Review by DDJ
"Fun, but unremarkable."
Let me start this review off by saying two things: Mario Kart DS is by far my favorite Mario Kart game, and I think the 3D function on the 3DS is actually really remarkably well-implemented and enhances the gameplay experience significantly.
I led with those two disclaimers for my Super Mario 3D Land review as well, and for good reason: it would be easy to dismiss a negative (or lukewarm) review for these games as simply being outside of a person's particular preferences regarding video games. Certainly, not everyone likes the Mario Kart series; I'm sure there's a vast swath of serious gamers who can't stand it. Would you trust a negative review from them? Of course not, no more than you would trust a vegetarian's review of a burger joint.
I'm not one of them, however. I loved Mario Kart DS. Easily the best in the franchise in my opinion, and it did a great job of showing how much room the franchise still had to grow. In very much the same way that Super Mario Galaxy 2 illustrated that Mario platformers could still be strong and relevant, Mario Kart DS illustrated that there's still a ton of room for improvement and expansion in that franchise as well. So, when I criticize a Mario Kart game, it's as an overall fan of the franchise as a whole, not as someone that's trying something way outside my comfort zone.
With that said, I don't particularly care for Mario Kart 7. It's not bad, exactly, and I won't deny it can be somewhat fun to play, but what strikes me about the game is how utterly and indefensibly unremarkable it actually is. Is it fun? Sure. Is it more fun than Mario Kart DS? Not by a long shot. It reiterates and exacerbates several of the same mistakes that Mario Kart has been making since the Wii while introducing very little positive on its own. Overall, I'd boil my criticisms down to four broad section-friendly categories: the new features are mundane, the old mistakes are frustrating, the normal content is highly uninspired, and a boring online mode.
Mundane New Features
Let's start with the new features. There have been seven Mario Kart games, and each has introduced some new features. What are they in Mario Kart 7?
First of all, there are three new items. Well, kind of three. The first two are the Fire Flower and the Super Leaf, which mirror their effects in the Mario platformers: the first enables you to hurl fireballs, and the second enables you to spin around to deflect items and crash opponents. At first, I quite enjoyed these two, but the main problem is that they're implemented in a way that just doesn't match with the rest of the Mario Kart items. For both, from the moment you activate the powerup, you have both a limited amount of time and a limited number of usages until it expires -- once either are up, you lose it. That's very different than any other powerup, however -- when you have multiple shells, mushrooms, or bananas, that fact is displayed. The animation for the star power makes it clear that it's time-limited. With these two power-ups, they feel very lazily implemented, with no visible indication of when you're in "fire" mode for the Fire Flower and no visible indication for either as to how long you have left in the respective modes.
The third new item is the "Lucky 7", which is just 7 items rotating around your cart the way three shells do: one each of the green shell, red shell, Blooper, Bob-omb, star, banana peel, and mushroom. It sounds kind of awesome, but in effect it's borderline useless -- it's hard to tell which you're about to use, making using them situation-appropriately very difficult. They form such a broad perimeter around your kart that if you don't use them quickly, they're likely to be lost in a collision. Most importantly, it just seems lazy. "We need another power-up." "Let's just make one out of all the ones we've already made and call it a day."
The game also introduces underwater racing, which is racing with slightly different physics. Drift is a little more pronounced, handling is a little more difficult, speed is slightly decreased, and gravity is diminished a bit. Realistically, though, if they took away the visualization showing when you're underwater, you might find it hard to really even notice the difference. It's just not a very significant inclusion that affects the gameplay in a meaningful way. Driving underwater isn't a different skill to improve or master, it's just the same game under slightly different conditions. But the game seems particularly impressed with this feature, given that it throws it at you at every possible opportunity.
The same can be said to a certain extent about the other new feature, gliding. When you go off a certain kind of powered-up jump on the track, your kart triggers a parasail that allows you to glide over the course. Sound fun? Good, because it is. It's easily the most enjoyable new feature in the game. So why am I criticizing it? The game manages to simultaneously over- and under-use the feature. It over-uses it by finding some way to use the parasail in every single track: on half of them it's a hidden path off the main strip, including most of the retro courses. It loses some of its appeal as it loses its novelty.
But far more importantly, the game under-uses it by very rarely designing around it in any sort of interesting way. While nearly every course has a parasailing section, only two or three have it as a major part of the track, and even among those only one uses it in a way that's legitimately very unique. All the rest could easily have been included basically as-is without the gliding section. It really is a shame given how well-implemented and fun the feature is. It's strong enough that the game could've supported a couple nearly parasailing-only tracks. It could've supported items that are only usable while parasailing. But even the mechanics of parasailing themselves seem to discourage you from using it: you can pull up to stay in the air longer, but doing so almost always costs you time. With two exceptions, parasailing always boils down to just either avoiding obstacles or letting your cart descend naturally.
Another feature is the first-person mode, which allows you to use the gyroscope to steer. It works decently, but in all fairness, I cannot imagine anyone preferring this mode to the standard view, given that there is no way to see around your kart, monitor your drift, etc. Plus, as I talked about in my Super Monkey Ball 3D review, the 3D and gyroscope are both really well-done, but using the gyroscope inherently clashes with the precise positioning needed for the 3D effect to come through. No sense penalizing the game for this since you don't need to actually use it, but it's worth noting.
There are two other major new features, but they play heavily into the next section: tire selection and coin collection.
Frustrating Old Mistakes
The Mario Kart franchise over the last couple iterations has started to make what is, in my eyes, an enormous and befuddling mistake. It's enormous because it indicates the series is forgetting what made it fun and appealing in the first place, and it's befuddling because it runs directly against Nintendo's general trend over the past half-decade.
The appeal of Mario Kart is its simplicity. What made the original game and its hyper-successful sequel Mario Kart 64 successful was that anyone could pick them up, play, and immediately start having fun. They weren't complicated, they weren't realistic; they were just plain fun. The worst player could beat the best player thanks to the randomness introduced by items, and the rubber band AI ensured even newbies would feel at least somewhat competent.
Starting with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and continuing through now, the series has progressively gotten more and more complex. This is most notably evident in the kart customization -- and I feel it's worth noting that Shigeru Miyamoto himself has criticized this same element. It used to be that you told your friend playing the game for the first time, "Just don't pick Bowser or DK", since a new player would be thrown off by their slowness. But kart customization has gotten to be genuinely very complicated. There are 5 different weights for the racers, 17 different karts, 10 different sets of wheels, and 7 different gliders. All four of these dictate your stat in 12 different categories: weight, acceleration, off-road, turbo, stability, drift, speed, and handling, with the last two specific to land, sea, and sky. It's a seriously intense system, and one that is seriously out of place in Mario Kart.
What it means is this: if I boot up and play right now, it's not enough to just choose a kart and go. I need to understand how the mechanics work, understand how the kart selection works, understand the impact of tires and gliders and the weight of my character, etc., all in order to be able to compete. I can choose a combination that makes controlling the game a nightmare. I can choose a combination that basically guarantees I'll be better than any other human character. It's no longer the case that amateurs and veterans can compete and have fun. I know this first hand -- on Mario Kart DS, I got in a huge fight with my then-girlfriend because I beat her every time, even though on Mario Kart 64 we were evenly matched. The problem was that the game had lost sight of its roots (and that my then-girlfriend was completely psycho).
Mario Kart shouldn't be complex; it should be simple, accessible, and fun. Mario Kart DS didn't go so far in the direction of complicated customization that it totally spoiled the fun, but Mario Kart 7 gets dangerously close. What's most remarkable about that, though, is that Nintendo's direction the past half-decade has been toward simplicity, accessibility, and casual appeal. If there was one franchise that embodied simplicity, accessibility, and casual appeal, it was Mario Kart, and now Nintendo seems content to try to compete with Forza Motorsport rather than stay in the casual realm where the franchise belongs.
Also, battle mode is still (partially) broken. This was one of the saddest developments in Mario Kart Wii, and while they re-introduced free for all mode, the same main problem still remains. You can go read that review for the full extent of my criticisms of this, but in a nutshell, balloon battle is a points contest, not a last-man-standing contest. That takes out a lot of the memorability of the mode -- no more clashes between the last two characters, no memorable deaths, no strategizing, just open firing everywhere. I understand a points battle was necessary possibly for online mode, but for local multiplayer and single-player "multiplayer", the classic mode would've been much appreciated.
Lastly, one of the most similarly aggravating parts about Mario Kart 7 is its criteria for unlocking new content. Whereas past games have awarded new characters and karts for completing certain cups or achieving star ratings, Mario Kart 7 lets you collect coins on the courses, and collecting enough coins unlocks the new content. You can collect at most 10 coins per race, and it takes 5000 coins to unlock all the content. So, to fully unlock everything, you have to race at least 500 times. You don't have to do well, all you have to do is collect 10 coins. It's horrible. Fortunately it's only those stupid new karts, wheels, and gliders that are unlocked this way (not characters), but it's still a ridiculously tedious task to require the player to perform to access all the content.
Uninspired New Content
The difference between new content and new features (for the purposes of this review, anyway) is that new features describes changes to the actual gameplay engine, whereas new content just describes where you play within that engine. In other words, gliders, new items, and underwater racing are new features; new tracks and new characters are new content.
First, the characters. I don't know if it's fair to call the roster uninspired; I don't know what else I could expect from Nintendo. Still, it seems like they're trying hard to be different from the previous games with playable characters like Wiggler and Honey Bee. Those don't change a thing about the gameplay, though. There's an annoyance that goes with one of the other playable characters, but I'll get to that in a second.
The tracks are what are truly uninspired, in my opinion. I've played Mario Kart 7 for the better part of the last four days (a trip home to my folks' for the holidays meant portable gaming was my only option), and right now as I sit here, I can probably name six of the tracks according to some memorable characteristic. In fact, here, I'll try: two tracks modeled after Wii Sports Resort, a musically-themed one, a sunken ship, a Bowser's castle, a new Rainbow Road, and the obligatory simple first course. Seven, but I find counting the last two to be difficult. It's not just that I have a bad memory -- I can name off the top of my head 3/4ths of the tracks from both Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart DS. The difference is that those tracks had particularly memorable characteristics; the tracks in Mario Kart 7 are fun, but rather mundane.
There are some interesting inclusions when I look back at it, sure. Three of the tracks break the 3-lap formula and are instead just one long course, a very interesting change (although why they only did this with three is beyond me). Some of the other courses have interesting decor or maybe a couple interesting portions, but overall, the track design seems incredibly uninspired. I'm comparing this most notably to Mario Kart DS, which gave gems like Luigi's Mansion, Waluigi Pinball, and Airship Fortress... which are three of the retro tracks in Mario Kart 7, and are also, in my opinion, three of the top ten tracks in the game. In fact, if I had to choose, I'd say seven of the ten best tracks in Mario Kart 7 are retro tracks, with the exceptions being the musically-themed Music Park, the Wii Sports Resort-themed Maka Wuhu, and the Bowser-themed Bowser's Castle.
This problem carries over into the battle mode, too. There are three new multiplayer courses and three retro ones, and all three new ones are inferior to the three retro ones. One is basically a hexagonal version of the ghost house course from Mario Kart DS, one is a heavily corridored cityscape from Wuhu Town, and the third, the worst of all, seems like they just randomly threw random shapes onto a flat track and called it a day. The retro courses -- Big Donut from Mario Kart 64, Palm Shore from Mario Kart DS, and even the elegantly simple Battle Course 1 from Mario Kart: Super Circuit blow these original creations out of the water.
My favorite course in the new game is the Wii Sports Resort-themed Maka Wuhu, but that also brings up one of my faint annoyances with the game. The game includes Wii Sports- and Wii Sports Resort-themed elements in many places, but Wii Sports is a separate franchise. I'm not sure I like including non-Mario elements in a Mario Kart game. What, exactly, makes including Wii Sports Resort elements any different from including characters from other franchises under Nintendo EAD's umbrella? Why not Tom Nook driving a cart or a track staged on Corneria? Why not Link or a Pikmin or a Nintendog? Those are all just as related to Mario Kart as Wii Sports Resort is. It's a minor annoyance, but eh, it bugs me.
Boring Online Mode
The final problem with the game could've been its saving grace. A good online mode has a way of glossing over a lot of problems with a game because it gives the player a reason to keep coming back even if the core of the gameplay is subpar. Mario Kart 7, unfortunately, does not have a good online mode, largely because of the structure of its matchmaking and player rankings.
For starters, when you play, you have a VR score. I don't know what it stands for, but when you do well, the VR score goes up. Your VR score is shown to others when you play, and you see theirs as well. In theory, it's meant to assess how good all the players are. In actuality, it just shows who plays the game the most. My first multiplayer excursion, I was matched up with a player with a 1500 VR score, compared to my 1000. He finished between 4th and 7th every race, but he still occasionally got points, so his score went higher. His high score didn't show how good he was, just how much he played. That's like measuring a basketball player according to the total number of points he scored -- sure, the ones with the most points are still going to be the best, but comparing any further down the line is meaningless.
More importantly, the structure is no longer built around a four-race Grand Prix. You join and leave players already in progress of racing over and over again, and the only reward or achievement is to win an individual race. Mario Kart DS was fun online because you actually earned points and had larger achievements than a single race, but Mario Kart 7 loses that in favor of a system more similar to other online games nowadays -- a fact that wouldn't be so bad if individual races weren't so short. Winning a single match in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood or Halo is an achievement itself; winning one race in Mario Kart 7 is lackluster by comparison.
It also makes feeling like you've achieved anything in the online game rather tedious and ambiguous. When I played Mario Kart DS online, I only had to play a half-dozen times before I started to feel like I'd accomplished something because I had a 6-0 record. Every new win added a big number to that record, and that was encouraging. In Mario Kart 7, when do you feel accomplished? You win a race, your score goes up 20, but that score is somewhat meaningless on its own. Racing one more time lacks that incentive because it's so abstract what you're actually accomplishing.
I praise the game, though, for adding in online battle mode. That was much needed, and I'm glad it's there. The rating system is dumb there, too, but at least the mode is present. Now if only coin battle wasn't obligatory, too...
When all is said and done, Mario Kart 7 is still somewhat fun to play. In the barren wasteland that is the 3DS's game library, it's probably the best game currently available. But the game is exceedingly unremarkable. The new courses are boring and uninspired, the new mechanics vary between lazy implementation and poor utilization, the franchise is continuing its bizarre obsession with increased complexity against the trend of the entire rest of its parent company, and the online mode doesn't carry the same incentive to play as its predecessor. It's decently fun to play, but it's by no means a gem.
Keep playing Mario Kart DS. It'll run on the 3DS, and it's definitely no less fun than Mario Kart 7. If you really enjoyed it, you'll probably like Mario Kart 7 as well, but in the same way that you'd enjoy seeing a good movie for a second time: you know what you're getting, you know what to expect, but you just like it anyway.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 01/04/12
Game Release: Mario Kart 7 (US, 12/04/11)
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