Kartesian Duelism

This blue shell flies towards its target – the racer in first place, for those of you unfamiliar with the genre – at ground level, up the centre of the track. It takes out any player who gets in its way en route. Mario Kart 7 is a game where you can (and will) get blue shelled when you’re in 6th place. Like all the previous entries in the series, then, it’s brutal, but brutal in a way that makes you sort of respect it, even as you cough up your own lungs in stunned horror at how unfairly decimated you just got.

About two weeks after getting myself a 3DS and Mario Kart 7, I’m tending towards the conclusion that it’s the best entry in the series so far – not a declaration I make lightly. It’s a cautious yet adept realisation of a formula which Nintendo have been tinkering with for decades, and I think it purifies the two sensations that Mario Kart games have always been at pains to make you experience, namely that (a) the game hates you, but (b) it’s possible, just possible, that you might beat it in spite of that hatred if you just do ONE more race..

For the rest of this short review I’m going to assume that you know about Mario Kart and accept that it is a fabulous, deep, and multi-faceted thing, not remotely a child’s game in which cartoon characters race little golf buggies around giant pinball tables. I understand that this will alienate between 3 and 7 of my 8 regular readers, but I’ve decided to take a stand here, and will even use sentences like “Red shells have been nerfed slightly in this edition”.

Red shells have been nerfed slightly in this edition. Trailing items are much, much more effective than in Mario Kart DS, where holding bananas out behind you was only ever a partial guarantee of safety, and fake items may as well not have been there. In MK7, you’re almost totally safe from reds if you’re trailing (greens, of course, can still flummox you amidships, if cannily flung), but the price you pay for this is that you’re out of action for far longer if you do get hit. Both in terms of downtime and reacceleration speed, blue, red, and green shells are far more punishing than in earlier games, and this, along with the new items, serves to do what Nintendo always wants to do, which is condense the pack and  make gameplay more insane.

New items? Yes! The favourite here is definitely the fireflower, which has been begging to be in a Mario Kart game since the beginning, and is cunningly integrated here – it’s a rapid fire weapon which can be shot either forwards or backwards, but you only get ten shots and they’re quite delicate in terms of size and range, so you still need quite a bit of skill to master it. Most importantly, it makes the original 16-bit shooting noise from Super Mario, which is awesome (and just one example of the level of attention paid to aesthetic details which make this game stand out).

Items have been taken away, as well. After its absence from Mario Kart Wii, I had no hopes of seeing Boo as a powerup again, which is a shame because he was a favourite from the DS version. More surprising is the disappearance of the fake item, which was a total staple of previous versions of the game for me. For a while, I thought this would prevent me from wholeheartedly loving this game, but I swiftly noticed that bananas, from a distance, are small, thin, and yellow, and can be placed amidst groups of coins to create a similar effect. It requires more skill, but that’s never a bad thing.

Ah yes, the coins. We haven’t seen these since Mario Kart, and they’re beautifully adapted for the twenty-first century here, quietly adding a whole new layer of subtlety to gameplay without ever making you feel crowded. You can hold a maximum of ten. Each one you hold slightly increases your Kart’s top speed, and each one you pick up after 10 gives you an infinitesimal speed boost, meaning that there’s always an incentive to drive the perfect line around the track and get them all. Calamities knock coins out of you as well, so there are always plenty lying around after a lightning strike.

There are lots of other things to talk about with MK7 – the customisable kart option, the flying sequences, underwater sections, use of 3D, selection of classic levels, design of new levels, unlockables, how AI works, and much besides – but conversation of any of these things all amounts to the same point, which is that this is a far deeper game than its predecessors. I can already tell (I’m at a two star rating and angling for three) that it’s going to reward replay even more than Mario Kart DS (which, it might be worth pointing out, I bought in the summer of 2006 and am still playing frequently).

By far the most important aspect of the game in this respect is the multiplayer, which Nintendo stumbled over in the DS and even Wii versions and which they’ve now finally got right. Mii integration no longer feels like a gimmick, online pacing is as fast and fully functional as local play, communities and friend lists are a good way of finding new players, the stat tracking is nice, StreetPass is a genuinely clever and satisfying bonus feature (again, less gimmicky than you’d think), the ghost data exchange (including challenges via SpotPass) is a whole game by itself, and, despite the slightly
lengthy waits between levels, the rivalry remains kind-spirited and victories as satisfying as defeats are hilarious. Racing against humans, for the first time, is more interesting than racing against the computer. I’ve already developed some fun relationships with a few online players based on my respect at how badly they’ve swindled me, which is an impressive thing in an internet community which offers no means of direct communication between its members.

Inclusiveness is Nintendo’s thing these days, and a nice thing about Mario Kart (although it seldom feels like a nice thing in practice) is that anybody can win. It’s true that if you’re good you’ll win more often, but anyone can get creamed, by anyone, any time, and this game provides even more ways of making that happen than any in the series so far. It’s an egalitarian approach to conflict and sports culture which I respect even as I decry the game’s failure to respect my obviously superior skills. And the fact that Waluigi is absent as a playable character (the only thing that keeps this game off 10/10 for me – he’s replaced by Metal Mario, a detestable figure) and ginger is still not a recognised hair colour for Miis (I simply do not understand why they haven’t corrected this) elevates the feeling – never distant for anyone who plays Mario Kart for more than six minutes – that this game is out to get me personally. But deep down, you see, you want to be got. Getting my third star will involve more swearing and cursing and gnashing of teeth even than the Wii version cudgelled out of me. I’m going to hate the game and myself so very much by the time we’re done. I can’t wait.

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