Mario Kart 7 review: An exercise in fun/frustration

Mario Kart 7 is, as its predecessors always have been, an exceedingly hateful game. Three laps' worth of perfect corner negotiation, aggressive drafting and creating enough sparks to manufacture a small sun can be overturned instantly, sometimes in sight of the finish line. Who am I kidding? It is always in sight of the finish line, and it's always Toad, an innocuous-looking bastard who's caused me to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory more times than I could ever hope to count. (Estimated guess, though: A hundred billion.)

Frustrating though they may be, those turnabouts are how the franchise skirts around recurring poxes of the racing genre. Last place racers get far more potent weaponry than the pace cars -- not rubber-banding in the traditional sense, but the result's the same. Mario Kart 7's changes and additions are few in number, but they're rich in the refinement of that concept. More than ever, it's a game about getting screwed over without getting too angry about it, a pair of goals it achieves with panache.
%Gallery-135959% Racers' armories have been expanded with a handful of new offensive and defensive items, like the Fire Flower, which can launch a salvo of fireballs that shoot rapidly but don't pack much punch, or the Lucky 7, which surrounds the player with a ring of seven random power-ups. Those can be launched, or can be used as a protective barrier from other weapons or drivers -- though the appearance of steal-able Stars and Mushrooms make it a double-edged sword.

The most welcome addition is the Tanooki Tail, which can be used to spin out a nearby racer or, as is more commonly its utility in first place, can deflect a projectile with a last-second spin. There's a strange vulnerability to being in first place; you don't get most of the really good items, and you've got seven Mushroom Kingdomians firing shell after shell at your back. The ability to rebuff their attacks adds a much-needed additional layer of strategy to the proceedings.

Further advancing the formula are the new flight and underwater sections located on most of the tracks. The latter simply slows down the race and gives an odd floating feeling to the typically tight turns. The flying, however, is neat. Skyward players are constantly deciding when to dive for more speed or when to ascend to avoid obstacles and other racers. It's frantic and incredibly satisfying, especially when you can quickly eyeball the trajectory required to drop a shell right on the head of an opponent.

There are other rewarding mechanical tweaks in the mix which require strategy and mastery of control. It's a mix-and-match of mechanics from older installments in the series: Players can draft off of the backs of leaders for a quick boost of speed, they can drift to earn a minor (blue sparks!) boost or a major (red sparks!) boost, and they can execute bunny hops at the peak of each ramp to earn a quick burst of speed upon landing.

Players can also collect coins scattered across the track to increase their top speed, though that is not why coins are so darn desirable. Every 50 coins the player collects on the race track unlocks a new kart component which can be used by any of the racers. Players are given an unprecedented amount of control as they choose their racer, kart body, wheels and wing type, each of which improve or injure the player's speed, acceleration, weight and other statistics.

It took a while to figure out which types of builds worked for me, but once I did my performance in each race improved drastically. It made the system of unlocks surprisingly addictive -- though I wish I was given a choice of components to purchase with my hard-earned money, rather than having my choices made for me.

The tracks are something of a mixed bag: 16 new races and 16 from Mario Karts past make an appearance, all of which have had the new flying and submersion sections shoehorned into them. Almost all are gripping. Wuhu Island, for example, is a super-sized raceway where players race through sections of the island rather than making laps in a repeated loop. Not all are winners, though: A few have tracks so wide that even in a traffic jam, they feel cavernous and empty. Also, the levels which make heavy use of the underwater segments are a little too slow to be much fun.

Of course, all the tracks look great. Everything looks great. It's a first-party Nintendo game on the 3DS. It looks as great as you'd expect it to look, which, at this point, I assume is "great."

What is surprising is that it actually provides the first cohesive online experience available on the platform. It's still something of a chore to get into a game lobby with distant friends, but the "Community" feature, which lets you join a (friend-code protected, sadly) group with other racers and form matches, share canned messages and track leaderboards. It's ambitious, which isn't usually a term one could apply to Nintendo's online strategy. It's also functional, which is equally rare.

Local multiplayer works swimmingly, too. It lacks the persistent Community organization feature, but you are able to have an actual, tangible person at which to direct your insensate rage, which is nice.

Mario Kart 7 is an exquisitely polished game with few flaws. Blue Shells are, as they always have been, unavoidable race-ruining bullshit, for instance. Don't take my jokes about the game's frustrations lightly, as its last-second turnabouts are as frequent as they are enraging, and some players may not be able to handle the disappointment.

Still, I'd encourage you to blow right past the easy 50cc and still-pretty-easy 100cc race settings, and go right for the sadistic punishment of 150cc. You might not love how frequently your race leadership is usurped, but the great thing about having your lunch eaten right in front of you is how it always, always leaves you hungry.

This review is based on a retail copy of Mario Kart 7 provided by Nintendo.

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