Mario Kart's other inevitability is its stark predilection to tweak just enough minor things while still staying pretty much the same as ever. In terms of the game mechanics on display here, Mario Kart 7's not markedly different from what's come before. Familiar course tropes get remixed yet again -- off the top of my head, we get a Donkey Kong jungle track, a lava-drenched Bowser's Castle track, a tropical island track, an (infuriating-as-usual) ice track, the ever-precarious Rainbow Road, and a multiplayer Battle Mode that involves balloon-popping and coin-collecting amid all the skidding and bopping.
Sure, you can trick your chosen racer out with various weighted karts and course-appropriate wheels. And sure, you can now briefly hang-glide across hairy aerial jumps and navigate aquatic areas with an on-demand propulsion system. In practice, it's all just shallow scenery.
And hey, absolutely nothing's wrong with that; this is Mario Kart, not Forza. It's a chance to have some good, mindless fun with friends, and Mario Kart 7's community mechanics offer perhaps the best suite of multiplayer options ever implemented into the series. Anyone with a mind to do so can create a distinct community with its own admin-defined rules -- be it a stock grand prix circuit, an item-free 150cc Special Cup, or even a bombs-only Battle Mode -- and any other player with the corresponding access code can join up. The rules are set in stone, but you can create as many communities as your heart desires. And while Nintendo's committed to a set of house-defined communities for new players to jump into, I'm betting that plenty of popular forums and websites (say, Joystiq, for example?) could foster some strong playerbases of their own. It's a cut above all the usual Friend Code nonsense, and I applaud Nintendo's relative creativity.
Beyond that... it's Mario Kart. I managed to wrangle a semi-exclusive go at the latest incarnation of Rainbow Road, and it's as twisty as ever, foregoing the usual three-lap loop for a trio of distinct and lengthy track segments (prepare to plummet from the guardrail-free edge -- a lot). I'm bummed that Mario Kart 64's multistory Double Deck arena didn't make the Battle Mode cut, although the original Super Mario Kart's giant Battle Course Four makes me plenty happy. Maybe one of these days, we'll get a Mario Kart with a proper track creation tool. You hearing me, Nintendo!?