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Super Mario Kart: The Complete History Of Nintendo's Kart Racer

Darran Jones

Feature


With Mario Kart 7 out this week, we look back at the history of Nintendo's kart racer.

Published on Nov 28, 2011

Mario is easily one of the most versatile videogame characters of all time. Despite being a plumber by trade we’ve never actually seen him lift a wrench in his 28 years of appearing in games.

We have, however, seen him rescuing princesses, defeating giant apes, beating seven bells out of other famous Nintendo mascots, and taking part in seemingly every sporting event known to man – everything from golf to football.

Perhaps our favourite Mario pastime though is when the plucky plumber decided to put rescuing Princess Peach on hold and instead participated in a bout of racing that not only kick-started a brand new genre and became one of the SNES’s most popular games, but also grew into a massive worldwide franchise that’s still immensely popular today.

That game, of course, was Super Mario Kart, a dazzling slice of old-school gameplay that transported Mario and some of his closest friends – and enemies – to a selection of brilliantly designed Mode 7 racetracks and proved that there was more to the portly hero than simply lobbing fireballs and bashing blocks.

Overseen by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Kart transported you into Mario’s world, surrounded you with instantly recognisable places and characters from the Mushroom Kingdom and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Miyamoto was a living, walking videogame genius.

After all, here was a game that was vastly different to anything else that the plumber had originally appeared in (although he’d already made a successful outing on the golf course) and yet it still felt just like a Mario game.

Levels like Mario Circuit with its green pipes, the Boos circling the Ghost Valley tracks, the Cheep Cheeps that infested Koopa Beach, the way races ended and finished with Lakitu, who was also on hand to rescue racers who had fallen off the track; Super Mario Kart just felt instantly familiar and gave the impression that Mario and the rest of his rivals had been born to kart from their very inception.

The game that started it all, it's amazing to see how far the series has come.

If Super Mario Kart’s familiarity was critical to its success (it eventually sold over 8 million units to become the third bestselling game on the SNES after Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country) then the perfectly balanced gameplay proved to be just as important.

A wonderfully structured difficulty mode, starting off with simple 50cc karts, eased you into Mario’s new pastime, while three progressively tougher cups – Mushroom, Flower and Star Cups, all consisting of five tracks each – slowly marked your transition from plumber on a mission to four-wheeled wonder.

Once you’ve successfully completed the first 15 courses on the 50cc difficulty you can then progress to the faster, nippier 100cc and 150cc difficulty settings and attempt the five tricky tracks that make up the final Special Cup (it’s worth noting that the cups in later games consisted of just four tracks each).

It’s a relatively simplistic formula to be sure, but the expertly crafted difficulty of each cc class is beautifully structured and offers a distinct new challenge that few other racers of the time were able to match.

It should come as no surprise then to learn that the cc system has appeared in every Mario Kart game since (with the sole exception of Mario Kart Arcade GP).

Arguably one of the most impressive aspects of Super Mario Kart, though, was its actual track design, which for many (us included) has never been as good in later games as it was in the original.

Short and tightly designed, they constantly tested the player’s mettle, featured some excellent shortcuts and boasted endless replayability. Little wonder then that we’ve spent more time on Super Mario Kart’s Time Trial mode than any other since (although Mario Kart DS comes pretty close).

The levels of the original were keenly designed around existing locations or characters from the Mushroom Kingdom.

We’ve lost count of the many hours lost to Mario Circuit 1, Koopa Beach 1 and we can only guess how many appointments we were late for because we were too busy perfecting our laps on Rainbow Road, Bowser Castle 3 and Ghost Valley 1.

While later editions of Mario Kart featured ghosts that you could race against, the simplicity and sheer cleverness of Super Mario Kart’s track designs still hold an inescapable allure for us.

If Super Mario Kart’s Time Trials were great fun, the main Grand Prix mode proved to be no less enjoyable, and while it only supported two players (something many clones were quick to improve on) it nevertheless proved to be excellent.

When racing on your own the screen was split in two with the lower half either showing whoever was behind you or letting you see the entire course and your competitors’ current positions.

While racing was the order of the day, a variety of items, ranging from mushroom speed boosts to red homing Koopa shells were also on offer, which really allowed you to get the drop on your opponents.

Far better balanced than in later editions of the game, certain items could give you a huge lead, but were never so broken that they made it impossible for you to ever get back in first place if you were languishing at the back of the pack.

Last, but by no means least was Super Mario Kart’s Battle mode, which pitted you against a second player and had you trying to burst their three balloons before they did the same to you. Again, it’s an incredibly simple concept but the small arenas kept the action wonderfully tense and proved to be almost as fun as the Time Trial mode.

There were many Super Mario Kart clones, but Street Racer added a little Wacky Races fun to the template.

Super Mario Kart not only proved that Mario was one of gaming’s most versatile characters, but set a precedent on the machine that no other racer (by Nintendo or otherwise) on the SNES was able to match.

It remains many gamer’s favourite game in the franchise – and rightly so – but Miyamoto and the rest of the Mario team were only just starting to get warmed up...

When Mario Kart 64 arrived on the scene in December 1996 (for the Japanese at least), expectation was predictably, some might say impossibly, high.

While some will no doubt argue that the original Super Nintendo effort remains the gleaming jewel in a sparsely fitting crown – the franchise includes just eight games – there can be no denying that Mario Kart 64 set the groundwork for the Mario Kart we know today and a lot of elements from the N64 game have become recurring themes in the series.

The cc difficulty modes were still in place, the number of laps you needed to complete permanently dropped from five to three (although Baby Park on Double Dash!! upped the ante to seven laps), the courses themselves tended to be a lot bigger, while coins no longer made an appearance.

Four-player racing was now supported, ghost riders could be raced against in the Time Attack mode – providing you had a memory card – while it was also possible to unlock mirror tracks.

Then there was the addition of the mini-boost (created by rapidly pushing left and right after a hop), which, when used correctly could be an amazing way of accelerating out of some of the tracks’ many sharp corners and became a deadly tool in the hands of skilled players. The Special Cup returned, but this time there was also a Mirror mode, for all tracks, that was waiting to be unlocked.

There original Rainbow Road was a string of technicolour bends with no barriers.

Originally known as Super Mario Kart R, another new addition to the series that has since become a Mario Kart standard was that the available racers were split into distinct categories.

It’s worth noting that the original Super Mario Kart manual uses Standard Performance (Mario and Luigi), Fast Acceleration (Peach and Yoshi), High Top Speed (Bowser and DK Jr) and Good Control (Koopa Troopa and Toad).

Lightweights, which included Toad, Princess Peach and Yoshi, Middleweights appeared in the form of Mario and Luigi, while Bowser, Donkey Kong and Wario – making his first appearances in the franchise – represented the Heavyweight division.

Lightweights boast excellent acceleration and a solid top speed, but aren’t so strong on corners, Middleweights are great for beginners due to their overall dependency in all areas, while the heavyweights lack good acceleration but grip to the track like flies on honey.

Their huge size also makes them great for barging through smaller players and they tend to be the most popular choices when playing Battle mode.

The biggest difference to the franchise though was the transition from 2D to 3D, which greatly affected how the game played. While the Mode 7 courses of Super Mario Kart were brilliant, but in their design and execution, the move to the third dimension provided changes to the series that just hadn’t been possible before.

Huge ramps, rolling hills, deadly pits, curved corners that slowly graduated in height. It not only made a huge difference to how the series looked (although the racers and items remained as 2D pre-rendered sprites), but also to Mario Kart 64’s overall racing.

Despite looking the part, Rainbow Road on the N64 was an overlong mess of bends and jumps.

While Mario Kart 64 set many standards for the series that have now become common practice, it remains (along with Mario Kart: Double Dash!!) one of the most controversial games in the franchise, not least because it was the first game in the series to dispense with the incredibly popular feather power-up (although screenshots from Super Mario Kart R suggest it was dumped at the last minute) and ushered in the reign of the Blue Shell.

Seen by many as nothing more than an unfair cheating device, the Blue Shell (which is spiked in both Mario Kart 64 and Super Circuit) was only picked up if you were placed further back and will hurtle down the centre of the track taking out anyone that got in its way, until it reached whoever was in first place (this was changed to a flying blue shell in later editions that could unerringly fly into first place to leave an explosion that would take out nearby players).

Then there was the way that a computer player was barely troubled by fired weapons and could literally nip off again at full speed upon getting hit (a player on the other hand would come to a complete stop and have to slowly build up their speed again).

Ultimately, Mario Kart 64 divided the fans of the original game simply because it had now become obvious to many that the series was now being pushed as a party game to enjoy with your mates instead of the pure racing that had been so apparent in the first game.

Of course, we ourselves feel this is utter tosh. The ability to race against your own ghosts and the mastering of the new turbo boost – powersliding has been in the series since Super Mario Kart, but Mario Kart 64 was the first time using it gave you a benefit – meant that single-player racing was just as exciting as it had ever been.

Nevertheless the dye had been cast for the rest of the series, which probably explains why certain people feel that more recent outings have never retained the pureness of the 16-bit original.

The original had some cleverly designed traps in most levels.

If some remained disappointed by the franchise’s transition to 3D, the release of Mario Kart Super Circuit in 2001 was greeted by audible sighs of relief from those who had been upset with the unfair elements that had crept into Mario Kart 64.

Super Circuit was also the first game in the Mario Kart series that wasn’t handled exclusively by Nintendo, as Intelligent Systems was given the keys to the precious licence. Needless to say, the talented Japanese developer did not let Nintendo, Mario or fans of the series down.

Although Super Mario Kart’s excellent feather remained annoyingly absent from the game and the blue, spiked shell remained frustratingly present, Super Circuit represented a refreshing return to form for the series that once again saw the focus shift from frenzied, party play to the time trials and pure racing of Super Mario Kart.

Of course, part of this change could have possibly been down to the change of developer or even to the fact that Super Circuit’s admittedly excellent multiplayer mode just wasn’t that readily available to most players.

Four Game Boy Advances, four copies of the game and relevant leads were all needed to get the full Super Circuit experience, so the lack of resources meant that many would instead focus on Super Circuit’s single-player modes.

Luckily, the single-player elements had been suitably beefed up and the end result was a title that was as deeply layered as any onion and would take months of bus rides to fully complete.

Although the eight racers from Mario Kart 64 were all present and correct there were still plenty of new elements to consider as you hurtled round brilliant tracks like Shy Guy Beach and Cheep Cheep Island.

It would only be fitting that Mario's greatest rival tried to jump on board the kart racing scene.

The most obvious was the addition of a fifth cup (the Lightning Cup) and the ability to receive a powerslide boost by simply holding down the hop button – no doubt because waggling away on the Game Boy Advance’s tiny D-pad would have been a nightmare.

Coins also returned for a second hoorah but now they held a more important role than simply boosting your top speed, as they were also used to unlock the greatest addition to the Mario Kart series – namely the return of classic tracks.

Once you’d completed a set of cups and then raced through them again while collecting 100 coins, you came to what was arguably Super Circuit’s greatest asset: the ability to play through all 20 tracks from Super Mario Kart.

Recognising not only the fans who had been upset with the direction of Mario Kart 64, but that the original game itself was a true classic, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo’s decision to include those 20 classic raceways is something we’re still eternally grateful for.

Yes, there were a few subtle alterations – the absence of the feather, for example, meant that you’d never be able to obtain the same scores you had tirelessly achieved on the original SNES game – but it was a fantastic inclusion that quickly became a series standard.

Arguably one of the greatest additions to any new Mario Kart game these days is seeing just how classic tracks will translate over to the new games. It’s a great inclusion and one that we wish other games would adopt.

It should be noted, however, that no matter how many times the original tracks have returned, they’ve never been quite as good as they were on the SNES (another indication of the game’s utter brilliance).

With more powerful hardware came improved level design. Bowser's Castle can still be tricky to this day.

Big Nintendo franchises follow their latest machines as surely as night follows day, so there was little surprise from the gaming community when Nintendo revealed that an all-new Mario Kart experience would be appearing on its GameCube.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! proved to be the boldest outing for the franchise yet, and while it appears to now share the same love/hate affair that Mario Kart 64 still invokes, it nevertheless remains a great addition to the popular franchise.

For the first time ever, it was now possible to play in huge – for Mario Kart at least – eight-player versus games (or 16 players with two players per kart in a LAN setup if you wanted to get really stupid), which were more intense and hectic than ever before.

It also proved once and for all that skill was not held in high regard by Nintendo and that fun was the ultimate aim of the game. Race position could constantly switch and change at the press of a button, the infamous blue shell was now more devastating/ annoying than ever, while the emphasis on wider tracks meant that they weren’t as challenging (and therefore less interesting to race on time trails) as those from Super Circuit and Super Mario Kart.

The biggest change to the series was that each kart could now support a total of two racers – one to drive, the other to use items – the original roster of eight characters had swollen to a more respectable 14, while unlockable characters, a first for the series, were also available.

It was also possible to choose a different kart at the beginning of each race. Split into the now-familiar weight classes of Light, Medium and Heavy, eight carts were initially available, with another 13 included as unlockable extras.

As with previous games in the series, Double Dash!! included plenty of new additions to the core Mario Kart gameplay, although for many these new tweaks weren’t necessarily for the better. One of the biggest and most fundamental changes was that it was no longer possible to drag an item behind your kart (although this reappeared in Mario Kart Wii and offline Mario Kart DS).

A string of bananas was an excellent defence against incoming attacks.

Since its inclusion in Mario Kart 64, trailing items behind you was an excellent strategy for helping to secure your lead - the item would take the brunt of the attack leaving you to carry on in the lead – with scarce protection from other items there was now a huge element of luck, simply because good racing didn’t always come into it.

Indeed it’s not unheard of for players to simply hold back in the lower positions to avoid the worst attacks and then attempt to surge ahead on the final lap, which is certainly practical but doesn’t necessarily make for fun gameplay. However, players could dislodge and steal items from opponents through skilful driving, by barging them in the side.

Other new additions to the core gameplay included a new All-Cup Tour, which allowed you to race through all 16 tracks in a random order (although Luigi’s Circuit is always the first you race on and Rainbow Road the last), and – for the first time ever – new Battle modes, which turned out to be pretty good fun.

In addition to the standard Balloon mode that’s become a Mario Kart standard, there’s Bob-omb Blast, which has you hurling bombs at each other and (our favourite) Shine Thief, which has you all tearing after a Shine and trying to keep hold of it for as long as possible. Needless to say, the small enclosed tracks that are available ensure that the gameplay constantly remains fast, furious and, above all, fun.

Considering the anarchic, fast-paced gameplay that the Mario Kart series boasts, it’s somewhat surprising that it took 13 years for an arcade version to get released.

Created in collaboration with Namco and utilising the Triforce Arcade Board – which itself came about due to a union between Nintendo, Sega and Namco – it’s an excellent addition to the home series that consisted of two huge twin cabinets that could be linked together for some serious four-player action.

Roughly based upon Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (although the dual- player karts no longer make an appearance), the most notable aspect of Mario Kart’s first arcade outing was that it heralded the arrival of three exclusive Namco characters, Pac-Man, Mrs Pac-Man and Blinky – a fourth Mametchi from the Tamagotchi franchise, appears in the sequel – who, like the rest of the Mario Kart crew have their own strengths and weaknesses. Pac-Man turned out to be a particular favourite of ours.

The thrill of pulling off the cruel pre-jump attack is a moment many can remember.

Other touches to the classic franchise included the ability to take a photo of your own face using the NamCam, which imported you into the game – therefore predating Mario Kart Wii’s Mii option by a good three years – a host of new weapons, ranging from custard pies to tacks and needle bombs, the return of collecting coins and using them to slowly increase your overall top speed and the use of a magnetic card, which could only be used on certain machines.

Utilising the same approach that had worked so well for a variety of arcade beat-’em-ups, like Tekken 6 and Virtua Fighter 5, the magnetic card could be used to save your progress and to store up collected items, as well as saving all your best times.

It also kept track of the number of coins you’d collected – which could be spent on new items – any cups and classes you’d completed, your overall rank and a password allowing you to get on to an online-ranking leaderboard.

Interestingly, the standard 50, 100 and 150cc difficulty modes weren’t actually included in Arcade GP (although they did appear in the 2007 sequel). Instead, six stages were available – Mario, Donkey Kong, Wario, Pac-Man, Bowser and Rainbow (the latter only being available once the first five had been fully completed) – all consisting of four tracks each.

Another nice touch with Arcade GP was that completing all the tracks (no small feat in itself) allowed you to unlock a brand new challenge mode that consisted of a variety of wild and wacky tasks to complete, which was later carried over to Mario Kart DS. There were also traditional Time Trial modes and the four-player versus mode to compete in as well.

Sadly, for all its little tweaks and touches, Mario Kart Arcade GP and its sequel are easily the weakest games in the franchise and simply employ all the little gippy elements from the series.

It’s insanely expensive if you want to play it properly, the vast majority of the available tracks aren’t a patch on the home versions that are available, while the rubber-band effect that’s in place – the lead character becomes slower and the last character speeds up in order to keep races close – isn’t as well implemented as it is in other racers.

Toad's Turnpike was a simple track made tough on higher speeds thanks to the traffic littering the roads.

It’s certainly worth experiencing, if only so you can play as Pac-Man and use his Namco-game-inspired power-ups, but the two games are nothing more than curiosity pieces and don’t really do this fun franchise justice.

If Mario Kart Arcade GP and its sequel proved to be rather lacklustre, at least Nintendo managed to make amends with the excellent Mario Kart DS, which took the brilliance of Mario Kart Super Circuit and combined it with the very best elements of the home versions.

It was also the first version of Mario Kart (and only the second Nintendo DS game) to include an official online mode, which not only proved to be surprisingly stable, but also became plagued with the infamous ‘snaking’ (also known as ‘straight-stretch mini turboing’, where the player constantly uses the turbo to tear around the track, even on straight sections) that ruined the excellent F-Zero GX for so many players. 

Even snaking couldn’t ruin what is arguably one of the best additions to the franchise, however, and while many of the older retro tracks that had been included – especially from Super Mario Kart – weren’t quite as effective as they were on their original versions (something all later versions of Mario Kart suffer from to some degree), this was another jam-packed addition to the series that added plenty for the player to sink their teeth into.

Two Grand Prix modes (one consisting entirely of retro tracks) were available (with the now standard 150cc Mirror mode as an unlockable) and it was possible to play Battle mode on your own, with both Balloon Battle and Shine Runners (where you have to catch as many Shine sprites as possible).

Perhaps one of our favourite improvements was to the Time Trial mode, which not only allowed you to store ghosts on all 32 available tracks, but also let you import friend’s ghosts (via Wi-Fi) to your own cartridge to compete against.

If that wasn’t enough, there was also a massive new Missions mode, which greatly expanded upon the challenges first introduced in Mario Kart Arcade GP.

Wario was a new addition to the N64 version. 

The six stages each consisted of eight small challenges ranging from racing through correctly numbered gates to collecting coins and smashing crates, and culminating in a boss battle that saw you taking down a huge enemy (often with item support). A seventh, harder set of challenges, then becomes available upon completing the others.

Gameplay additions saw a starting choice of two distinctly different looking karts for each player – it’s eventually possible to unlock a total of 32 karts that can be used by any player – and ‘drafting’, which enabled you to build speed off the racer in front of you, while three new racers also joined the ranks: Dry Bones, R.O.B. and Shy Guy (who only appears in downloadable play).

There’s even a small drawing program that allows you to create simplistic emblems for use online. Basically, Mario Kart DS is easily our favourite game in the franchise after the original, as it takes all the fun of the later games, but also features all the racing elements that were so enjoyable in the SNES original.

The last addition to the Mario Kart canon was released on the Wii and, while we’re not quite as enamoured with it as we were with Mario Kart DS, it remains an enjoyable add-on to the franchise that once again brings new additions to the classic gameplay that has been entertaining gamers now for 17 years.

Online play was now fully available (and pretty flawless it is too, despite Nintendo’s relative infancy in this aspect of gaming) and supported 12 players, bikes are included for the first time in the franchise, allowing you to wheelie, which increased your top speed but made it far harder to turn.

The benefits of snaking were nullified (you can snake but there’s no real point most of the time, as people abuse the bike’s wheelie instead usually), and there’s even a simple text chat mode that allows you to send pre-written messages to other players online as you’re racing them.

Tricks were also added to the Mario Kart repertoire and successfully pulled off stunts, which were easier to perform on the new bikes, would reward you with a handy mini-turbo, while players were also able to import their Miis into the game to compete against Mario and the other 23 characters that are eventually available. The biggest addition to the game, though, was the brand new control method.

Crash Team Racing is the closest a game has come to mastering Mario Kart at its own genre.

While traditional Mario Kart controls can be accessed via the Classic Controller, Remote and Nunchuk or a simple GameCube pad, Mario Kart Wii was created to get the most out of the Wii’s Remote. By holding the Remote horizontally you’re given a surprising amount of control over the on-screen action, which improves dramatically if you use the steering wheel that Mario Kart Wii comes with.

Mario Kart’s credentials may have changed over recent years – although the superb DS outing is a brilliant return to the glorious SNES days of old – but the series remains excellent fun to play, a testament to both Nintendo’s continual crafting of the franchise and because Miyamoto and his time got so much right in the first place. And let’s face it, how many franchises manage that?

 

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