Review by discoinferno84

"On the road again..."

You've got to wonder about the Mushroom Kingdom. Once every couple of years, a giant lizard and his armies invade it, kidnap its princess, and wait to be defeated by a plumber. Despite the ridiculous premise, no one bats an eye at it anymore; it's as if this little cycle of chaos and heroism is a common part of life. The details may vary slightly, but the basic concept has remained unchanged for over two decades. How does this nation survive with leadership like this? Are Peach and Bowser wealthy enough to stage full-scale wars? Are they even enemies? It's hard to tell. When they're not supposedly fighting each other, the cast spend their time playing competitive sports. While nearly every major pastime has been covered at least once, there's one spinoff that's always stood tall among the rest: Mario Kart. With the 3DS in desperate need of a new great title, Nintendo's legendary racing series has finally returned.

The usual mascots are all present and accounted for, each with their own racing machines and stats. Will you go with Mario with his all-averaged speed and handling, or will you go with Bowser's heavier but more powerful vehicle? Or how about Toad's quick but barely controllable racer? While such choices influence your racing performance, they're not limited to the characters. Mario Kart 7 allows you to mix and match parts to build a kart best suited to your playing style. You could equip the standard frame with some monster truck wheels for better traction, or a mounted glider to help with acceleration. There are not many unlockable parts, but they still allow for far more customization than anything previously seen in the series. If you're perfectionist, you'll probably spend quite a while trying to create the perfect racing machine.

It won't always matter, though. The courses in the Grand Prix aren't designed with conventional driving in mind. You'll have to blaze through small towns and bustling marketplaces, dive into flooded tunnels and sewers, and dodge everything from slow traffic and avalanches to searing lava and giant carnivorous plants. That's aside from the crazy jumps and turns you'll have to make in later areas. The only thing that will keep you alive is the drifting technique. As you approach a curve, you can manipulate the steering and brakes to swerve along the road and give yourself a temporary boost. It doesn't play a huge factor on the easier races, but it's absolutely vital to learn. It's worth noting that the drifting mechanics have been completely overhauled; unlike their utterly broken counterparts in Mario Kart DS, their effectiveness is limited to their intended use. It makes the races more balanced and accessible to everyone, regardless of their experience.

That means you've got to focus more on strategy. Placement and maneuvering plays a huge role in winning these races. Let's say you're approaching a curve. You could squeeze into the inner part of the track to reduce the length of your turn. Or you could go for the outer areas and nab all the coins – the currency you'll need to unlock more parts – strewn all over the road. The constant trade-off of rewards and tactical advantages can make or break you. There are some sections in which you'll go flying into the air and activating your glider. Do you swoop high in a high arc, or do you zoom forth in a nosedive and hopefully gain the lead? Things are further complicated by another classic staple of the Mario Kart series: the items. You'll be able to wield mushroom turbo boosts, hurl fireballs and shells at your opponents, and screw your rival over with a well-placed banana peel. The game tries to keep things fair by giving the leading racers underpowered items, while the back half get the best. If you're in last place, you could end up blazing up the ranks with an invincibility star, or plowing through everything as a giant missile. On the other hand, you could be within site of the finish line, only to get assaulted by a flurry of first place-seeking Blue Shells. As you struggle to get moving again, your opponents will roar pass, screwing you over literally at the last second. While it only happens occasionally, perfectionists might be tempted to throw their game systems out the nearest window. The chaotic and ever-shifting nature of the races is what makes the game so entertaining.

That goes double for the multiplayer. Up to eight players can compete both locally and online, thus offering one of the rare co-op experiences on the 3DS. If you're not keen on using Friend Codes, you can search for random opponents or join groups with customized rules and handicaps. Competing online is even more chaotic than the regular Grand Prix; thanks to the occasional lag, it can be slightly difficult to figure out where your opponents are or how things are progressing. It's nothing game-breaking, and it's not as noticeable Battle Mode. Instead of just driving, you'll have to spend time collecting coins, assaulting the other players with items, and hopefully racking enough points to reach first place. Those matches are tons of fun; there's nothing quite like sniping someone with a red shell and stealing their hard-earned cash. Unfortunately, the Mission Modes and boss battles that made Mario Kart DS so memorable were axed this time. The game tries to make up for it with a Time Trials Mode and letting you download staff and player ghost racing challenges via Spotpass, but beating other people's records only offers so much replayability.

Instead, you'll probably spend more time mastering the tracks and memorizing all of their tricks and hazards. There are a total of 32 tracks, half of which are new. You'll get to drive a scaled model of the Wii Sports Resort island, explore the jungles and a temple from Donkey Kong Country Returns, and zoom through a TRON-inspired cityscape. The newest incarnation of Rainbow Road – the one track all Mario Kart veterans look forward to – has some incredible lighting effects set against a whole solar system of obstacles. It's just a shame that the underwater and mid-air sections weren't more fleshed out; they're far too brief and underutilized. The other sixteen tracks are samples of the courses in the history of the series. Older gamers will get nostalgia pangs from Mario Kart 64's Koopa Beach and Kalimari Desert, while DS owners will get another dose of Waluigi Pinball and Airship Fortress. Even the original Mario Circuit 2 and Rainbow Road are back. While it might seem like the retro tracks are overused, Nintendo made the effort to revamp them with fleshed-out graphics and 3D effects. You might miss them completely, unless you switch the first-person mode. If you think navigating these courses are tough, try using the 3DS's gyroscope to steer. It's awkward and borderline impractical, but it gives you a whole new perspective of the tracks you thought you knew so well.

It's about time. With the 3DS in need of some quality titles, Mario Kart makes a comeback in style. The ability to switch parts and customize your vehicle offers a kind of depth unseen in previous titles. The newly-revamped drifting mechanics keep the races from becoming too broken. Kart placement and strategy play a much bigger role in determining your success than before. The items can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how ruthless the AI is feeling at the given moment. The chaotic gameplay may prove to be a major headache for gamers trying to complete everything perfectly, but it also keeps things entertaining and tense. The online multiplayer is even more engaging, even if the occasional lag screws things up. The Battle Mode is still as fun as ever, but the lack of additional modes makes it seem limited. While you can beat other people's records via Time Trial and SpotPass, there still could have been more content. The tracks make up for it, though. Between the stunning new stages and the newly-revamped retro races, there's plenty to experience. So if you're craving something to play on your 3DS, give this a go. It may not involve saving a princess, but it's arguably more fun.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/10/12

Game Release: Mario Kart 7 (US, 12/04/11)

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