PREVIEW: Mario Kart 7 [3DS]

I know what you’re thinking. The name gives it away: Mario Kart 7. It sounds like it’s going to be the same game we’ve seen time and time before, with a new lick of paint.

…and, honestly, you’re not far wrong. Mario Kart 7 really does play just like you’d expect, but with a little extra depth (ha!) – it’s the first time the racer has trundled onto the 3DS, and even a red shell can’t stop it now.

Spotting a lonely-looking 3DS in the Nintendo booth, I had an unexpected chance to check out the newest Mario Kart, and am happy to report that while your old favourites are still there, the team at Nintendo have thrown in a few fun extra elements to each track.

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For one thing, the karts are no longer stuck to the tarmac. The physics hasn’t quite started approaching Trackmania levels, but in addition to the standard jumps, ramps and gaps in the track, Mario Kart 7 has thrown in a nifty hang-gliding mode which gently floats you to the ground after diving off of a cliff.

It’s no simple cut-scene, as my kart sprouted wings I was still able to control it left and right, and even brake slightly while in descending. It’s useful not only for landing gently after plummeting from a roller coaster-like jump, but also for picking out hidden tracks and bonuses from the air. I imagine that if multiple karts took the jump at once, the possibility of mid-air collisions would be high – and spectacular.

Of course, what goes up must come down, which brings us to the next additional racing element: Deep Sea Driving. Yep, Nintendo want you to drive your car into the ocean, as well as hurtling off of a cliff. The controls become appropriately sluggish, as if water-logged, and the karts are a little slower to respond, but other than that you’re simply cruising around below the waves, collecting coins from inside snapping oysters and carrying on as normal.

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This one’s been developed specifically for the 3DS, and it shows. The circle pad translates well to standard driving conditions, but it’s perfect when gliding between tracks.

The tracks themselves have also been designed with the usual attention to detail – they’re well-planned, and while they’re simple enough the first time around, further laps will uncover handy bonuses and extra collectibles.

I played as Toad, in a blue cart with beefed up wheels. Given my brief time with the game, it wasn’t immediately obvious whether or not these customisations had any major impact on the game, but according to Nintendo, your choice of wheels can help (or hinder) your driving style. If you spend a lot of time off-road (intentionally or by accident), consider a set of huge tyres. Want to gain a lot of speed very quickly on paved areas? Get the smaller ones. I’m wondering if I didn’t notice due to randomly choosing the best tyres for the job, or if it simply doesn’t really make that much difference.

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Either way, there is a whole menu of different changes to make, so even if you treat them as being purely cosmetic, you should be able to trick your ride (or your glide) just the way you like it. In the version I played, most of the three menus (kart, wheels, glide) were blocked out – could there be more than just hang-glider wings tucked away in there?

It’s not just the karts that are customisable, either – for the first time, you can import your very own Mii into the game and cruise around the track alongside Mario, Peach and the gang. Confirmed characters (at this point) include those two, Luigi, Toad, Donkey Kong, Bowser, Yoshi and Koopa Troopa – but again, remember there were blocked-out sections in the character menu, too.

If you’re a fan of racing against real people, you’ve got two choices – local wi-fi with up to eight karts on track, or online via broadband. I didn’t get a chance to check it out, but figure that Nintendo are unlikely to drop the ball on that one.

The Christmas season looms, and Mario Kart 7 is perfect for those back-seat drivers hunched over their 3DS on those family holiday trips. New maps, new vehicles, a stack of unlocks, and a bunch of surprises still in store mean that this one’s should be in pole position on your 3DS wishlist.

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