Did Nintendo Rush Mario Kart to the Finish Line?
Monday, December 26, 2011 3 Comments
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you’re probably aware that the 3DS had a pretty rocky start following its spring debut. With too ambitious of an initial price tag and a complete lack of quality software, it’s pretty obvious to see why the system struggled. It wasn’t until summer when things for the system really turned around, thanks to the combined efforts of the Zelda and Star Fox remakes, and the added push of a hefty price drop. I think it’s this early pressure that lit a fire under Nintendo’s first-party development houses to start cranking out their flagship franchises even faster than they had anticipated. Do I think this may have effected the quality of Mario Kart 7? Absolutely.
Now I should probably make one thing clear: do I think Mario Kart 7 is bad? Not at all. Do I think it could have been better provided a few more months of dev time? Definitely. There are a ton of odd design choices that really limit the enjoyment you can get out MK7’s overall experience.
Let me start with the basics. Mario Kart 7 hosts the standard 32 tracks, 16 remakes and 16 brand new courses, just as we’ve come to expect from the past two iterations of the franchise. The new courses are a ton of fun, and standout tracks like Music Park, Neo Bowser City (I’m always a fan of the Bowser levels), and an incredible Rainbow Road provide plenty of adrenaline-fueled races for you to enjoy. The new tracks will sport both in-air and underwater sections, debuting the new glider and underwater propeller attachments to your kart, respectively. There’s also a nice mix of some old favorites, including Koopa Troopa Beach (N64), Waluigi Pinball (DS), Koopa Cape (Wii), and one of my personal favorite tracks ever, Airship Fortress (DS). So, as far as the track selection goes, Mario Kart 7 gets everything right (except for the few boring Wii Sports/Pilotwings Resort inspired tracks), and brings the same quality of levels you’ve come to expect from the series.
For whatever reason, somebody at Nintendo decided to take all those awesome characters you looked forward to unlocking in past versions of Mario Kart, and completely throw them out the window. Mario Kart Wii sported a hefty mix of 33 awesome characters, and MK7 whittles that down to just 17, with most of the unlockable drivers being complete and utter wastes of fucking time. Seriously, who’s going to choose Queen Bee or Wiggler? I have no idea why they were included and yet a series staple like Dry Bones was completely left out. Bowser Jr., Baby Mario/Luigi, and even Waluigi, among others, are nowhere to be found. Not that anyone really gives a shit about Waluigi in all honesty, but we should have at least the option to select that often neglected evil-twin-of-a-twin. Throw in the fact that you can only unlock characters by winning a 150cc grand prix and nothing else, you can expect that both new-comers and veterans alike might be a bit irked in the end.
Also missing from MK7 are a few of the series’ tried and true weapons. Strangely absent are the series’ fake item box bombs, and item-stealing Boo. The mega mushroom, POW block, and thundercloud that debuted in Mario Kart Wii are also gone without a trace. Replacing these pieces of the puzzle are the I’m-kinda-getting-tired-of-seeing-it-everywhere-already Tanooki tail, the fire flower, and the Lucky-7 curse/blessing/holy-shit-wtf-is-happening. The fire flower rules, just like the fireball special from Double-Dash, it bounces forward or backward on the track, and forces its victim to spin out. I would have liked the Tanooki tail to do a little more, unfortunately it just ends up being a tail-whip used to spin out close competitors, deflect oncoming weapons and kinda keeps you in the air a little longer in the glider sequences. The Lucky 7 consists of a red shell, green shell, banana, star, blooper, mushroom, and a bomb, which you can fire at will depending on which item is directly in front of your character when you pull the trigger. If anyone comes too close though, they’ll likely trigger the bomb, and you’ll both end up getting knocked back in the race and spewing swear words.
Mario Kart 7 is the first time in the series you can actually customize your kart completely. Though each piece is unlocked at random (annoying), you can gather different kart bodies, wheels, and gliders. You unlock each piece by collecting hundreds of coins found on the various tracks. Unfortunately, you can only collect ten coins per race, so farming coins for unlocks can be ultra tedious, but luckily, they can be gathered across all game types: single-player, multiplayer, or online.
That leads me to my biggest problem with Mario Kart 7: the online mode. Mario Kart DS had an awesome, albeit basic online mode, and so did the Wii entry, but somehow, the online in 3DS seems to be taking a big step back. There’s STILL no lobby mode, and no easy way to connect with your online pals. There’s an option in the menus to see your friends list, but it doesn’t tell you if each friend is online or not unless they’re mid-race, or what game type they’re playing. There’s no way to start a lobby and wait for your friends to join before starting the matchmaking process, instead you have two less-than-stellar options: You can either start playing online and hope and pray your buddy will be able to join your game in progress, or create a community indexed by a 14-digit code. Both options are flawed. I started playing a random match online which ended up having only 6 drivers, and my friend was unable to join. So I thought, hmm, maybe the online-mode supports up to only 6 players? Nope, next match had 7 drivers, yet my friend still couldn’t join. Your other option is to create a community, where you can race only the people that have that pesky 14-digit code. You can customize a few options with a community, but even with these options there’s still no way to get rid of those bastard blue shells.
Although Mario Kart 7 is still a blast to play, the online mode feels dated, and with this being Ninty’s big foray into the 3DS’s online experience, I can’t help but feel let down in the end. Mario Kart is something you’ll undoubtedly play for years, and unless the Big N decides to finally get into the business of title updates to improve this experience (which they’re more than capable of with the 3DS), we’re going to have to deal with this headache for a long time. The promise of fully customizable kart options feels a little lackluster in the end as well, with only 35 total parts (including stock), and no way to strategically unlock the parts you want. All in all, though the gameplay is in tact, MK7’s design choices end up making the game feel rushed, and unfortunately, doesn’t bode well for all the promises Nintendo’s making of catching up with its competitor’s online experiences.
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