Although the two new gameplay types have received equal billing, there's a definite pecking order on the race track - the higher you are, the better off you'll be. That's why it's so satisfying to shoot a fellow glider out the sky with a mid-air green shell, or shunt a title rival into the traction-challenged, penguin-infested waters of Rosalina's Ice World.
Although the worry in some quarters was that the new bolt-ons would dilute the racing, in practice it only enhances the classic Mario Kart mayhem; instead of forcing the recipient to silently fume as Lakitu hauls their caboose out of the drink, they're forced to dust themselves off and rejoin the race on a disadvantageous racing line. It's already caused several permanent rifts in the CVG office, and with link-up play supporting up to eight 3DS consoles, we expect there will be tears before hometime for a long, long while to come.
Mario Kart 7's 16 native tracks offer enough variety that the potential of both the hang-gliding and the aquatic sections are properly realised, but what's impressive is how well the new mechanics mesh with the 16 retro tracks, too. Excellent work here from Donkey Kong Country Returns developers Retro Studios, who were tasked with retrofitting the old courses with rampways and dampways - many of the returning tracks are not only capable of supporting the gliders, but are actually enhanced by them.
How better to start off a round of DS Waluigi Pinball, for example, than with an eight-way joust in the sky? On the other hand, underwater sections had never previously featured in a Mario Kart, but a few timely alterations mean that the propellers can come out to play too.
GCN Daisy Cruiser's locker is now a flooded haven for snap-happy clams, for instance. The remaining courses play up to the 3DS' impressive stereoscopic screen. DS Airship Fortress' Bullet Bills are suitably intimidating as they fly into the screen, while the ripple effect which occurs when SNES Rainbow Road's Star Thwomps hit the ground has to be seen to be believed.
Lairy Tail Ending
There's one other major difference that distances Mario Kart 7 from Mario Kart Wii - the items themselves. Almost all the goodies introduced by MK Wii have been discarded - so its farewell to the Raincloud, Mega Mushroom, POW Block and other gimmicky items which although fun, were introduced primarily to keep everyone at level pegging. In their place, a range of tactical options which Nintendo won't be able to dispose of so easily. These are the best additions to the arsenal since the original cast of bananas and mushrooms were formed.
The Leaf, which allows you to sideswipe foes with a newly-sprouted racoon tail, is our favourite. On first impressions, it's primarily an offensive weapon, but a little on-track experience soon reveals its surprising true nature; it's best employed as a defensive safeguard against on-coming shells or unseen bananas.
It's much more effective than the previous technique of dangling an item behind you (as it can take out hazards approaching from all angles), but since you can only hold on to it for a certain amount of swipes, a new game of cat and mouse develops. How long can you go without activating it, and can you time your swipe correctly when a red shell is quite literally on your tail? While powersliding down a grand piano?
The Fireflower on the other hand is more of a short-distance barrage weapon - a sea of bouncing nuggets of inaccurate flame that can be lobbed either behind or in front of you as needs must. At its most useful, it's Mario Kart's equivalent of a battering ram - foes hoarding a barrier of green shells (or the Lucky 7 item) can be disarmed sharpish with a few well-aimed blobs of hotness. Finally, there's the Lucky 7.