The arrival of Mario Kart on the Nintendo 3DS has both the ring of initiation and frustration to it. On the one hand, having yet another core franchise on the console is a further step towards legitimising a device often dismissed as a gimmick. On the other, it still suffers from that uniquely Nintendo problem of being hamstrung by past success.
From the outset you should have a pretty good idea of whether you’re going to enjoy this game or not. If the previous, more or less identical, iterations floated your boat then part seven won’t pull anything funny to put you off. If, for some unfathomable reason, you expected this to be the title to finally strike out boldly and break the mould then you were always gearing up for disappointment.
As has become the tradition, Mario Kart 7 borrows elements judiciously from previous titles then tosses in a handful of new features in the hope it will be enough to justify a whole new purchase. In truth almost every Mario Kart title has failed to make those new elements – usually new characters, items and tracks – particularly substantial, but the unchanging fundamentals of the game are solid enough that we can politely pretend not to notice. In this, Mario Kart 7 is no different.
The first point of difference is the ability to pimp your ride, in a moderate fashion. This is a place the series has slowly been meandering towards for some time but don’t go in expecting the full-on body shop tinkering that has become de rigueur in more serious racing games. Racers select a body, tire and parachute combination to produce a cart with its own subtle mechanical quirks and a shallow level or cosmetic individuality.
On the track you will notice the difference in acceleration, speed and handling as compared to your opponents but, as is the Mario Kart way, knowing the gameplay basics will easily compensate for any statistical variance. And those basics will be immediately familiar to anyone who has even sampled the series before, with various traits imported from the past. The duration-sensitive power slides of Mario Kart DS combine with the speed-boosting coins of Super Mario Kart and trick jumping system of Mario Kart Wii for an experience that can be called neither original or lacking.
The games biggest claim to freshness comes in taking tire off tarmac and launching racers into the air and under the seas. Racing off large enough jumps causes the cart’s hang glider or parachute to deploy, giving you limited control over a quick descent back to track. Similarly you can plunge your vehicle right under water for sluggish alterative routes. Both ideas add exciting new visual elements to the races but fail to alter strategy even slightly; there’s no midair mastery or submarine supremacy to be achieved, just the same workhorse racing as ever.
Where the new twists do shine is in making a case for the handheld’s much maligned 3D abilities. Even when a 3DS game has managed to incorporate 3D visuals well (which has been rare) most games still tend to be a more satisfying and comfortable play with the slider down at 2D. With Mario Kart 7, however, that sense of depth manages to enhance on both an aesthetic and gameplay level to the point it almost seems essential. The ability to see upcoming items and traps in 3D affords a more exact perspective, allowing for pinpoint slalom action that would never feel safe in 2D. And with the dramatic ups and downs of the flying and diving elements the glasses-free depth adds an exhilarating sense of vertigo that no amount of flat animation could replicate.
Even without 3D the game still looks classy as hell, track design is some of the most intricate to date, character animations have been upped beyond casual head tilts and the whole thing runs at a flawless 60fps. Chuck in some comprehensive multiplayer angles (including restricted download play functions) and the production is difficult to fault.
If you can live with the fact that much of what you’re getting you’ve probably already paid for at least once before then Mario Kart 7 is a given for fans of the series. Beyond the recycled gameplay there’s a sense of spectacle the series has never had before backed by the solid production values expected from a Nintendo tent pole. 
Platform: Nintendo 3DS