Mario Kart has always been an institution built around simple kart racing with an addictive multiplayer quality that has been unmatched by rivals. That’s the way it was when Mario Kart 64 was introduced with split-screen driving; that’s the way it was when Mario Kart DS stormed the portable scene; and that’s the way it was when Mario Kart Wii arrived with multiple control options and online play. We can only assume that’s the way it’ll be when the series goes into the third dimension on December 4, with the release of Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS. Nintendo recently invited us to go hands-on with the game to get an idea what to expect.
First off, that “old” feeling of Mario Kart remains intact, so if you were worried you wouldn’t be able to complete power drifts or launch power-ups, you’re mistaken. The gameplay has been refined to work almost perfectly with the 3DS control scheme. You can still steer around corners, drift and earn yourself a cool little boost bonus, and pick up power-ups. These are highlighted by glowing question blocks that range from small range stuff, like turbo boost mushrooms and turtle shells, to heavy duty weapons, such as a spiked homing shell and a mud bomb that spits across the screen.
That’s not to say the gameplay is ancient. Nintendo has thrown in a couple of new tricks to keep things interesting. You can now drive underwater, so you don’t have to worry about coming to a halt anytime that you touch the stuff (though you still want to watch out for deep puddles or anything that you can get stuck in). You can also fly, with the addition of a cool hang glider prop that pops out from the back of your vehicle. This automatically kicks in once you go flying in the air on a jump, and you can soar up, down, left, and right. As long as you remain in the air, the hang glider stays open. You can use this to your advantage too, picking up coins and then swooping down for a quick speed boost before landing and getting back on the road.
Of course, what players will no doubt like the most are the 3D visuals. So far, based on our hands-on impressions of the game, Nintendo has delivered in spades. The game looks exhilarating zooming into the third dimension, with wonderfully detailed tracks and a real sense of awe as you go flying down the road and through the air. The frame rate remains steady as well, though we were not able to test the multiplayer mode to see how it holds up online. The traditional Mario animations remain intact – for both him and his cavalcade of racing friends taken from the series – and the power-ups look great, especially the ink explosion. It can actually be a real distraction this time around when you’re trying to see the road.
Along with traditional settings, Nintendo has also included a new first-person mode – you can sit on the front of the vehicle and do the steering via gyroscopic controls. Granted, you’ll want to turn off the 3D for this mode, as it can be slightly distracting due to the shifting screen. Once that’s done, you’ll want to give this a try and see if it suits you. Though we prefer the traditional control set-up, this is something interesting to try out, especially if you’ve mastered every corner.
Mario Kart 7 will also introduce a new customization angle. Though we didn’t get to see much of it during our hands-on time, we did get a glimpse of the various vehicles each character would have to choose from and the small modifications they could make so that the ride felt more like their own.
Once the final game does surface, players can look forward to racing through a number of single-player circuits, while also engaging in online races via the Wi-Fi Connection. If friends aren’t online to compete in real time, they can also store “ghost data”, which lets players compete against their best efforts without them even being there. This feature alone should keep players – and their friends – busy for months at a time.
Mario Kart 7 looks to be the best entry in the series to date, even out-lapping the popular Wii edition that’s still a party favorite to this day. Thanks to Nintendo for allowing us a chance to go on a road test with it. We’ll be back to review the final game this December!