And here’s the odd thing about Mario Kart 7. It’s not a major reinvention or even a huge step forwards from what has gone before. While playing it, it’s hard not to be aware that you’re putting more hours (and more money) into effectively having the same experience you had five or ten years ago, or maybe longer. This is possibly the prettiest version, with lovingly animated characters, some neat effects and a little more background detail than even Mario Kart Wii. It looks great in 3D, and is arguably the most immersive 3D game on the 3DS. All the same, it doesn’t feel like a substantially different game.
Yet this is not what you’ll be thinking while you play it. As ever, Mario Kart is by turns fun, exhilarating, magical and utterly infuriating. It’s a game where you can fall from first to seventh position in the second lap, but still have a hope of clawing your way back to the front before the chequered flag waves. We’re not proud to say that one disastrous race ended in a flurry of bad language directed at a smiling mushroom boy, or that a later hard-won victory ended in leaping off the sofa to shout “In your face, Toad”, but both things happened. Mario Kart has this way of sucking you in. And there’s a bit more scope for skill than in the Wii version too, with tighter turns in some races and less obvious rubber banding of opponents to stop them getting too far ahead or too far behind.
The new tracks are a match for the old ones too, each one containing some areas where it’s safe to go fast, a few spots where you can try sneaky alternate routes or cheeky tricks, a few areas where a craftily placed weapon can wreak havoc, and a few trouble spots you’ll learn to dread. There’s a little more underwater action this time around, and some superb tracks themed after musical instruments or the Wuhu Island setting of Pilotwings 3D, Wii Fit and Sports Resort. There are a couple of courses that take place on one long stretch, rather than a circular track, and Mario Kart 7 even packs in the ultimate version of the climactic Rainbow Road; a true show-stopper.
With Mario Kart Wii Nintendo did a fantastic job of opening Mario Kart to online play, and Mario Kart 7 goes even further. If you haven’t got friends to play with the game will find you an ad-hoc group, and the racing is smooth and highly enjoyable. The old battle and coin-collecting modes have also made a comeback, and some cool Streetpass and Spotpass functionality should see you racing ghosts of passing strangers as time goes on. The real long-term appeal of Mario Kart has always been in local competition, preferably against mates in the same living room, but when that’s not possible Mario Kart 7 certainly gives you the next best thing.
Mario Kart 7 is still Mario Kart, and in many ways it's a ‘Best of’ Mario Kart that does very little to push the series forwards. Still, who cares? It’s comfortably the best of the Kart racing breed and one of the best handheld games you can play, with great tracks, great gameplay and excellent online features. With this and Super Mario 3D Land, the 3DS is finally coming into its own.