Being a Nintendo fan for the better part of my 31 years, I’ve known frustration. I’ve been through the gauntlet on NES games, tasted the satisfaction of SNES, felt the burn of multiplayer party games on the N64, GameCube and Wii, and gone it alone on all the handhelds – GameBoy, GameBoy Advance, DS and DSi to name a few. But the 3DS brings a new mix of all those things – frustration, satisfaction, multiplayer fun and portable distraction. So is the story of Mario Kart 7 – a game that has flaws, sure, but is a whole lot of fun – and championed-in a very important 3DS update.

That update included the ability to join friends’ games via the friends list – a vital function of the friends list initially left out. As well, players met through Mario Kart now show up in your Mii Plaza. But these things aren’t as important as the gameplay in Mario Kart 7. After all, it doesn’t matter if you can join a friend’s game if you’re not interested in doing so. It’s good news then, that Mario Kart 7 is loads of fun, despite some quirks and problems, and it’s a really fun game to play with your kids for all of the obvious reasons.The gameplay in Mario Kart 7 is, at its most basic, the same thing you always expect from a Mario Kart franchise game: you race, you shoot stuff at each other, you win, you lose. And if we just took MK7 straight based on that, I’d still be on-board for a near-perfect score. Just fair warning.

Mario Kart 7, however, has a couple of differences that make it a new experience. In this game, your kart is outfitted with both a glider and an underwater propeller. Certain ramps will launch you into the air and let you glide over gaps and portions of the track – and some of these will allow you to bypass sections or find alternate routes. Similarly, when you submerge, a propeller will sprout from your kart and let you race underwater to find new ways to finish tracks. Both gliding and underwater sections come with their own set of physics that work really well. You can also customize your kart with larger and smaller wheels, which change things like handling and off-road ratings. A lot of the customizations are unlocked by collecting coins through Grand Prix mode, which is good for players of all skills.

Now you can glide...a welcome addition

Weapons, as usual, are a mixed bag. You’ll still be using the same shells, mushrooms, bob-ombs and stars, but you’ve also got a couple more weapons to use – namely, the fire flower and leaf. The fire flower lets you to shoot fireballs. The leaf gives you a Tanooki tail and lets you whip other kart racers. Also – everyone’s least favorite weapon – the blue shell – is back. Why?! While in online matches, you don’t see too many blue shells being slung around, single player matches become frustrating with the amount of blue shells you end up taking in the cornhole. You’ve got plenty of time and space in the 50cc races to rebound from a blue shell attack, but once you get up to the breakneck 150cc races, a blue shell can easily take you from first to last place. And since you’re holding a very-portable system, you’ve got to check your rage before you throw your 3DS.

Another new weapon is the “Lucky 7” – where seven of the other items circle your racer. You get to shoot them as you see fit, but if you’re bumped at all, you lose them all, so it’s good measure to start tossing everything at once if you ever get that Lucky 7.

You’ll be playing with 17 characters this time around – which is a slight drop from the last Mario Kart game. This also isn’t really a bad thing because of two reasons – first, you don’t get Baby Mario or Baby Luigi – no big loss. Next, you’re able to race with your own Mii after you play through all of the tracks (provided you get a particular star rating on all of them). So, after about a week or so (okay, more like two days), you’ll be able to race with your Mii – which makes online racing so much more fun. Other (of the 17) characters are unlocked by placing first in the 150cc mode.

Oh wait, we didn’t mention yet that you can race this puppy online? You can! Nintendo finally manned-up their online component on the 3DS – and with a system update that accompanied MK7‘s release, you can now join your friend’s games and play online competitively with people locally or via Wi-Fi across the world! And like I said, this makes using your Mii to race so much cooler – especially when you’re racing with friends. And if you made a new friend or frenemy in a prior game, it’s easy to join their next game.

You’ll also receive “ghost” data from other racers – basically, you’ll get the ability to race against someone else’s record on a track. You can also create custom “communities” where you can decide which mode and items to use. It doesn’t let you customize down to the granular level – so you can’t just use all items except for blue shells and let ‘er rip. But you can decide whether to use items like shells and mushrooms. Communities are a fun addition to online play and ensure you’ve got plenty of new ways to race with a seemingly unlimited pot of contenders. You can also StreetPass with other people. You can see their win/loss ratings and challenge their ghost data.

Since I’ve been talking so much and need time for a quick glass of water, why don’t you watch this trailer for MK7 and we’ll reconvene back here in a sec:

Anywhoo…

The online component of Mario Kart 7 is a huge winner winner red-shell dinner for fans of the series, and that’s not even the end of the story when it comes to the game’s modes. You’re also able to play Balloon Battle – where you try to pop as many of the other racers’ balloons as possible, and Coin Runners, a mode that was in Mario Kart Wii – where you race and try to collect as many – can you guess – coins as possible.

One of the strong suits in the Mario Kart series has been the inclusion of old “retro” tracks – 16 retro tracks total. Every time a new MK game is released, it’s fun to see and race on tracks from the former games – and this new game includes tracks from the more recent Wii and DS games as well as older ones from the SNES, GBA and N64. The new tracks are built completely around these new land-sea-air systems, but little nuances and alternate routes have been added to the older tracks to accommodate the newer functions of your karts that we talked about earlier. All-in-all, there are 32 tracks for racing and another 6 for battle courses.

Probably a mode just for your kids – there’s a driving style that uses the 3DS’ gyroscope. Any time during your race, you can press Up on the D-pad and it’ll put you into first-person view and allow you to steer by tilting the system. Though this can be a fun little novelty for you, it breaks the 3D effect. Nonetheless, your kids will have fun in this more physical mode, and it might help younger kids that don’t have the D-pad mastered but are good at the wheels-on-the-bus-style movement. For old dogs like me, I prefer the traditional view and movement.

Graphics look great – everything’s colorful and crisp – and the 3D is nicely implemented. I find myself not using the 3D too often – but since it’s done well, I’m always tempted to bump it up a little when I play in my dark bedroom before bed. The game’s sounds are tough to rate because most of them are rooted in the generations-of-yesteryear. That being said, they’re all pleasantly appropriate. And if you’re the type that’s got to see it, here you go:

So guess what? Mario Kart 7‘s a great game to play alone – and even better to play with your kids (or with 5 billion of your closest friends online). Though if you have one 3DS, you might have to play “with” them by being a great cheerleader, local and online multiplayer is awesome if you’ve got a couple systems. And new modes and ways to play give players of ever skill-level fun ways to race. This game’s got all sorts of great fun and for long-time fans of the series like me, it’s a total win! For kids, the score is slightly lower – docked points only for the fact that unless they’re total kart-racing beasts, they will be destroyed and dismantled in online multiplayer – even though the game attempts to match you up based on your skill level, I find myself in a whole range of winning and losing matches. I suspect kids will be frequently in last place. Also, because the blue shell is still included in MK7, I’m expressing my disapproval in the score – with both a point off on the parent and kid’s score. The blue shell frustrates everyone and it should be omitted or tweaked in future games.

Otherwise, Mario Kart 7 is a very fun-to-play game and one of the reasons why the Nintendo 3DS is a great system to own and play with your kids!