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Mario Kart 7: Attaining new heights and depths?

Hands-on with Retro's racer...

Attend a house party hosted by a bunch of 30-something bachelors and you'll find three things, without fail: a copy of Spaced: Season 1 on DVD, a filthy but-somehowunused toasted sandwich maker, and Mario Kart.

Specifically, Mario Kart on N64. We've had seven plumber-based karting titles since then, yet none have endured as party games in the way the SNES and N64 entries have.

Whether it was Double Dash's weird dual-karting set-up, or the Wii game's enormo-tracks and sub-par battle mode, we've had plenty of decent Mario Karts over the last ten-and-a-bit years but no classics. But having had a play of the now officially named Mario Kart 7, we're hopeful that could change soon.

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IT'S GOT WIINGS
The usual suspects were available during the demo - Mario, Luigi, Toad, Yoshi, Peach, Koopa and, of course, Keyser Soze - but this time you'll be able to customise them to your liking. In addition to selecting a kart for your rider (we spied all-rounders, heavy monster trucks and Yoshi-style eggshells) you can also choose from different types of wing and wheel.

Apart from cosmetic changes, however, it wasn't clear what effect any of this tinkering was having on actual gameplay. We tried a couple of different set-ups, and neither felt faster or more sluggish than the other.

We couldn't say the same about the addition of wings and propellers, for gliding and underwater bits respectively. It might sound as heretical as Link swapping his hookshot for a semiautomatic, but you need not be worried about these aerial and, er, Ariel (the mermaid) bits.

For one thing, they're used sparingly. As far as we know, Nintendo and their development cohorts Retro Studios haven't made any courses that are entirely cloud-based or soggy, although we're not wholly averse to the idea. The demo consisted of three tracks - the Mushroom Kingdom, a beachy tropical paradise and a reassuringly bananacrammed Donkey Kong land - and we only encountered a couple of these sky- or sea-based moments.

Oh, and did we mention these new sections are actually pretty great? While there's nothing big or clever about the underwater bits - unless you're weirdly fond of the idea of driving through treacle - on the other hand they do feature the welcome return of deadly clams. Gliding moments, meanwhile, are more Pilotwingsy, letting you experience the hitherto unexplored vertical element of each course.

Upon hitting a ramp and catching some 'wicked' air, your choices are to drift slowly to the ground or to nosedive to terra firma at greater speed. The benefit of the latter is that you hit the track first, although you'll land farther behind your competitors. Perhaps more importantly, you can still use all of your weapons in mid-air (with the possible exception of banana skins, which are likely to plummet straight to Earth).

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Though we've only spent a little time with the mechanics of flight, it already feels as rigorous and skilful as the more traditional driving segments: a worthy addition to the Mario Kart oeuvre.

COIN A PHRASE
Something else you may have noticed in the screenshots: giant gold coins, enough to keep Mario in lasagne for at least a week. These haven't been seen in the series since GBA's Super Circuit, and they seem to perform the same function here. If you manage to grab some, you'll find yourself cruising at a faster clip - though you'll be familiar with this if you've ever seen Formula One.

In truth, the coins are a small addition, but they're indicative of the game's desire to return its roots. Lessons have been learnt from Mario Kart Wii: tracks are tighter and easier to fall off, and power sliding's manual again. We'll say that again, in case you weren't listening: power sliding's manual again. There's no word yet on whether motorbikes will be making a reappearance, although we won't be surprised if they've been given the old heave-ho.

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