Mario Kart 7 is invincible. No matter how many spiny blue shells of criticism we or anyone else may throw at it, this seasoned racer is carrying a super star power-up granting it a console lifetime of successes.
Nintendo has made no secret of the fact that Mario Kart 7 is a quickie job hastily rushed out to help the Nintendo 3DS out of its stalling launch, but it still delivers what may be the best Mario Kart package to date.
Pimp my ride
Like any secret recipe, the ingredients that make a good Mario Kart are rarely tampered with, and the spice of new ideas is added with care.
One of the first things you’ll notice is that the handling of your vehicle is no longer determined by which Mario character you select, but rather your choice of chassis, wheels, and other parts.
Your next moment of discovery will come when you shoot into a jump and meet the glider that springs out of your boot whenever you catch enough air, letting you fly majestically over obstacles before hitting the ground running.
Similarly, a propeller instantly appears whenever your kart goes into water, making for some interesting tweaks to Mario Kart 7’s 16 new courses.
Ambitious and elaborate tracks - from the musical Melody Motorway, which sends you around bends made of piano keys, to scenic loops around Wuhu Island - break the three lap convention by splitting your route into checkpoints.
It's through these that the glider and propeller mechanics are introduced to Mario Kart’s 16 retro courses, drawing from 16-bit relics to tracks still fresh from Mario Kart Wii – all lovingly brought up-to-date with lush visuals, don’t-look-down-chasms, and deep sea shortcuts.
By land, air, and sea
It’s so well choreographed that, at times, Mario Kart 7 plays like a greatest hits demonstrating the best of almost two decades' worth of experimentation.
Coins resurrected from the days of the original Super Mario Kart unlock new kart parts while providing a slight speed increase. The stunt system from Mario Kart Wii also returns, rewarding you with a boost for tapping R shoulder when leaving a ramp.
There are also new items dug out from Mario’s legacy. The Fire Flower sends fireballs into the tailpipes of your rivals, and the Super Leaf attaches an adorable but lethal Tanooki tail to your vehicle to whip away unwanted red and green shell threats.
Blue Shells remain an unavoidable and often unfair punishment for exhibiting skill, but tweaks to balancing have put less stress on Mario Kart 7’s rubber banding.
One idea that doesn’t quite pan out is the optional gyro controls, which allow you to steer by tilting your 3DS left and right. It’s an intriguing gimmick, but it’s not really compatible with the gameplay or with the 3DS's stereoscopic 3D.
Restraint in 3D intensity has become apparent in recent first-party offerings, and Mario Kart 7 is very easy on the eyes with subtle touches such as petals raining down as you boost by or bubbles spewing out of your engine when you derail for an underwater excursion.
Shut up and drive
What about the multiplayer? That’s what you really care about, right? Well it’s on top form, and by far the best of Nintendo’s notoriously tardy online efforts.
Up to eight players can race, gather coins, or destroy each others' balloons locally through game sharing, but while you wait for 3DS sales to reach critical numbers in your area online play is a quicker and easier way of finding competition.
The game integrates your friend list so that you can hop quickly into a cup with your friends, and community features allow you to create a server-like arrangement with item and difficulty settings that, for some reason, can't be adjusted once the group has been created.
Furthermore, a Mario Kart Channel gathers StreetPass and SpotPass ghosts, updating on a daily basis with new time trial challenges and community recommendations. It rounds off a package that's undeniably good value for money.
Like any Mario Kart, its success and kinks will be subject of much debate until the next time Nintendo chooses to dig out this moneymaker. But despite its swift development, Mario Kart 7 is the most consistent entry in the series, with inventive ideas you’ll want to see again and a stellar online component that shows Nintendo is capable of pulling its finger out when it matters.