flying at an alarming rate; especially considering the wide demographic that this game can appeal to. Still, I kept playing and will continue to play. The AI can be cheap and I may get frustrated, but that's one of the reasons I keep coming back: vengeance and the joy found in smiting one's enemies!
See you in a colourful rendition of hell, losers!
Time Trial functions just as it should, and it's really not worth mentioning the shallow Coin and Balloon battle modes. What will keep series' faithful invested in this iteration is the Mario Kart Channel and online multiplayer. Players can exchange ghost data via the Spot Pass system and I've enjoyed great success besting the times of complete strangers. I must admit, I've never had much luck with Spot Pass. Even living in a metropolitan area hasn't allowed for me to net more than a handful of hits, so I haven't had that many ghosts to beat. I've also had trouble finding matches online. When I did finally get some races in, however, I didn't experience any lag; so that's encouraging. I could see how this feature set could extend the longevity of the game, it's just a shame that I haven't been able to find a race when I've wanted one.
Upon reflection, there's not a whole lot that can be considered new in Mario Kart 7. For most (myself included), however, that's one of the big drawcards of this game and the series at large: consistency. If you're a fan of the series, I have no doubt you'll have a great time with this instalment. If cheap AI and power-ups have never been your cup of tea though, you'd best steer clear.