'Mario Kart 7' a fun but familiar racer

— -- Creating sequels for popular video games can be tricky: On one hand you don't want to mess too much with the formula that made its predecessors a success, but on the flipside you need to offer enough new features to justify the purchase for longtime fans.

With "Mario Kart 7," Nintendo erred on the side of caution by delivering a very familiar experience to its past games. Sure, it now has 3-D graphics — and with the Nintendo 3DS game system you don't need to wear glasses to see the effect — plus they've added a few other new twists, but for the most part it feels like the same game with a fresh coat of paint.

For some, that's just fine — but be aware of this before you plop down $40 for the cartridge.

As with past games in the series, players first choose a familiar Nintendo character — beginning with Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Toad, Bowser, Koopa Troopa or your own Mii character — before hopping into a kart car to enter a wild, cartoon race. The goal of each match is to reach the finish line through speed and cunning use of weapons, such as dropping bananas on the track to slip up opponents trailing behind or engaging a speed burst to temporarily soar past rival riders.

This time around, you can customize your karts prior to the race by selecting various components — such as the kart frame, wheels and glider type (more on this in a moment). Each choice gives you a slightly different amount of speed, acceleration, weight, handling and off-roading capabilities. After playing around with various options, however, it seems whatever character or kart setup you choose doesn't really change the experience too much. Similar to past "Mario Kart" titles, you'll select from 50cc, 100cc and 150cc races for easy, average or challenging races, respectively.

The various tracks are very well designed as you race down the asphalt, pick up coins and power-ups, drift around tight corners, avoid obstacles and look for alternate tracks, shortcuts and ramps. Courses range from "Mario Kart" classics (Koopa Beach and Luigi's Mansion) to new tracks (Cheep Cheep Lagoon and Shy Guy Bazaar) to ones based on other Nintendo games (Wuhu Island from "Wii Sports Resort" and a jungle level based on "Donkey Kong Country Returns"). You can also unlock a mirrored version of each track.

New to the franchise is the ability to fly through the air at certain points on the course and use the glider to steer your kart back onto the track. At other times you'll submerge underwater with a propeller and resurface a few moments later. These new elements are fun additions, but don't make or break the game.

"Mario Kart 7" is easy and intuitive to control using the analog pad, buttons and triggers, though after a short while my thumb became sore as it held down the acceleration button. The touchscreen isn't utilized much during the game but shows you where your opponents are on the course.

The main single-player mode is Grand Prix, where you're challenged to come in first place in four-course cups. In Time Trials, it's just you on the track as you aim for the fastest time. Balloon Battle has you popping your opponent's balloons. Coin Runners has you collect as many coins on the track as you can. While it sounds lengthy, there isn't a lot of meat here, but fortunately there are fun multiplayer modes for up to eight people.

When it comes to multiplayer, you can create or join a local match — allowing friends to connect wirelessly (even if they don't have the game) — while online multiplayer joins you to a worldwide lobby to find others. Or you can look for specific friends and communities based on preset rules. Before you join you'll see a little flag beside the character's face to see what country they're from. Cool.

The game also supports the Nintendo 3DS SpotPass feature, to wirelessly receive new content pushed to the device, as well as StreetPass, allowing you to exchange game info with other nearby 3DS systems.

Overall, fans of the franchise won't likely be disappointed with "Mario Kart 7," but while it's fun, it's not fresh. Adding 3-D visuals and a couple of new game mechanics help separate it from previous games but racing though these tracks will feel like déjà vu for those who've played other "Mario Kart" offerings.

Mario Kart 7

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Genre: Racing

Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo of America

Web site: www.mariokart7.com

Price: $39.99

Rating: "Everyone"

Score: 3.0 stars (out of 4)

Contact Saltzman at techcomments@usatoday.com .