Perhaps Mario Kart 7's swagger stems from Nintendo finally deciding on how the karts should handle, after nearly two decades of experimentation. Six previous Mario Karts have yielded six very different drifting mechanics, but it seems that Nintendo has finally found the biting point they were looking for; Mario Kart 7 controls exactly like Mario Kart Wii on manual settings (sans motorbikes, of course) - not only in terms of the 'weight' of the karts but also in how the mini-boosts are activated (a two-tier system, activated by prolonging your powerslides). You can even pull stunts at the tip of jumps, just as you could in MK: Wii.
In many ways, it's the same game engine, and this is most telling when you revisit the returning Wii retro tracks such as Maple Treeway and Coconut Mall, where you can exhume your old racing lines to instantly rack up decent times. When you stop living in the past and hop into one of the sixteen new tracks however, it's immediately obvious that this is a Mario Kart with a completely different racing ideology.
For all that was good about Mario Kart Wii, you couldn't in a month of shy guys claim that it was much of a competitive racer. Like dogs and their owners, Mario Karts take the form of their host machine, and as such MK: Wii was a party game first and foremost, which every inch of its design crafted to ensure that the odds kept the racing pack bundled in as closely to each other as possible. From there, it was up to the chaos gods to decide who wound up on the podium.
Mario Kart 7 (designed for what's being positioned as a 'hardcore' handheld device remember) doesn't share the same inclination to play nicely with grandma. Quite the opposite. It wants your grandma to tumble down the nearest pit, NOW. Those of you who came into this review via the SNES and GBA roads stand up and applaud, because this one's the meanest, most spirited Mario Kart in quite some time.
To facilitate the attitude shift, Mario Kart 7 has shorn the field from 12 down to eight, a change which impacts on the flow of the races in two substantial ways. Firstly, with a third of the pack out of commission there are noticeably less lightning bolt/star/blue shell shenanigans, meaning the actual racing itself gets some much needed breathing space. More importantly, it also means that Nintendo are able to hem in the wide, open spaces that passed for tracks in Mario Kart Wii.
Courses are tighter and more treacherous than they've ever been in the 3D era, and the track space only gets tighter if you're weak enough to be tempted by the various shortcuts MK7 dangles in front of you. Some, such as the craggy catwalk which promises an express route to the DK Jungle finish line, are only wide enough to accommodate one kart. Something tells us our grandmas will be taking the long route round.
However, canny drivers will never have to worry about sharing track space. The new tracks are positively riddled with shortcuts. Some are glaringly obvious, such as the aforementioned jungle gambit. Others only manifest themselves to the naked eye as seemingly inaccessible boost strips which meet the track where the two routes converge. Many shortcuts were so well hidden that we found ourselves abandoning the race in mid-flight to stop dead in our tracks, hop around on the spot and retrace our steps so we could finally find out where the heck the shortcut's entrance funnels out from.
Many of Mario Kart 7's alternative routes play on the verticality of the courses, and this is where the two most eye-catching new additions to the Mario Kart formula come into play - the hang-gliders which deploy when you get enough air, and the propellers which pop out of the back when you tumble into water.