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Mario Kart 7 3DS makes sense of Wii and Gamecube detours for the series and brings in to land a perfectly pitched portable version of the game you already know almost everything about.
Of course there are surprises along the way. The point-to-point races around Wii-Sport Resort's (and Pilotwings Resort's) Wuhu Island are a welcome break from the lap based circuits. Being able to customise the karts adds a new layer of tactics. The new Fire Flower, Tanooki Suit and Super 7 power ups offer more variety. Then there is the ability to take off and glide, and drive by just tilting from first person perspective.
But in every other way this is the Mario Kart that you know and love. For other games this could be a negative, but as soon as I started up Mario Kart 7 it was like putting on an old jumper -- warm, cosy and familiar.
It's the ease with which Mario Kart achieves all this that is the real genius here. The finely balanced driving that incorporates Mario Kart Wii's more drifting style, perhaps a nod to the inclusion of tilt control, doesn't overpower the hardcore racing at Mario Kart 7's heart. The novelty of flight and underwater sections, that match the character swapping antics of the Gamecube, add a layer of tactics rather than overcomplicate Mario Kart's simplicity. But the biggest testament is that all these new ideas can almost go unnoticed, so well have they been fitted into the Mario Kart architecture.
The icing on the cake for me, and those familiar with N64 and SNES versions of Mario Kart is a return to the shortcuts that made those games such obsessive experiences -- and divided fans when they were downplayed in later outings. Being able to glide opens up all sorts of possibilities for accessing new areas of the course or cutting a few corners.
These new ideas can almost go unnoticed, so well have they been fitted into the Mario Kart architecture.
In terms of how it feels, the moments you take to the air are the biggest departure from what's gone before. Hitting a ramp for the first time and seeing your wings sprout from your Kart is a spine tingling moment. Whether in the first person view (where you can control things by tilting) or in more traditional third person (where you can't use tilt controls) there is a sense of momentum that matches the physicality of Pilotwings Resort's various airborne vehicles.
There are some missed opportunities and missteps though. It's a mistake not to keep the great motorbikes of Mario Kart Wii and while the new circuits are generally well executed at times these descend into vague territory and can feel a little sloppy.
The biggest criticism though is one I'm happy to forgive. Many will be suggesting that Mario Kart 7 is a missed opportunity to take the series forward or reinvent what a Mario Kart game is. But for me the familiarity and conservative approach to innovation has made this exactly what I was hoping for: a classic Mario Kart for the 3DS.
This is underlined by the 16 classic maps that offer a great mix of all that is great about Mario Kart. Pulling in circuits from Mario Kart through the ages underlines how well Mario Kart 7 fits into this family. But more than that, this is a game that makes sense of what has gone before, striking through a few bad ideas while taking forward (almost) all that is good and great.
It got me excited about introducing my children to the wonders of the kart racer.
Perhaps the biggest innovation and success is the multiplayer modes. Eight player multiplayer races can be conducted both locally and online with minimal fuss. Spot a friend in your 3DS Friends list playing Mario Kart 7, tap Join Game to jump in and play with them (provided you have the cart in the slot as well). Or share Mario Kart 7 locally with friends and go head to head racing with up to eight people in the same room (without the need to each own the game).
This is all wrapped up in some proper racing that finally does away with the rubber-banding antics of recent Mario Kart's that, being overly keen to help new comers, would catch up slow-coaches much too readily. While I didn't mind this when playing with my kids, it always annoyed me when the computer controlled characters suddenly appeared in my rear view minor.
Playing Mario Kart 7 made me want to go back and revisit the Wii and Gamecube versions in a way that Mario Kart DS never did. But more than that, it has got me excited about introducing my children to the wonders of the kart racer. It may be more of the same, but by doing so it unites all that is good in the franchise with a crisp 3D skin (oh yes, it's 3D as well).
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