There's a spot on the couch where Mario Kart 7 sits, a well-worn seat where the pillows and cushions have been arranged just so. Over the years, a multitude of previous Mario Kart games have all occupied that spot, and so Mario Kart 7 knows just how to hold itself, just how to sit, just how to remain comfortable. This game feels so confidently Mario Kart—every aspect of its design and presentation is just in there.
That's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. Nintendo has gotten a reputation over the years for iterating on the same three or four games. It's understandable that long-time Nintendo fans might start to desire new, fresh characters and new types of games after so many years of the same experiences. But on the flip side lies the remarkable confidence with which Nintendo builds on those core experiences—this fall's Super Mario 3D Land still involves jumping on goombas and shooting fireballs, but it's also one of the most purely joyful games I've played this year. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is still a Zelda game, but it's beautiful, challenging, and deep.
And so the 3DS's Mario Kart 7 is a Mario Kart game to the core, but it remains a chaotic, breakneck good time. Furthermore, the small improvements made to the formula serve to set it apart from its predecessors and make it arguably the most fully-formed Mario Kart game yet.
Mario Kart 7 has all the usual features of a Mario Kart game. A "kart" in the game is a hoppy, quick-turning go-kart, which players can jump, crash, and flip along the track with reckless abandon. It's still possible to hop into a turn and, by grinding through a power-slide, get a speed-boost. Players choose a kart racer from among eight Nintendo mascots (e.g. Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Kong, Toad) and then go up against seven other players (or computer-controlled opponents) in a pell-mell sprint to make it across the finish line in first place. It features 16 brand-new race tracks and 16 lightly re-imagined "classic" maps, for a total of 32 tracks. (Here's a video I made of the 16 new tracks.) The tracks in the game are fun and well-designed. A few of the new ones—DK Jungle, Mario Circuit, Music Park, Rock Rock Mountain, as well as the amazing new Rainbow Road—have become some of my favorite Kart maps.
In addition to the versus races, players can blast through Time Trials that pit them against online leaderboards (or the translucent "ghosts" of their friends' best times), as well as two non-race modes, Balloon Battle, which pits you against other players in one of six closed arenas, and Coin Runners, which is similar to Balloon Battle except that rather than attempting to damage one another, the goal is to collect the most coins before time runs out.
Before I talk about what's different in Mario Kart 7, I want to talk about what's the same. Basically: everything that made past Mario Kart games fun is still present in Mario Kart 7. The races are still madcap, chaotic dashes to the finish; the item-distribution remains balanced so that the players in last place get the best items, which allow them a chance to make up lost time on the players in the front.
Racing still feels great—the bouncy pull of a power-slide, the boost of a mushroom, the satisfaction of a perfectly lined-up red turtle-shell shot. Blue turtle shells are still cheap and can make you want to throw your 3DS in frustration, but the game's snappy pace makes it difficult to feel angry for too long. The single-player races come in three difficulties—50cc, 100cc, and 150cc, and only 150cc really puts up a fight, though you might be surprised at how intensely it will make you want to murder a few of Nintendo's beloved mascots.
Some of the new features in Mario Kart 7 are small, others are large, and all serve to subtly give the game its own character and feel. Collectable gold coins dot each track, and players can collect up to 10 at a given time—each one gives you a little speed boost. Take a turtle shell to the tailpipe or fall off the track, and you lose a few. The coins don't just have benefits in the race; the game tracks how many you've collected and unlocks new cart customizations after you've snagged a certain number of coins. The only new feature that feels like a straight-up miss for me is the first-person mode, which uses either the circle-pad or the 3DS's accelerometer to steer and winds up feeling superfluous, mainly because it makes racing harder than it needs to be. This ain't Forza, and I don't want it to be—I'll race in the 3rd person, thanks. Your mileage may vary.
Graphically, Mario Kart 7 is a colorful and attractive game, and just as with Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo has demonstrated that they fully grasp the 3D capabilities of the 3DS handheld. The 3D effect adds depth and energy to the racing without ever feeling distracting, and each time I pick up the game after playing something else, I'm struck by the the depth of field, and how great everything looks in motion.
You can customize your Kart, choosing from a number of body types, wheel types, and glider types. Different wheels and bodies are better for different tracks and modes, and it's nice to be able to put together a good build for the non-race battle modes. You may have noticed I mentioned gliders—that's because most of the tracks in the game feature huuuuge jumps from which players pop open hang-gliders and soar down to the track below. Hitting the "bunny hop" button just before sailing off a ramp give players a speed-boost, which on the longer ramps can mean the difference between last and first place.
There's a light but noticeable focus on customization throughout the game—this is a Mario Kart that embraces each player's style to a new degree. None of the new features feel like game-changers on their own (you could safely play the whole game with an un-altered kart and not really notice), but cumulatively, they serve to make Mario Kart 7 more skill-based than past Kart titles. This is welcome, for as anyone who has played a Kart game knows, in the past, races often wound up feeling like frustrating and chaotic games of chance.
Mario Kart 7 has diverse, easy-to-use multiplayer features. The real fun of a Mario Kart game is racing against other people. The multiplayer sits right in the main menu, and allows players to quickly and easily hop into an online match (here is a video of the multiplayer in action). It's also a snap to make a multiplayer "community" page, which lets you play with friends and to limit the number of power-up options (for example: "Mushrooms Only" "Shells Only"). I also made a video of the community features, which you can watch here.
Local multiplayer works as well, and you can race against up to seven 3DS-owning friends via download-play even if you only have one Mario Kart 7 cartridge. I haven't had a chance to try download-play, but I'm assuming that it works as well as it did with the last generation's Mario Kart DS.
By now, most gamers have some strong Mario Kart memories. For me, it was sitting in the living room of a tore-up college house in Miami with my friends Kenji, Russ and Woody, yelling "Kart! Kart!" over and over again while obsessively tearing through Wario Stadium in Mario Kart 64. The congenial chaos, the intensely infuriating (and equally exhilarating) photo-finishes, the stupid blue shells.
Mario Kart 7 stays true to those memories, and it most assuredly does not reinvent the series. But at this point, I can't say that I'd have wanted it to. Instead, it's a highly polished portable realization of the Mario Kart "thing," a kinetic, chaotic blend of inertia with a plethora of game modes that can be enjoyed solo, with friends, or online. You'll cheer, you'll groan, and the people on the bus will wonder why the hell you keep pumping your fist into the air.