If you haven't bought a 3DS yet, you need one right now. Mario Kart 7 is single-handedly worth the asking price, especially if you have friends with one too. It's the best showcase yet for the console's 3D screen, plays better than the home console versions have since N64 and makes 90% of the rest of the machine's catalogue look downright shoddy. It's full of fan-service gold, yet also attractive to those with zero gaming experience.
The perfect Mario Kart? Could well be…
Above: Wa-hoo! Mario's back behind the wheel and everything's right with the world
First things first – the game takes 3DS by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it damn well lives up to its potential. Pilotwings Resort may have looked lovely whether in 3D or 2D mode, but Mario Kart 7 is a huge leap forward over even that benchmark. It's easily as good-looking as Mario Kart Wii, only with 60fps 3D graphics that look so solid, it isn't an effect any more. This is a window into a 3D world and, incredibly, every time the 3D's off, I want it back on again.
Above: Massive draw distance, sublime effects, silky smooth frame-rate and unbelievable 3D
But enough about the graphics. How does it play? Thankfully, the answer is a definitive "NOT like Mario Kart Wii". Or Double Dash, for that matter. In fact, it's most like Mario Kart DS, which is a good thing as that's easily the best version of the modern era. Races are close without being too dense and chaotic, thanks to superb weapons balancing that hands out appropriate power-ups depending on where you are in the field.
Of course you still get that horrible sinking feeling as you approach the finish line in first place, because you just know a Blue Shell is coming to blow you up mere inches before the line. But while these frustrating blows do come every now and then (it wouldn't be Mario Kart without them), they're pleasantly infrequent, especially compared to the Wii version.
Track and squealed
The first half of the new selection of tracks are superb, particularly Melody Motorway and Cheep Cheep Cape, with several "whoop" moments per lap. While the latter half isn't quite as consistently amazing in terms of looks, the track design itself never falters, making carefully-crafted balancing seem easy to design. Rival devs take note. Here are some highlights from the first two cups in the game. And believe me, the game looks way better in person than it does in video.
Shortcuts are balanced to reward not just clever thinking or memory, but clever kart control too. For the first time in ages, driving your kart well is the greatest key to success – and that's a major leap forward.
The three tiers of kart power are back, acting as beginner, medium and expert difficulty levels. The first couple of tracks are wide and gentle to ease newbies into the game, and Mario Kart veterans will likely blaze through the first two difficulty tiers. The third, however, is going to keep even hardcore fans busy for a very long time. If you get golds on all the cups, you get one final tier which is as hard as Expert, but with mirrored tracks. Plenty to do, even if you're on your own.
There are even multiplayer-styled single-player modes for the friendless (or multi-cartless), complete with the series' classic balloon popping minigame, which sees you trying to pop your opponents' balloons while trying to preserve your own. Of course, it's more fun in multiplayer, which is available in local or wi-fi flavours. We've only played local multiplayer so far as the game's not out yet at the time of writing, but it's rock-solid and just like the single-player game, only with an extra competitive edge.
Above: Did I mention the fan-service? Look - it's the SNES multiplayer arena on your 3DS
There's also a very enjoyable time trial mode complete with saveable ghost cars. Considering the game is all about accessibility and outward simplicity, there's a surprising depth to the controls that makes Time Trial a mode worth returning to time and time again.
Which brings me to the snaking issue. For those who didn't play Mario Kart DS extensively (or take it online), "snaking" is the term given to drifting down straight sections of tracks at an angle as if you're cornering, earning fresh boost every time. Race someone who's using this technique and not even the Blue Shell will stop them – they'll be so far ahead they can take the loss on anything you can throw at them, thus breaking the game.
In Mario Kart 7, it's gone. The boost technique is still the same, though. Hold the jump button and turn as you approach a corner and your kart will skid. After a while (or a few waggles of the analogue stick), blue sparks will appear around your rear wheels, then red ones.
Above: Sparks! This is the visual indicator that your drift has earned you some boost
At this point, release jump to boost away. But, crucially, the time it takes to get these sparks to appear now depends on how tightly you're cornering. Meaning? It doesn't work on the straights. With this wonderful new tweak, the playing field is level at last, leaving everyone to have fun once more.
Daddy's never taking this T-Bird away
Fun. That's the word I would use in annoying, Beach Boys-esque repetition to best describe Mario Kart 7. My colleagues mock me as I sit playing the game in the office, grinning from ear to ear and making little noises like "oh ho!" and "aah" every minute or so.
What would cause such noises to come from a grown man in his place of work? Things like the new hang glider sections. Or falling into the water on GameCube's Daisy Cruiser and realising that it no longer kills you, but gives you access to an entirely new underwater section. You'll laugh at Toad's voice, tut when you get blown up by your own stupidly-timed bomb throw and gasp in awe at the ripple effect on the new Rainbow Road.
Above: Oh, Giant Toad, thank goodness you're only a balloon. I don't think I could handle real Giant Toad
The game is split into eight cups, each with four circuits. As is becoming tradition, the top four contain exclusively new courses, with the lower four cups containing retro classics. But they're more than straight ports. I mentioned the new sections underwater, but they're also augmented by the new flying ability. It only triggers when you hit key ramps, but there's plenty of time to be made up from flying well. Needless to say, the flight physics are as good as in Pilotwings Resort.
Above: I know the '2D image of a 3D game' disclaimer is annoying, but this bit is amazing in 3D
Best of all, the flight and underwater racing are underplayed and don't feel gimmicky, which is something you couldn't say of recent Mario Karts. There's only one haracter in each kart here, unlike Double Dash. There are no bikes, which is Mario Kart Wii out of the window. Gone too is the emphasis on stunts (though as the video on the previous page shows, a few remain), replaced with clean, simple driving. It puts the Kart back into Mario Kart.
You can upgrade your ride with new body shapes, wheels and glider attachments as you unlock them (by collecting the coins that litter the track), but at the end of the day, they're still just karts. Perfect.
Above: For some reason, bigger wheels seem to equal faster top speed. Snuh?
Weapons-wise, there are a few noteworthy additions. There's a super-rare "7" that appears on the spinner that gives you seven weapons all at once. You feel uber-powerful while these are swirling around you, and you start spouting fire, throwing off shells and turning invincible, all at the same time.
Above: Don't let her princess-perfect looks fool you - Peach is armed to the teeth right now
Fire? Yes, the fire flower is in too, giving you a limited time to throw as many fireballs as you like. The golden mushroom returns to grant you several speed boosts in a row if you're struggling, and I'll never tire of seeing Bullet Bill fire me clear past the mid-field and up to the leaders. Green shells and red shells are familiar, and while there's no ghost to steal items from your mates, you will see the old inky splodge several times every race.
But the best power up is the tanooki tail. Mario's gone tail-crazy of late, but seeing a tail appear on your kart, waving around in gloriously animated 3D, is a real "I love this game" moment. You use it to attack your opponents like a furry baseball bat - even to deflect incoming shells.
Above: "Hey, get-a off of my tail!" Or so he seemed to say
While all of this is happening, the music is reacting to your game. You still get the classic "final lap" fanfare, but it's the more subtle touches that make the experience so enjoyable. Going underwater pulls the old trick of muffling and muting some of the instruments to give you an underwater filter of the theme you're listening to. The same goes for flying, as the music falls away and you instead hear the whoosh of the wind through your hair.
Bad points? What's supposed to go in this bit?
There doesn't seem to actually be an options screen, which means (unless there's some weird button combination in the manual that we didn't receive), you can't delete your save game once you've started. Apart from that… it would have been nice to have even more tracks, but if you don't enjoy the ones there are enough to happily play them again, there's A) something wrong with you and B) a good chance you just don't like Nintendo games.
Above: Luigi's Mansion returns from the DS game, only with ramps for hang-gliding
As a gamer who grew up hating Nintendo, it's quite a personal revelation to love one of its games as much as this. But I'm on board with everything the game is trying to do. Sure, all the tricks here have been done before and the core of the game is the same as it's always been. But yet again, it's been packaged and delivered in a way that makes it feel fresh.
It's a cast of likeable, cartoony characters getting powered up by magic boxes and enchanted flowers, then doing things that simply can't be done in real life, like drive under the feet of a stamping dinosaur or race down the keys of a keyboard while a graphic equaliser pumps out bright colours all over the walls. When other companies try the kart racer formula, it often feels tired and cheap. This feels fresh and deluxe.
Above: Know what I wish I was doing instead of captioning this picture? Playing Mario Kart 7
Better still, it doesn't resort to ridiculous motion control steering or touch screen selection of weapons. You play it with the buttons and analogue stick (though, surprisingly, not the d-pad, which instead just switches between 3rd person and 1st-person camera modes), like you have done for forever. With go, stop, fire and jump buttons, it's easy enough that anyone can play it. Instantly enjoyable, infinitely accessible but as deep as you want to make it.
Above: Want to go ultra-hardcore? Strive for faster laps - you'll be amazed how much faster you can go
This really should have been a launch game, no question. But it's here now, and must surely mark a turning point for the system. Mario Kart 7 sets the graphical bar so high, it doesn't even look like a 3DS game, which means everyone else has a new standard to follow. Suddenly the platform feels new again.