Mario Kart 7 really surprised me. I've come to know the conventions of Mario Kart quite well over the years, having played it since I got into the first game a few years after its release. It's traditionally been a fairly conservative series with only a few minor changes between each game, but some of these changes work quite well. Mario Kart 7, though, has gone beyond the call of duty. For one, the level design is very imaginative and original. Part of it is the result of the involvement of Texas-based Retro Studios, the first time an American company was involved in this traditionally Japanese-developed series. Levels like the sci-fi futuristic city-themed Neo Bowser City, Rosalina's Ice Land, and the Arab-themed Shy Guy Bazaar were conceived by Retro rather than Nintendo, for instance. But still, it's not just the themes that are original, as the level design itself has become more imaginative. Some of the changes in level design were to incorporate the new hangglider attachment feature. On certain ramps, your kart automatically sprouts a hangglider, and you can glide up or down, left or right for a short while. While these moments are temporary, they add variety to every course, and fortunes can sometimes change in midair. Other changes in level design involve changing up the structure of the series. Three of the race courses are divided not into laps, but into "sections". You race through a triple-length course and reach the end, as opposed to looping 3 times. Even the obstacles are more imaginative than they've ever been. An undulating portion of Rainbow Road, a spinning tube in Bowser's Castle that can be ridden inside or on top of, and many more add a lot of surprises and course variety to the game. But Nintendo went one step further and added a Call Of Duty-esque level-up system. Coins collected during races accumulate and allow you to earn unlockable kart parts. You can mix and match kart parts to modify your kart's stats. These aren't upgrades so much as alternatives, as each comes with its own pros and cons. It adds a lot of extra depth to what is still a simple series at its core. Mario Kart 7 is a big step in the right direction for the franchise.
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