Nintendo are pretty smart businessmen. They're very confident in their intellectual property - on any given Nintendo console, you'd be had pressed to not find a Mario, Zelda, or Pokémon title. And yet, these releases aren't yearly. In a market where Call of Duty, Need for Speed and Tiger Woods titles see a yearly incarnation to remain relevant, many Nintendo titles are released incredibly infrequently, but still rake in the sales.
With that kind consumer success, Mario Kart 7 - 3DS' bite at the apple - had some lofty expectations. Many complained about how Mario Kart Wii was 'imbalanced' from a competitive point of view, and lately Nintendo have had to go to lengths to get more 'dedicated' gamers on board the Nintendo franchise - most likely in preparation for the WiiU. In that light, Mario Kart 7 had a clear niche to fill.
Yet at the same time, it feels a lot more... technical. Don't worry, I can't make any comparisons to realistic racers like Gran Tursimo with a straight face - but you can now choose the chassis and wheels of your vehicle to fine-tune how you want your car to handle. The new courses featured have co-ordinated drifting in mind, and the trick from Mario Kart Wii where hopping off of jumps to get a free speed boost returns here.
To compare it directly to other games in the series, gameplay-wise this puts MK7 somewhere between Mario Kart DS and Wii; but at the same time it lacks key features from both that made those titles more well-rounded. Beyond the Grand Prix, Time Trials and some forgettable battle modes, there are no additional challenges, while MKDS had a Mission Mode. Even with all the different kart combinations, they all still function the same - the inclusion of Motorbikes in MKWii was very refreshing in that regard.
That said, I don't want to accentuate the negative, here. The nature of games like these mean that they lend easily to be compared to past editions, but that doesn't mean in any way that MK7 doesn't hold up on its own. The karts are satisfying to drive, the new tracks are either fun to burn around or interesting technical challenges. As with games preceding it, 16 of the 32 tracks available are remixed courses from previous titles, but whether that's a good or bad thing is incredibly subjective.
The online functionality does have one neat trick, though. Daily, your 3DS will download new 'ghosts' for you to race against. These are the times achieved by other Mario Kart players, and competing against them is satisfying in a different way from normal multiplayer. With no bananas or shells to lob at opponents, it comes to finding the best racing lines and getting the best use out of the 3 speed-boost mushrooms given to you. With no pressure of being called rubbish by your friends, you ease yourself into actually learning how to play the game better - and knowing what you're doing will improve the enjoyment of any video game.
Lastly, I should mention the gliding and underwater sections. While they featured heavily in the promotion of MK7, they don't have too much of a serious impact on the game. On almost all of the tracks feature a body of water to plough through or a long jump to glide over (courses taken from older games have been retrofitted with these). These sections handle a little differently from normal driving, but they don't require too much finesse to work through. Though honestly, maybe they don't need to - the first time you glide over a gap or submerge yourself is fun, and repeated visits aren't too intrusive.
Nintendo have played very safe with their newest Mario Kart, which - although annoyingly bare-bones - is made with the high-quality the series is known for, and will definitely go towards supporting the presently flagging 3DS system. Just make sure your friends buy it too.