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Mario Kart 3DS preview: By land, by sea, by air

The highlight moment of my time with Mario Kart 3DS didn't involve blue sparks, bananas or any sort of weaponized carapace; though, naturally, all of those elements make a reappearance in the colorful racer. The key moment was the first time I hit a rather innocuous-looking ramp and, once airborne, produced a hang glider from my vehicle's undercarriage.

It wasn't a particularly surprising moment -- your car's new utilities were revealed in the trailer showed during Nintendo's E3 press conference -- but it was certainly an interesting one. The new aerial and underwater portions of each track aren't just fresh new obstacles for you to dodge using the series' tried-and-true system of drifting, boosting and item-firing. They represent challenges for you to navigate using entirely new methods of control.

Gallery: Mario Kart 3D (E3 2011) | 18 Photos

The more skyward of the two new race sections should feel instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played Pilotwings -- or to anyone who has ever sailed through the air on a terrifyingly thin sheet of fabric, I suppose. Players lose a great deal of maneuverability in the sky, but can pitch up or down to either remain airborne and sail over obstacles, or gain some speed as they plummet towards the track.

In a game so unflinchingly dedicated to finding the absolute straightest path from the starting line to the checkered flag, adding an option which lets you circumvent the track temporarily should add immeasurable strategy to hardcore players' fastest lap runs. To the more casual crowd who's not as concerned with millisecond-perfect races, it's still a neat, inoffensive way to mix up the game's decade-old formula.

As for the submersed portions of the tracks -- marked by your tailpipe promptly sprouting a propeller following your dive -- the racing's not quite so footloose and fancy free. Top speed and handling seem to take a hit at the bottom of each body of water (as one might expect they would), disrupting the delicate balance of steering you've come to master on land.

A few portions of the three tracks I demoed offered three different paths to the other side of a tricky segment: A slow but straightforward underwater patch, a roundabout but relatively unmoist road or an aerial trajectory filled with hazardous, easily run-into obstacles. It helps to split up the mass of evenly matched players for a few precious moments, and made coming out of the split paths an exciting guessing game as to who's going to surface, land or drift into first.

The vehicular customization system was present in the demo, allowing each racer to swap out their chassis, tires and hang glider -- but I wasn't quite sure what each of these options did to my vehicle's stats. All I can safely assert is that the game's largest tier of tires didn't make me immune to the many shells, bananas and ink blasts fired in my general direction during the demo.

The nitty-gritty will have to wait for a more thorough demo session, but it's clear to see the series' basic building blocks have all made the trip to Mario Kart's first 3DS outing. It's colorful, smooth as butter and extremely familiar -- until, of course, your habitually landlocked kart takes to the sea or sky.

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