Games 12/6/11: Mario Kart 7, Carnival Island, Medieval Moves: Deadmund's Quest, Need for Speed: The Run, Age of Zombies: Anniversary

Mario Kart 7
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

“Mario Kart” is the only racing franchise in existence where the worst experience a player has is when he or she leads a race. That misery persists in “Mario Kart 7’s” single-player cups, where opposing racers routinely will pelt you with blue shells and other unavoidably cheap weapons any time you dare control the lead before the finish line comes into view.

Fortunately, “MK7” is — like each of its six predecessors — exponentially best enjoyed when playing against friends (eight players, local wireless or online). That same horror persists, and it’s doubly pronounced with friends whose need to terrorize one another is as paramount as any need to win a race. But when everyone’s tormenting everyone and having a laugh in the process, any pretense about “MK7’s” shortcomings as a pure racing game fall away.

In other words, the seventh “Mario Kart” game isn’t too fundamentally far removed from the first. If you’ve grown tired of the act and wish Nintendo would at least do away with items that require no skill to deploy effectively, you’ll have a bone to pick with this one before you even turn it on. And if you still love the formula, “MK7” finds the series at its prettiest, most versatile and — thanks to 16 new tracks that are all kinds of inspired in their design — most elaborate.

Though they range from cosmetic to curious, there are still changes to the formula worth noting. “MK7’s” courses — the new ones as well as the 16 remastered tracks Nintendo hand-picked from just about every previous game — include stretches set underwater and in the air. In terms of locomotion, neither is a game-changer: You glide in the air and drive with some drag underwater. But the extra surfaces add vertical alternate paths to courses that already have horizontal shortcuts to seek out. A single track can have racers simultaneously racing beneath the surface, atop it and high above on a rooftop.

Nintendo also takes a nudge in the right direction with a couple new items, the tanooki tail and fireball, that allow you some measure of defense against shells and other weapons. The blue shell and lightning bolt remain invincible as ever, but hey, baby steps. The truly lucky will get the new Lucky 7 item, which grants a seven-piece variety pack of items to deploy as needed.

In the “funny but probably useless” column, you can toggle a new first-person view that lets you steer by turning the 3DS like a steering wheel. The viewpoint puts you at a competitive disadvantage and negates “MK7’s” 3D effects, which are the most eye-pleasing of any 3DS game thus far. But it’s amusing, a little exciting and, in a multiplayer session where everyone agrees to drive that way, potentially riotous.

In terms of features, “MK7” delivers what’s expected of it. The Grand Prix has eight cups of four races each, and completing each difficulty tier unlocks new characters, including your Mii. Collecting coins across all modes unlocks new kart parts, which you can mix and match to create the kart of your speedy, weighty and stylish dreams. Time Trials and Balloon/Coin battle modes return, though the excellent Mission mode from “Mario Kart DS” does not.

“MK7’s” online component also comes through with lag-free racing and a polished interface that makes it easy to race against friends, recent opponents or random strangers. The Community mode is particularly nice, as it allows you to set up an always-open lobby for friends to access as they please, though you’ll have to create separate communities different race and battle modes.

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Carnival Island
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Magic Pixel Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Zindagi Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Every motion control system needs its own collection of carnival-themed minigames, and “Carnival Island” would appear to be the Playstation 3’s me-too equivalent. But the hand-drawn animation that opens the game’s story mode suggests there’s more to this collection than simple imitation, and while that isn’t all the way true, it bears out to an encouraging degree.

“Island” features seven carnival standbys — frog bog, skeeball, hoops, coin/ring/baseball toss and shooting gallery — in its base offerings, and because the Move controller is just plain more precise than the Wii remote or Kinect, the games work exactly as you’d expect and respond to your motions precisely as they should.

The responsive controls are, naturally, “Island’s” most important virtue. But the game’s best asset lies in the way it breaks from convention in designing 28 additional games simply by rearranging those seven base games.

While some of these variants are simple tweaks to the rules or the way the playing field is arranged, others — replacing the baseball with a swingable wrecking ball, turning the skeeball lane into a slot machine, providing frogs you can steer in the air after launching them with the frog bog — are considerably more clever. Many of them exercise enough creativity to feel like different games entirely instead of mere offshoots.

“Island’s” four-player multiplayer (offline only, sadly) very obviously positions it as a party game, but it bears repeating that the story campaign — about a dormant carnival you gradually return to life — is legitimately charming as a solo endeavor. If you like a challenge, all 35 games include a checklist of bonus objectives to complete, and many of them are certifiably tough. Naturally, because this is a carnival, you’ll win tickets from games that let you collect prizes for your character and unlock a few exhibits (a magic mirror, for instance) that are just for fun.

At first blush, “Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest” appears to have nothing in common with “Island” past its controller. But like “Island,” its best asset is the way it adopts a genre (light gun shooter) that’s part and parcel with motion controls and takes it down a novel new road.

In “Quest,” Deadmund (a friendly skeleton fighting unfriendly skeletons, and the story explains all) handles the walking while you handle the rest — swordplay, arrows, throwing stars, dynamite, a grappling hook and a periodic jump, duck or gear turn. You can choose which path Deadmund should take when he reaches a fork in the road, but otherwise, he moves forward automatically.

The resemblance there to light gun shooters is unmistakable, as are “Quest’s” enemy formations and the way it scatters bonus items you can pick up if you’re quick enough to do so before Deadmund runs past them.

But Deadmund’s arsenal makes “Quest” a much more versatile and lively experience than your typical shooter, particularly because you can mix attacks as freely as you like. Swordplay is ideal for close-quarters combat, and how you wield the Move controller is how Deadmund will wield his sword and shield. Imitating a quill-pulling motion allows Deadmund to shoot arrows at faraway enemies, while a quick sideways fling of the controller lets him throw stars at advancing enemies.

“Quest” intuitively maps all these tasks to one controller, but if you have two, it’s best enjoyed that way. The sword and shield are assigned to separate wands, alleviating the need to hold a button to use the shield, and shooting arrows is more fun when you imitate the bow motion with two controllers instead of point the one at the screen like a gun.

Either way, though, “Quest” is terrific fun — more an arcade game than what typically constitutes a quest in video game terms, but a fast, active adventure that is too nimble and seamless to feel gimmicky.

“Quest’s” storyline is a solo endeavor, but a separate Battle mode — designed primarily around surviving formations of enemies in an arena you can zip through using the grappling hook — offers competitive and cooperative play for one or two players (online or splitscreen). It’s simple, but it’s fun for the same reasons the story is fun, and a persistent leveling system gives it legs by letting you upgrade weapons and unlock new characters as you accrue experience.

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Need for Speed: The Run
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Windows
From: EA Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

If “Need for Speed: The Run” was a sitcom plot device instead of a game, it’d be that one where a character makes a list of pros and cons and fills out both sides of the paper doing so. Great mechanics and a cool premise — a coast-to-coast, “Cannonball Run”-esque race — do battle with some regrettable design choices, and while “The Run” ultimately comes out ahead, the final score is closer than it should’ve been.

The benefits of driving cross-country are obvious, even if the story that creates the opportunity is drab. (Happily, the much-maligned on-foot chase sequences — interactive cutscenes that look flashy and push the story but aren’t fun to play — are so short and infrequent as to not even factor.)

“The Run” takes place in the United States as we know them, and while it’s doled out in stages instead of as a single, uninterrupted cruise, the recreations of numerous locales are extremely visually impressive. The premise also provides some considerable terrain variety, with San Francisco’s hilly streets and Colorado’s slippery mountains demanding different disciplines than South Dakota’s straightaways, downtown Chicago’s sharp corners and New Jersey’s perilously tight alleys.

“The Run’s” breadth of vehicles and tuning options is narrower than the norm, but it offers a satisfactory array of cars built to handle different surfaces and weather. The tug of war that ensues between responsive handling and the perennial sense of being one twitch away from disaster will strike some simply as less-than-optimum handling controls, but it does make for an exciting (and visually impressive) time on the road. The opposing driver A.I. is similarly polarizing: It brazenly rubberbands at points where a close finish makes for good drama, but you may not appreciate driving a spotless race that still finds an opposing driver cutting a 10-second lead down to nothing in seemingly no time.

“The Run’s” boldest idea comes with its attempt to treating a racing game like an action game. You get a limited number of resets (lives, basically) per event, and each event has a handful of checkpoints that you’ll revert to if you wipe out. Considering every event is pass/fail — if you don’t outright win that stretch of the race or complete the event’s objective, you have to redo it — it’s a novel, sensible approach.

Occasionally, though, you’ll get pegged for a reset simply by driving a little bit too off-road at the wrong time. Other times, the same offense doesn’t trigger a reset. “The Run’s” definition of out of bounds is frustratingly arbitrary, especially considering most tracks have approved shortcuts that reward you for going off the track.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the reset process wasn’t so obnoxious. “The Run” has deflatingly long load times between events, but it also frequently takes forever to load your last checkpoint in the middle of a race. Couple that with a supremely annoying reset loading graphic that flashes like a strobe while you wait seemingly ages for a chance to try again, and the mechanic’s intentions of maintaining momentum completely backfire.

That seemingly innocuous issue is the spark that ignites the fire that will polarize those who find “The Run” exhilarating and those who find it antagonizing and frustrating.

“The Run’s” story is fairly brief, but the game complements it with a lot of challenge events that reward medals instead of impose pass/fail restrictions. Online multiplayer (eight players) is pretty straightforward, but the inclusion of the Autolog social network — a persistent interface that makes chasing friends’ times in single-player events as much fun as racing them directly online — gives the game plenty of legs for those who like its methods and wish to master them.

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Age of Zombies: Anniversary
For: iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (universal app)
From: Halfbrick Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes)
Price: $3

With respect to the angry birds and that cute “Cut the Rope” monster, no character’s ascension through the App Store has been as fun to witness as that of the Bruce Campbell-esque Barry Steakfries. His personality, and the sense of humor that drives it, are what transformed “Age of Zombies” into something more than just another twin-stick shooter with zombies in it. If you played that game, you should know “Age of Zombies: Anniversary” isn’t a sequel, but rather a graphical remaster of the original game that’s designed to take advantage of iPad and Retina Display-equipped iPhone screens. You can decide yourself whether a pretty new wrapper is worth a second purchase. If, however, the whole experience is new to you, “Anniversary” is worth a look. As a (virtual) dual-stick shooter, it’s fundamentally faithful to genre conventions. But those other games don’t necessarily have this game’s personality, and “Anniversary’s” storyline — which finds Barry traveling to different time periods to conquer cowboy zombies, gangster zombies, future zombies and more — is pretty funny. The weapon variety is high, as is the opportunity to chain together considerable chaos for high scores, and the game’s polish — from control responsiveness to graphics to support for iCloud save data syncing — belies the price tag.