Football fans gripe that the annual changes to Madden NFL are tiny. But at least Madden comes out once a year. Mario Kart 7 comes six years after its closest handheld predecessor, Mario Kart DS, and still only feels like an incremental upgrade. Maybe that’s for the best, since Nintendo’s racing games often have near-flawless first laps.
The brilliance (and bane) of the Mario Kart formula is that every race is most anybody’s race. Racing simulations, though often rewarding, can feel protracted and predestined. In Nintendo’s colorful racer, power-ups level the playing field by letting laggards send powerful whammies to the front of the pack. The blue turtle shell, the ultimate game-balancer, targets the first-place racer with a crippling explosion that’s more than a vengeful consolation prize—the ensuing chaos can easily make the last first and the first last.
Still, skill doesn’t take a back seat to luck. Play Mario Kart 7 against the hardest opponents, and knowledge of tracks and smart execution of advanced techniques such as drifting become key to survival. No amount of gifts from the Nintendo gods are going to save a slowpoke who can’t deftly navigate the precarious Rainbow Road—a course suspended in outer space, with sparse guardrails.
Mario Kart 7’s key differentiator is that it’s playable in stereoscopic 3-D. The gimmick pays off most when obstacles come quickly. The effect makes it immediately clear which dangling stalactite or shooting water spout to dodge first. Still, the 3-D remains far from mandatory. The best improvements to Mario Kart 7 are online, where Nintendo has made strides toward making it easier to race against friends. Particularly appreciated is the creation of online communities where racers can find a slew of like-minded opponents without inputting three dozen friend-codes.
But this new feature feels like a tiny victory against Nintendo’s stonewalling. The game’s unlockable upgrades feel stingy and sparse when compared to the generous rewards in Modern Warfare 3. And though online play is improved, the matchmaking can force you to watch races as a spectator until it’s your turn behind the line. Change, for Nintendo, comes in deliberate drips. And in the case of Mario Kart 7, slow and steady still manages to win the race.