Reviews: Mario Kart

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Virtual racing personified!
For my money, Mario Kart is the greatest racing series in the world, with nary any competition. And that's not just because I've a vested disinterest in realistic racing... it's because it's the most fun you can have pretend-driving a car (or bike, or train). And it stays fun even when you become really good at it due to its unpredictable nature. (Sometimes, in this context "fun" equates to "nut-bustingly unfair", but that's just the way it goes...)

You could be the best pure racer in the room (being completely hypothetical here, guys), and still end up losing because some joker got the right item at the right time. While sometimes frustrating, it's a key part of the experience, and ensures you never reach a level of skill that breeds complacency. There's always some way to better yourself to minimize the damage of such an occurrence, and a little resistance never hurt anyone. It's kept the series fresh and exciting for the better part of 20 years.

Though a minor level of skill (motoric or otherwise) is needed to fully enjoy Mario Kart, the various difficulty levels provided ensure that unless you're completely hopeless, you can still win at it. With a variety of tried-and-true Nintendo characters to choose from, and a number of classic genre levels, there's a little something for everyone. And with the variables provided by different weight class systems and kart models, with some effort you can find the perfect vehicle for your particular playstyle (Daisy Train, go!).

If there's a weak point, it's the series' continuing obsession with often needless innovation. For every good one that comes along, odds are there'll be a couple of mechanics or gameplay eleements accumulated from past games that get the axe. It isn't strictly a Mario Kart-relevant problem—Nintendo has displayed these troubling tendencies in nearly everything made during the past decade; innovation for innovation's sake, basically—but it really shows in this series.

For all the nitpicks and niggles though, fun and excitement has always been a constant factor in the series' continuing and evolving success. It's hard to screw up such a sound basic concept (though copycats have tried and succeeded), and you can basically pick up any game in the series and receive a certain base level of satisfaction. Let's-a go!
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(Mario Kart 7 review) A fantastic evolution for the series
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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