A game doesn't have to be brave to be great. Mario Kart 7 is about embellishments rather than radical innovations, refinement over restructuring. That's not to say it's lacking in ideas – on the contrary, it introduces a number of creative tweaks that build upon the weaponised racing formula established in the 1992 original without compromising its inherent simplicity. One or two additions may be little more than throwaway gimmicks, but no matter. This is a brilliantly designed video game in its own right, and perhaps the most comprehensive and well-balanced Mario Kart to date.
Its signature new feature, as made clear by the misleadingly bland boxart, is the glider that unfolds from each kart as you take to the skies. Instead of merely allowing you to enjoy the scenery – though that's a pleasant side-effect of this in-flight entertainment – you have a number of choices while airborne. You could swoop down quickly, accelerating all the while to hit the ground running, or remain airborne a little longer, collecting coins (more on those later) and scoping out alternative routes – like veering right to hit the rooftop boost strips on Daisy Hills, for example. It's surprising how much they add to the experience, to the point where you'll miss them on the flatter tracks.
Underwater racing is not quite as interesting, slowing the action down slightly - which the sluggish 50cc mode really doesn't need. Otherwise it's entirely harmless, merely allowing you to misjudge the odd jump or corner and avoid Lakitu having to fish you out. He still carries a rod to rescue you from lava and fatal plunges into the track-side abyss, mind.
Yet the presence of these aquatic sections does help to vary the level design in what are among the most interesting new Mario Kart tracks in a long time. Most are themed after Nintendo characters, from the Middle East market streets of Shy Guy Bazaar to the delicate glaciers of Rosalina's Ice World. All are packed with shortcuts and alternative routes, some of which are accessible through judicious use of mushrooms, and others merely by veering off the beaten track at the right time. Often you'll spot a route only when you're past the entrance, and make a mental note to find it on the next lap, only to struggle to locate it: one or two are extremely well-hidden and the very best shortcuts require precision driving to negotiate - a strip of narrow boost platforms on Wuhu Island being a case in point.
Yes, the world's blandest holiday destination is here for two tracks and a battle mode arena, but credit to Nintendo EAD for finally making the resort an interesting place to visit, if only because you're whizzing through it at high speed. Wuhu also heralds a new approach to track design - rather than laps, both courses are one long strip, split into three distinct sections of track. The same goes for a gorgeous new take on Rainbow Road, which sees you fly off the multicoloured ribbon of track and onto a bouncy, cratered moon, via the rings of a Saturn-like planet and a string of floating star portals. Other traditions are rather unnecessarily upheld: the new DK Jungle and Bowser's Castle environments are among the least interesting tracks. Next to Koopa City - a rain-lashed, frost-blue futuristic environment - they feel relatively bland.
Thankfully, they're a rare exception. Each course is full of delightful touches, from the kart-triggered tones that sound as you arc around the giant piano, xylophone and glockenspiel of Melody Motorway, to the Wii Sports Resort theme fading behind the sound of the wind rippling your glider wings on the vertiginous descent from Wuhu's Mount Tenganamanga. Elsewhere you'll see Mario Galaxy's penguins racing beneath the ice, tiny Bonefins swimming toward the camera, and Olimar's spaceship parked beside Rainbow Road. And you can immediately tell when a new track has an underwater section, because Lakitu will start the race wearing a snorkel.