The blue shell will get you. That’s pretty much the first rule of Mario Kart these days – whoever you pick, whatever kart you choose and wherever you end up racing, some vengeful little bastard towards the back of the pack is always going to unleash Mario Kart’s version of a nuke on the guy in first whether it helps them or simply trolls the leader. And while there are a few situational ways of avoiding your cerulean punishment for having the audacity to race well enough to steal pole position and hold onto it, there will always come a time when the Klaxon Of Crushing Inevitability rings in your embarrassing descent from first to seventh. And you will swear. Loudly. But hey, it wouldn’t be Mario Kart if you didn’t.
Sidelining all the gimmicks and silliness that have crept into the series as it scrambled for a hook to keep it relevant, Mario Kart 7 is as close to the purity and simplicity of the original racer as Nintendo has ventured in the 20 years since Mario first got behind the wheel. Which is odd, since the new mechanics could quite easily have dragged MK7 off into the murky waters muddied by the clumsy chaos of the Wii version, though they’re handled expertly for the most part. Taking to the skies on collapsible wings offers options galore and while key areas send everyone skyward, occasional launcher ramps and shortcuts present verticality as an option, and is it ever an appealing one. A quick burst of speed can be gained by simply dive-bombing back to the track below while conversely, pulling back grants greater air time and the opportunity to scout for hidden routes or sit above the competitive chaos below, even catching the odd thermal to maintain a glide and really cut corners like a pro.
Underwater sections, on the other hand, won’t be met with quite the same level of delight and, when Lakitu starts a race in a snorkel, you know you’ll be taking the plunge. Submerged racing, as you might expect, is far more sluggish and unresponsive than its brisk land-based counterpart. And while not having to be fished out by the cloud-riding starting line official every time you get wet is a change for the better, you’ll still find yourself doing everything in your power to avoid or delay going for a dip. To make matters worse, underwater sections really emphasise the differences between the various kart builds in terms of performance – the parts you use to build your ride might be perfect for three races of a GP but leave you struggling to keep with the pack when the tide comes in.
In general, however, staying with the pack isn’t something that will be an issue. The series’ trademark rubber-banding is back – after all, a Mario Kart game without a catch-up mechanic is about as likely as a Mario Kart game without Mario – and more erratic than ever, sometimes allowing you to take a ridiculous lead while at other times deciding to catapult Luigi past you on the last stretch at an utterly impossible pace. Still, it’s usually somewhere between the two extremes and a little less noticeable as a result, not least because the selection of power-ups on offer is itself designed to level the playing field and keep things tight. Classic items are joined by a handful of new ones – the Super Leaf grants a tanooki tail and a multi-use melee attack, the Fire Flower lets you chuck numerous globs of flame with a focus on either range or rapid-fire, while the highlight is the Lucky Seven. Like that most feared of shells, this only becomes available when propping up the pack, surrounding your kart with exactly as many power-ups as its name suggests so you can lob shells, Bob-ombs and banana peels like crazy for a while. What really makes this interesting is the fact that rivals can be affected by these as they revolve around you and while this might make for a decent (if patchy) shield, a deft move from an opponent can see them snatch a Power Star or mushroom before you have a chance to use it.
Courses, meanwhile, run the usual gamut of quality but most demonstrate the team’s ability to build raceways around the innate abilities of the karts and those they acquire on the track. There’s a healthy variety in the 16 new courses, expected locations like Mario Circuit and Bowser’s Castle joined by less obvious maps, Wuhu Island chief among these with its two point-to-point events banishing the lap-based races in favour of triple-sectioned jaunts across the Wii Sports Resort island, a format also used by the hypnotic return to Rainbow Road. The track count is doubled by four sets of returning tracks and, despite having been overhauled for the new mechanics by the ever-excellent Retro Studios, it’s still an odd selection – a quarter of them are from the Wii game, leaving less space for retro love while the likes of Luigi Circuit from the N64 game feel incredibly barren next to the feature-packed newcomers.
As familiar as Mario Kart 7 feels, refinements across the board mean it’s pretty much as good a party racer as it has ever been. Snaking is out thanks to tweaked mini-turbo mechanics; kart customisation means there’s no best character or vehicle, rather advisable approaches to different kinds of course; online play is tighter than ever; time trials and ghost downloads offer almost endless replayability as you strive to topple both friends’ best times and those of Nintendo’s finest. It’s frustrating, rewarding, addictive and entertaining in almost equal measure, and as much as you’ll rant and moan when your lead is snatched away on the last corner, you’ll keep going back for more. To call it the best original game on 3DS might be overstretching the meaning of the word ‘original’ but, all the same, this is something that no 3DS owner should be without.