Review: Mario Kart 7 delivers incredible gameplay, the best Rainbow Road ever and one aggravating omission

Before playing Mario Kart 7 for the first time, keep your expectations realistic. This game doesn’t blow away Mario Kart DS or Mario Kart Wii, but instead stands confidently beside them as another great, vastly entertaining installment. It looks and sounds amazing, plays perfectly, and pulls some terrific tricks out of its sleeve, but in the end it’s 100% good old Mario Kart. It brings its own set of tweaks to the franchise, and most of the changes are positive (with the gliders turning out amazing beyond belief). One design decision, however, is just plain baffling. We’ll get to that later.

First, though, let’s celebrate: Mario Kart 7 is incredibly fun. Of course it is. A co-product of Nintendo’s top tier EAD team and the U.S.’s very own amazing Retro studios, how could this not be fun?

Best new addition: The gliding. Holy cow…THE GLIDING! This element’s perfection hits you the very first time the wings snap open and…it feels like you’re flying. More so than in Pilotwings. Better than Diddy Kong’s planes or any other airborne moment in any other racer. The “feel” of the air currents and the rush as you adjust for a good high-speed landing…the effect is incredible. It’s an exhilarating experience that adds a welcome dash of extra thrill to the game.

Make no mistake, swooping down while hurling turtle shells at your ground-based opponents is just…awesome.

And the underwater sequences? Tons of fun…but not until you hit 100cc.

As in all Mario Karts, don’t judge the game by the beginner 50cc cups. In 50cc, the many underwater sections are sluggish grinds that’ll make you wonder, “What were they thinking???” Hit 100cc and 150cc cups, however, and suddenly all the land/water/sky combinations make perfect sense and flow like amazing roller coaster rides. More than in any other Mario Kart, consider 50cc a track-memorizing lesson; The real game begins in the faster cups.

The new tracks range in quality from good to amazing. My favorites include the two Wuhu Island courses, Music Park (with its wonderfully interactive soundtrack), Rock Rock Mountain (already becoming an online favorite), Wario Shipyard (where you leap in and out of water like a crazed dolphin) and the amazing new Rainbow Road, which is an absolute masterpiece.

The classic retro tracks are all great fun, enhanced to add flight and underwater moments.

I have a few minor quibbles about the general track choices. The complete absence of any kind of stadium track is puzzling, though Maka Wuhu comes close to achieving the same effect. With half the classic tracks coming from DS and Wii, there’s a lot of familiar territory here, though all are solid, popular picks. Finally, Rosalina’s Ice World–while not a bad track at all–is not Special Cup worthy.

The return of coin collecting adds another layer of strategy and depth; not only do coins increase your top speed, they also unlock new parts for customizing your kart.

The whole customization element is a welcome addition. All characters can ride all karts, and players will enjoy testing different combinations to find their own perfect vehicle. My current kart? Barrel Train with Mushroom Wheels and Super Glider driven by Engineer Luigi.

The addition of a first-person behind-the-wheel perspective is new to the series, and it provides a nice change of pace. You can control the kart in this mode via gyro motion controls or the normal Circle Pad option, and both methods work fine. Best of all, you can instantly jump back and forth between first-person and standard view during both races and replays.

The game looks amazing, with brilliant color and top-notch character animation (courtesy of Retro Studios!) The 3D is smooth and easy on the eyes. Online and off, everything runs at 60 FPS. Mario Kart 7 takes the crown as the most beautiful game currently on 3DS.

The soundtrack is wonderful and interactive; listen to how the music changes when you achieve first place and alters as your lead is threatened. Definitely try to use headphones when you can, as the 3DS speakers don’t do justice to this great material.

Mario Kart 7 really shines with online options. Jumping in and racing players from around the globe is as smooth, fun and easy as it is on Wii, with the added ability to later look up someone you’ve previously raced (no code needed) and join in if they’re back online. Player-created communities, Streetpass and Spotpass ghosts, the ability to create your own online cups, and much more add up to an amazingly deep world of potential online fun, all based around a Mario Kart Channel that installs on your SD card when you first start the game. Nintendo went to great lengths to get this part of Mario Kart 7 right, and the result could give MK 7 a nearly endless amount of replayability.

If only Nintendo had cared as much about the offline single-player experience. I admit I was disappointed to learn that Mission Mode seems destined to remain a DS exclusive, but that’s not the frustrating part…

Earlier, I mentioned a baffling design decision. If you’ve been playing offline, you know where I’m heading. Like me, you probably went back and forth through the menu screens thinking, “No way…they wouldn’t leave out something so basic…would they???” For whatever strange reason, Nintendo decided to remove the ability to choose a single track and race against CPU opponents. Solo off-line play is a choice between full cup races or time trials. And I’m not too happy about this weird backward step, because my two favorite new tracks–Maka Wuhu and Rainbow Road–are both the final tracks in their respective cups. So, if I want to race them with AI opponents off-line, I have to play the entire cup to reach them. Thanks, Nintendo. Thanks a Tingly, Navilicious, Poison Shroom, Toad-voiced lot. Everything else about this game is superb. Why the cold shoulder to solo players? Whyyyyyy?

In any other racer, this might be a deal breaker, but not here’because in every other respect, Mario Kart 7 is awesome. The online mode is wonderful. The cup races are a blast, and the 150cc AI doesn’t seem quite as cruel and cheap this time around. I frequently lose 150cc cup races, but I haven’t been blue-shelled right before the finish line. Yet.

No doubt about it: Mario Kart 7’s a winner. Between the brilliant glider element, the deep online options and the greatest Rainbow Road of all time, it’s one of the very best entries in the series.