I have always had a soft spot for Mario Kart – I’ve always kind of liked it’s crazy party-themed idea of racing. It’s never been especially balanced, but it’s rarely dull. So imagine my surprise to find Mario Kart 7 isn’t just normal Mario Kart fun – it’s also, surprise surprise, a serious little racer too.
Part of this comes down to the kart customisation that lets you modify your rig with a body, tyres and the wings. Each part has different impacts on your handling, top speed, off-road speed and such forth. For those who love to learn the tracks inside and out, taking shortcuts and cutting corners, the ability to tweak your rig for a course is game-changing, make no mistake.
But part of it is down to courses that showcase the serious racing side. Whilst there are some novelties, there is no doubt that three quarters of the tracks on offer are based on pure racing technicalities – from tight sharp corners to long, gentle bends that allow for generous drifting, and from deliciously long straights to narrow ledges that require some concentration not to fall off.
The range of power ups has had a much-needed facelift; and the old blue shell dodging has been tightened up but retained with some new and clever ways. There are considerably less blue shells than I remember – which is a blessing. Couple this with the Fire Flower – allowing for precision targeting in crowded packs, to the Tanooki Leaf which doubles as a one-shot defence from the back and an area of effect attack, and the harder races definitely become more interesting.
That said, for a game focused on the racing, I must say as much as I like the SNES version of Rainbow Road and its clever corners and undefended edges, I kind of missed the N64 version – of it’s long sweeping corners, seemingly endless straights and dangerous slopes. For me, the lack of this track in particular in a game about the pure enjoyment of racing is a travesty.
And that the focus now being on actual racing, the power-ups system and the room to use them has become more of a negligible flaw than a real valid addition – especially on the race tracks themselves. At the front, you still never get anything more than defensive bananas, tanooki leaves and the occassional green shell, and at the back you are given seemingly limitless access to the full potential of the itinerary available. It’s a rather depressing state of affairs that continues to dog the series and ensure despite all the efforts to make it a more serious racer, that it is never truly balanced in favour of good racing ability.
It is still, however, a fantastic Mario Kart and no-one should be that disappointed. Had the item boxes that are harder to obtain – in short cuts, or from clever drifting and well-timed jumps – offered better power-ups than the more easily accessible ones you’d say the series may finally be getting somewhere. But it’s still doggedly persisting in the roots of the old, and not really taking any imaginative or sensible approaches to realise its full potential.
The end result is a great game, but a schizophrenic one – trying to go somewhere new, but chained to a massive great Chomp of the past.
It is this that will divide opinion more than any other Mario Kart so far… and mores the pity for it. Because it does so much right… it just needs to just learn to let go of the past, and then it will be perfect.