With Mario Kart 7, Nintendo has finally owned up to the obvious. Yes, this is the seventh game in the series (ninth if you count the arcade versions). And no, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Mario Kart has thrived all these years because its controls are tight; the tracks are well-designed, and it straddles the line between manic and frustrating. Various competitors have tried to add their own take to the kart racing genre over the years, but Mario Kart remains the original and the best kart game for all the reasons above.
So with all that out of the way, let's talk about what Mario Kart 7 brings to the table. Things are a bit scaled back this time around -- bikes are absent in this version, along with their accompanying tricks. And this version obviously puts no focus on motion control.
Instead, you get new add-ons like gliders, which are ostensibly there to add an extra dimension to the tracks. Not a bad idea at all, as I noted in my preview back during E3, but it doesn't go quite as far as I would have liked. I can only think of one instance in which the glider really opens up a previously inaccessible part of a track, and even then it's only to grab power-ups. I had kind of hoped that it would be used to create sprawling tracks that offered multiple options depending on the kart customisation, but that appears to have been a pipe dream. As it is, the new add-ons feel relatively superfluous.
Customisation isn't totally out the window though. As always, the wide variety of karts and characters cater to any number of individual styles; and I like being able to choose between wheels that perform well on pavement versus those that are superior off-road. The tracks themselves are also very good. My personal favourite course ruffed heavily on World 1 of Super Mario Bros., which never gets old. Other courses change from lap to lap, which makes them feel somewhat less repetitive than before. Best of all, drops are comparatively rare until the final cup, which is a godsend for anyone who ever got sick of trying to negotiate tiny causeways at high speeds (like me). Instead, most tracks feature a surplus of obstacles, which generally look more interesting in addition to being less frustrating.
One thing that came to mind while playing through all of the tracks -- why doesn't Mario Kart 7 have a more robust player hub? A few stats can be found in the Mario Kart Channel, but it lacks what I consider essential information, such as how many coins I need to collect before I receive my next new kart or part. I would love it if the next Mario Kart took a page from Super Smash Bros. and went crazy with stats and trophies. All the more reason to keep playing after finishing all of the tracks and collecting my karts.
As usual, Mario Kart 7's longevity rests with its local and online racing. I wasn't able to get an online race in -- kind of tough when it's not out yet -- but the user interface is simple and accessible, and the ability to create a custom Grand Prix is welcome. With luck, snaking -- weaving to achieve a near constant boost -- won't be as prevalent in this version.
At this point, I think everyone's opinion on Mario Kart is pretty much set, and I don't think Mario Kart 7 will change anyone's mind one way or another. It is the quintessential Nintendo party game, and a recommended purchase if you happen to have a friend or two with a 3DS, which should be a bit more likely now that Cyber Monday is over.