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Mario Kart 7 (3DS) artwork

Mario Kart 7 (3DS) review

"Mario Kart games have been headed in a cheap direction for awhile now, but the issue has been easy enough to ignore that its impact on the overall experience remained relatively minor. This is the first time that players have been forced to face it head-on if they want to get the most out of their brand new game. Mario Kart 7 is a good purchase for action racing fans, but it could have been one of the finest in the series if the development teams would have just realized that losing to a cheating game isn’t fun."

Mario Kart 7 is often an enjoyable racing title, largely because it’s every bit as frantic as you’ve come to expect. Shells ricochet throughout the course until it feels like you’re negotiating a battlefield. Drivers race, dive and glide through a variety of crazy courses that could only exist within the Mushroom Kingdom. The exhilarating glide mechanics are a decent suitable replacement for the funky controls and motorbikes that made Mario Kart Wii memorable.

When you play enough Mario Kart 7, you’ll also have the chance to unlock new characters and custom kart pieces that affect vehicle stats (a first for the series). The whole “collect more coins so that your kart goes faster” mechanic from way back in the Super Mario Kart days also has made a return. There’s a lot to appreciate even before you factor in portability and 3D visuals, but the game has a familiar flaw that the franchise should have abandoned by now: it’s just plain cheap.

Mario Kart games have been headed in a cheap direction for awhile now, but the issue has been easy enough to ignore that its impact on the overall experience remained relatively minor. This is the first time that players have been forced to face it head-on if they want to get the most out of their brand new game. Mario Kart 7 is a good purchase for action racing fans, but it could have been one of the finest in the series if the development teams would have just realized that losing to a cheating game isn’t fun.

Played on the 50CC and 100CC difficulty levels, Mario Kart 7 is nearly everything you might hope from a new installment in the beloved series. There’s the possibility that the game will randomly decide to throw a wrench in the works, but such instances are relatively uncommon and they don’t often cripple you beyond possible recovery. If you want to unlock the eight additional characters (including new folks like Wiggler and the oft-forgotten Shyguy, but also some familiar drivers like Wario who you might expect to have available to you from the start), you’ll have to complete each of eight racing cups on the highest difficulty level: 150CC. That seems like a reasonable requirement. No matter how good you are, though, there’s a high probability that you’ll find yourself routinely missing the first-place overall finish that guarantees you an addition to your roster.

If you’ve been playing Mario Kart games since the beginning, you likely remember the uproar when Mario Kart 64 introduced the infamous spiked blue shell. That new item was presumably added to serve as an equalizer so that crummy players could stay in the game. You’d gain a healthy lead over all of your competition and then the guys bringing up the rear would toss blue shells that would find you and make you spin out unless you were fortunate enough to cross the finish line first. The blue shell marked an unfortunate turning point for the series.

Rather than removing or minimizing the impact of the blue shell, subsequent games have taken things further in the same wrong direction. Mario Kart games have always been about mayhem. When you cross the finish line sixth, it’s supposed to mean that you just weren’t good enough. You’re not supposed to have to forget that you drove a perfect race but then got taken out by lightning bolts, oversized bullet karts, a blue shell and perhaps a red shell for good measure, all in the space of a few seconds just before you could cross the finish line. You’re supposed to say “Good game” to your opponent because he managed a tight race, not because he lagged the whole time but was still able to win because the system kept feeding him and the other computer opponents good items while you were routinely provided with all-but-useless banana peels.

In the days of Super Mario Kart, when you might choose to play an advanced cup simply to challenge yourself, you didn’t have to deal with such cheapness. Opponents could shrink you with mushrooms and that kind of sucked, but you could at least avoid them. On the most advanced courses, someone might occasionally hit you with less avoidable lightning attacks and that was definitely cheap, but it only rarely happened. In Mario Kart 7, cheap hits are the norm. Sometimes you sustain them two or three times per lap. That’s overkill, and the game doesn’t do itself any favors by using such scenarios to form its shaky foundation.

Consider the fact that you’re not permitted to retry an individual race. If Super Mario Kart demolished your progress in a way that felt unfair, you could simply restart the offending race. To retain some difficulty, your number of permitted retries was limited. The dynamic was tough but fair. In Mario Kart 7, there are no retries; you take whatever position you get and you move onto the next course. In the likely event that you are hit on the last lap by a string of three unavoidable attacks and everyone passes you just a short distance ahead of the finish line, that’s just how things go.

The lack of the option to retry a race is compounded by the fact that your opponents don’t seem to have bad days. If you race through the four tracks in a given cup, you’ll find that the second-place finisher is almost always the same guy. Maybe he’ll have an abnormally bad race sometimes and finish third. So let’s say that you get 10 points on each of three tracks, bringing your total to 30. Then you start the last track and you’re holding the lead right until the very end. Suddenly, you’re knocked into last place by a series of unavoidable attacks. You finish with 31 points and your opponent--despite only finishing ahead of you on one track--finishes with 34 points.

Frustrated, perhaps you try your hand at the cup again. This time, you decide to ruin the day for your closest competition, so that he has to endure at least one bad race and you can win by virtue of the freshly-leveled playing field. That strategy could work in the older Mario Kart games, but it doesn’t work here. If you follow your opponent with a red shell to try and take him out just ahead of the finish line, for instance, he’ll pick up a banana and drag it behind him so that you have no hope of hitting him. Or if you get a better item and hold onto it for most of the race, someone will hit you with lightning and you’ll lose your inventory just before you might use it to bring the pain to your opponent. There’s also the fact that everyone on the course mostly targets you, no matter what the competition is doing. So if you pick a kart driver with slow acceleration, you’ll never get a chance to build up a good high speed or gather many coins. If you pick a speedy accelerator, you’ll fall behind everyone else in the straight stretches. If you pick a kart with poor handling, you’re just asking for trouble.

The good news is that if you play the game on the low and medium difficulty settings, the game’s problems mostly go away. At worst, they no longer are significant enough to interfere with an enjoyable series of races. The challenge on offer feels genuine and the courses are exciting. Good driving is rewarded with well-deserved victory and you can tinker with your kart parts to find the perfect combination of upgrades. Mario Kart 7 has only 16 original courses and none of them are astonishing, but most of them are good additions to the series and they’re joined by reworked versions of 16 courses from previous installments. There’s a lot of content to love here, and you can find opponents online or locally if you have a friend handy who also owns the game and a 3DS.

It’s a shame about that 150CC cup.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 09, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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Roto13 posted December 09, 2011:

Blue shells in Mario Kart 64 were uncommon enough to rarely be an issue. One or two item boxes spawned them consistently, but if you were good enough to actually reach them, you were probably in first or second place anyway.

I stopped caring about Mario Kart about the time it turned into Mario Party on wheels. And now apparently my main character is locked away beyond a bukkake of blue shells. Lovely.
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georox posted December 09, 2011:

I haven't encountered many blue shells yet myself... but I'd love to see blue shells removed from the game completely, they're annoying as piss.
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jerec posted December 09, 2011:

I was 1st the whole of the fourth race in a 150cc GP. I'd managed 1st in all three races previous, through great skill at avoidance. Then, in the third lap, blue shell, then a lightning bolt hit me in mid air calling me to fall to my doom, right before the end of the race. Limped across the finish line in 6th place and 2nd overall. I just want to unlock these characters, is that so much to ask?
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joseph_valencia posted December 09, 2011:

Two things they need to get rid of in Mario Kart: blue shells and "snaking".
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honestgamer posted December 09, 2011:

Jerec, I've had similar things happen to me a few times. It's not an infrequent occurrence. It's a common one and it's irritating as heck. I know that I can keep playing and eventually--not through improved skill, as I'm already pretty good--I will unlock all of the characters because the game will randomly decide to treat me nice. But we've come a long ways from when Super Mario Kart was so addictive because all I needed to do was get better. If Nintendo would just fix that one thing... but I don't think that's in the cards. I hope there's a Mario Kart for Wii U and that it's excellent, but my level of confidence in the series has dropped. At least I'll always have Super Mario Kart.
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jerec posted December 09, 2011:

Worst thing is really how many weapons will make you drop your items. I know if you have a boost, you can avoid the blue shell, but you rarely get them in first place, and chances are you'd lose it just before you get hit with the blue shell.

Mario and friends have become vindictive little assholes.
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asherdeus posted December 20, 2011:

I haven't read your review because I'm in the process of typing up my own, but I couldn't resist reading the comments. I too am finding myself more frustrated with the game than I am enjoying it. It seems like in Mario Kart, versus other games, you're penalized for doing well and rewarded for poor play. I have really been a great supporter of the series, but I can't say I'm enjoying this release very much and will probably give it a deserved 6/10.
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jerec posted December 20, 2011:

Strategy guide for Mario Kart 7

- stay in second place until the last quarter of the third lap, then make a mad dash for the finish line.

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