Considered by many to be the greatest game on the Snes, is there a reason to still play ‘Super Mario Kart’ when so many sequels exist?
Released in 1993
Developed by Nintendo.
Published by Nintendo.
It's the last corner on the last lap of rainbow road. It had been a closely fought championship between Luigi and me. Victory here will secure the title and gloriously I drift around the corner like a seasoned professional. However, despite all my years of racing in the Mushroom Kingdom, there was nothing I could do to stop a blue shell from striking my kart. I spin uncontrollably off the edge of the circuit, allowing Luigi to pass and steal the championship title. I had lost through no fault of my own; I had been robbed of my victory. I felt despondent and I remembered a time before the infernal blue shell was ever invented.
The infamously harsh Edge magazine once said that "'Mario Kart' isn't a racer any more. Even if you are the best karter in the country you cannot guarantee anything. It's a party game and anyone buying it for anything more than frantic, foolish social fun will grow tired of being cheated very quickly indeed". Whatever it may now be, 'Mario Kart' is a key franchise for Nintendo. It's a "system seller"; a new entry in the series will be enough to convince many to buy a new console just to play it. But, blue shells aside, are the fundamental elements of the modern games in the series really that different to those seen in the game that started a franchise? The fact that the eighth game in the series still echoes the first really does emphasise just how right Nintendo got it first time around.
Considering the original 'Super Mario Kart' sold over 8 million copies and was the best selling game released (not including games that came included with the console), it's hard to imagine that anyone reading this hasn't played it. But for those not in the know, the series sees the familiar characters and stages from the ‘Mario’ games transplanted into a driving game. The main Grand Prix mode is decided into 4 championships, each one consisting of a handful of races. The higher a driver finishes in a race the more points they get and the one with the most points at the end of the championship wins the trophy. The game has a total of eight playable characters and twenty different racecourses to select from. In this first entry in the series, the races are largely based on the worlds seen in 'Super Mario World', although it does feature new locales including the first appearance of the infamous ‘Rainbow Road’. Unlike its sequels, 'Super Mario Kart' is the only title featuring five courses per cup as opposed to four. Additionally, due to the tracks being noticeably shorter, this is currently the only instalment of the series where all courses feature five laps as opposed to the usual three.
Like launch title 'F Zero' before it, 'Super Mario Kart' depends on the Super Nintendo's Mode 7 graphical wizardry. Earlier racing games resized sprites to give the impression of motion. 'Super Mario Kart' instead uses the Super Nintendo's graphical clout to scale and rotate a huge flat sprite underneath the player’s character. Given that your playable avatar leans and spins it is easy to assume you are controlling them. However, in reality an input on the D-pad actually moves the ground. You may never have notice but a player doesn't really drive the karts around a track; they are trying to keep the road under the wheels, not the wheels on the road. It's a racing illusion that's disguised by scrolling backgrounds with scaling sprites and it was at the time a stunning spectacle. People were wowed by 'Super Mario Karts' visuals especially when the faster speed modes are selected. However reviewers questioned why the game has a split screen even on one player modes? While the map is undoubtedly usefull, surrendering half the screen to it does seem to be a waste of screen real estate. Presumably this was only done so the same sprites could be used in both multiplayer and solo play modes. It was a design decision that reinforces the idea that ‘Super Mario Kart’ was always a game designed for two to play together.
Even with the guiding hand of Shigeru Miyamoto as producer 'Super Mario Kart' was wildly different to anything the moustachioed plumber had been in before. Animosity between heroes and villains is set aside and the functions of item pickups are tweeted to suit the occasion. Picking up random weapons as you drive is now a feature of many games but at the time of 'Super Mario Kart's release it still felt rather original. “You don’t usually find a racing game with things to collect in it”, James Binns wrote in his review for Total! Magazine. “So, ‘Super Mario Kart’ is refreshingly original. It’s great fun picking up weird and wonderful weapons and lobbing them at your opponent. If you’re fed up with run-of-the-mill racing games, this’ll get the blood pumping and the adrenaline rushing again”. Mushrooms pick-ups no longer increase your size but instead allow you to use a speed boost. Far more useful are the projectile weapons; the red and green shells, since these could mean the difference between winning and losing a race. 'Super Mario Kart' director Hideki Konno is very much aware of the significance of the novelty weapons to the series' success. "I'm often asked, hey, in ‘Mario Kart’, could you please make a mode where there are no items? Let us race. But personally I think ‘Mario Kart’ without items is not ‘Mario Kart’." Although they are now largely viewed as being hazards to the player, originally the pick-up weapons were designed to aid the player, to give a sense that victory was always possible. According to Konno they existed, "to create a race where, up until the finish line, you didn't know [who would win]. We wanted to create a race where everyone was in it until the end."
In later 'Mario Kart' iterations opponents can pick up and use the same weapons as the player, but interestingly in 'Super Mario Kart' they were instead limited to their own unique abilities. Donkey Kong Jr. throws banana peels, Koopa Troopa throws green shells, Yoshi lays eggs, Princess and Toad even throw mushrooms that can make drivers smaller. For anyone who has spent time with later games in the series this would read as a huge relief. It prevents the computer bombarding you with a seemingly limitless stream of red shells on the last lap. However, if your nearest rival in a 'Super Mario Kart' championship is Mario or Luigi you'll struggle to win since their invincibility power can be used for an entire race making them impossible to take out. If Edge Magazine believed that only modern 'Mario Kart' games cheat to rob the player of success they are wrong. From the first game in the series "rubber band" AI was used to make the game challenging.This means that when a player is doing badly the computer opponents will be slower, but when you are in the lead your driving opposition will be impossibly good. The course map at the bottom of the screen offers pretty convincing evidence of this. Should your nearest rival be hit by a projectile on the last lap of a race they will traverse the course significantly faster than all other drivers to regain their position by the chequered flag. Director Hideki Konno maintains that the opponent’s super abilities when loosing were essential to keep 'Super Mario Kart' engaging and challenging. "For the race to be exciting the player must have opponents. We developed several techniques to bunch the characters together so [the player] never raced alone". There techniques certainly made the game tricky to complete and there is a real sense of achievement once the 150cc gold special cup inexplicably falls from a fish. But, self satisfaction is all the reward you get for victory in 'Super Mario Kart' as it existed at a time when in game success didn't open any additional cars or characters as you progressed. Sadly this means that on your own 'Super Mario Kart' ends up feeling slightly limited. Without a friend to play with you'll no doubt wonder what all the fuss is about. This was perhaps why Total! Magazine gave a surprising low review score penalising the game because “it’s a bit boring without a mate”.
The hundreds of hours I spent playing this game with my brother however suggests that 'Super Mario Kart' is one of the best two player games you can play, on the Super Nintendo or even on any machine. With “a wingman”, Grand Prix mode becomes fairer since the computer’s variable ability is less likely to change leadership. However it is Battle Mode where the game truly comes alive with a friend. It continues to amaze me that Nintendo insist on meddling with the multiplayer modes in the more recent 'Mario Kart' games. Balloon Battle in 'Super Mario Kart' was perfection. There may not have been any racing but that didn't matter, trying to pop your opponent’s balloons with pickups while keeping yours intact was a far better idea. It's a chaotic tense game of cat and mouse, simultaneously frustrating yet addictive.
The balloon battle in the original 'Mario Kart' isn't the only reason why many still maintain that this game is the best in the series, 7 sequels and 20 years later. The course may be smaller but they are smart well designed and creative. There's a reason why the majority of course have been included in "Retro cups" in later games and it isn't just for nostalgia. They don't need paragliding sections or antigravity tunnels to be enjoyable, they don't even need inclines or hills - they work perfectly well completely flat. Of course, later games have introduced incredibly interesting stages, but the bulk of course in a new ‘Mario Kart’ game still echoes the stages of the Snes version, even if they are named differently. Perhaps it's because the first game simply did the obvious themes and it would be hard to avoid replicating them in a new game. But maybe it's simply because there was so much right in 'Super Mario Kart' that it can't be bettered.
As Super Play magazine once said, the reason ‘Super Mario Kart’ is so good is down to “playability pure and simple. There is no driving game that comes close to it in delivering seat-of-the-pants lean-into-the-corners action. Forget about driving a Formula One car around Silverstone, take Koopa for a spin around a Bower’s Castle track, leaping lava pits, dodging enemies’ cunningly aimed projectiles and searching out those elusive red shells. The magic that only Nintendo seem able to provide [is] patently evident.” So if we side with Super Play’s opinion, can Edge Magazine’s belief that ”'Mario Kart' is more party game than pure racer" really be that bad? The series has never been that serious in the first place, and at its best you'll spend as much time planning how to best use a green shell projectile as you will plotting racing lines. The biggest problem with Edge magazine’s critique is that they presume more people want to play a "pure racer" than a party game. There was such excitement for the latest 'Mario Kart' game that this is hard to believe; the simple truth is that everyone just loves a 'Mario Kart' game. A winning driver may hate a blue shell but a back-maker loves it, because using one means they are suddenly back in the race with a chance of winning. For those who are good at the game it's unfair, it's frustrating it's annoying. But surely it's better to give those who aren't so good a fighting chance rather than rewarding those who don't need it. . There’s depth here for those who wish to find it and perfect immediacy for those who don’t know how to.
It is largely down to ‘Super Mario Kart’ that the Mushroom Kingdom (and, by extension, Miyamoto’s imagination) was adopted and warmly accepted by all parts of the world. This is probably thanks in a very large way to the fact that anyone can pick up a SNES pad and play ‘Super Mario Kart’ and everyone wants to play because everyone thinks they stand a chance. There are better racing games to play on your own, where speed and skill always lead to victory but there are few games on any console more enjoyable with multiple people playing together. In short, it’s the videogame everyone loves to love.
Where did I get this from?
No Snes collection is complete without ‘Super Mario Kart’. In fact no house is complete with having access to a ‘Mario Kart’ game if you ask me. I struggle to think of a series which has consistently bought me as much joy. I was always going to have this game on my shelf, it was just a case of waiting to get one in a condition that matched the game’s excellence. I got my copy in a bundle of 9 Mint games. It was certainly the jewel in the haul and a bargain at £9. Should you want a copy you must be aware that the game’s reputation pushes up the price.