We're in a gaming era of plentiful patches, where it's common for games to get frequent updates starting on day one. There are some rare releases even today that receive either no updates or very few — unless there are frequent DLC additions — and one of Nintendo's selling points is its focus on detail and quality when it comes to shipped games; for the most part, the company releases titles that are pretty much ready-to-go and not "wait for a few updates to fix things" experiences. Its record is far from spotless, but compared to the majority of developers a version 1.0 first-party release from Nintendo will likely be a relatively smooth experience.
Yet as Mario Kart 7 reaches its 10th anniversary we remembered a particular part of that game's rather humorous and, in hindsight, important legacy. It taught Nintendo that, sometimes, you just have to update a game.
Let's hit pause and, first of all, remind ourselves a little about Mario Kart 7. First of all, the name — it was the first entry in the series to introduce a number, which seemed a little random back then but certainly established a shift for the brand.
Secondly it helped to 'save' the 3DS. The portable endured a poor launch in March 2011, and by that year's Fall / Autumn Nintendo's executives took a major pay cut, the cost of the system was reduced significantly, and early adopters — or 'Ambassadors' — were given 20 free retro games as an apology (10 NES titles that would later come to 3DS Virtual Console, and 10 GBA games that were never officially available on the system by any other means). It was all very dramatic when you consider that Nintendo was coming off the runaway success of the DS and Wii era, and when compared to today's monster profits in the single-platform Switch era.
While Monster Hunter 3 G contributed handily to a late-2011 comeback for 3DS in Japan, the games that joined the price cut for a big push in the West were Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. Suddenly a handheld that was initially perceived to be too expensive and lacking in killer apps was neither of those things, and a steady revival towards respectability was underway which would eventually result in one of Nintendo's most enviable software libraries.
It also helped that Mario Kart 7 was rather good — perhaps not 'best in series' level, but definitely fun either locally or online. It had some truly excellent tracks (a few of which were revived in Mario Kart 8 / Deluxe), with standouts including Music Park / Melody Motorway, Neo Bowser City / Koopa City, Wario Shipyard / Wario's Galleon, Rock Rock Mountain / Alpine Pass and a Rainbow Road that we prefer to the MK8 equivalent (it's less annoying, anyway). And yes, for some reason a bunch of tracks had different names depending on whether you were in EU or NA, presumably as a result of some sort of localisation turf war.
It was a period with a lot of firsts, then, as 'Nintendo Network' (the predecessor to Nintendo Account / Switch Online) found its feet and brought the big N kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
It also moved the series forward in fun ways. Assembling your vehicle with three parts made its debut, as did gliders that helped inform some clever course designs. Online play continued to build on the good work of Mario Kart Wii and added communities, where you could form private lobbies with friends and forum buddies. It had nice little StreetPass and SpotPass features (we still miss them), and let's not forget it was the first MK game that could be downloaded from the eShop, with the 3DS being the first Nintendo system to have retail games available digitally.
It was a period with a lot of firsts, then, as 'Nintendo Network' (the predecessor to Nintendo Account / Switch Online) found its feet and brought the big N kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. There were growing pains, of course, but it was also quite exciting. We even recall the eShop going down on Christmas Day 2011 (which was big news!) as eager new 3DS owners and Mario fans bombarded and crashed the network. Intriguing times.
Mario Kart 7 also established another new trend, as it had a couple of glitches / cheats so bad that Nintendo applied a patch to fix them in online play. It was one of the first times we could recall Nintendo actually issuing a major update to a game; we're aware this is making us sound old...
Like a lot of games MK7 had plenty of glitches and crazy skips that speedrunners and enthusiasts could find, but the issue with one skip in particular was that it was far too easy and completely broke a track. Humorously, there were two like this, including a harder one on Wuhu Loop, and its far more famous brethren Maka Wuhu. Both of these tracks were on Wuhu Island from Wii Sports Resort, and are actually really charming and enjoyable courses; clearly the layout of the tracks led to curious oversights in testing that led to a mini 'crisis' in online play.
Maka Wuhu's glitch was incredibly easy to trigger, as you merely had to drive into the water at a semi-precise point, at which point Lakitu picked you up and dropped you far further along the course — approximately 20 seconds further on. When this started to happen you'd see a few players disappear into the water and their dots then skip ahead on the radar. The internet being what it is, word got around fast and anyone with enough eagerness to read about these things could quickly learn the trick. Suddenly this course transformed, as there'd be races where everyone would dive into the water and skip ahead. It was still a fair race when everyone did it, we suppose, but it sure was silly and against the spirit of the game.
It became normalised to the point that it was the way to complete the track, and Nintendo even said a month after launch that it had no plans to fix it. Then, suddenly, nearly six months after the game's release and a good while after the glitches' discovery, Nintendo issued a patch in May 2012. It stopped the skip (and the less common Wuhu Loop equivalent) in online play. For an entertaining little while, though, not everyone got the memo.
Your humble scribe recalls seeing people diving into the water for a good few weeks after the update, no doubt then baffled when Latiku put them back in the right place. I once even sacrificed a race to watch the spectacle, as some determined racers took a dip, got put back by Lakitu, and then queued up to try it again.
More innocent times, perhaps, but also an early indication that, after initial resistance, Nintendo decided to recognise that not every game is perfect on day one, and that there's no shame in making tweaks post-launch to fix mistakes. In fact, Skyward Sword received its own save data patch for a glitch in the form of a downloadable Wii Channel workaround just before Christmas 2011 — something Nintendo was obliged to fix with a little more alacrity as it was a game-ender.
Nowadays it's commonplace, of course, with Metroid Dread recently issuing a patch that shutdown a tricky speedrunning tactic due to its potential negative impact on normal playthroughs. Maka Wuhu taught Nintendo that, in the world of connected and online gaming, players will find ways to break 'finished' games, and it's better to roll with it and apply fixes.
It was an interesting time, and ultimately Mario Kart 7 did rather well, ending as the best-selling 3DS game on 18.95 million units and having helped the portable achieve a respectable life cycle. It'll forever be in the shadow of its successor across Wii U and, in particular, the Deluxe iteration on Switch — a game so successful that it's still helping to shift record numbers of Switch hardware.
Still, in honour of its first decade, we'll be firing the 3DS entry up for a commemorative dunk in Wuhu river — Happy Birthday Mario Kart 7.