Growing Up With Mario Kart - Part 1: The Origins and Success of the Legendary Kart Racer
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is set to release for the Nintendo Switch sometime in April 2017. The ultimate version of Mario Kart 8, lately considered the best in the series with its superb track design and fun online play, is finally getting a proper Battle mode with dedicated Battle levels, along with new characters and karts, and, of course, all the previously released DLC. In celebration of the upcoming release, I wanted to take a look back at this fantastic franchise on the year of its 25th anniversary and how it's evolved throughout the years.
The Mario Kart series and I go way back. Like many kids in the early '90s, I began my gaming career with a Sega Genesis. And because I was easily indoctrinated by advertising, I firmly believed that “Sega didn't what Nintendidn't”. That is, until the fall of 1992, when I went to my friend Chaz's house in the first grade and saw with my own eyes the one game that shifted my perspective.
That game was Super Mario Kart for the SNES, and I couldn't believe how much fun it was. Super Mario Kart immediately caught my attention with its fast-paced arcade gameplay, unique drifting mechanics, colorful graphics, and fun weapons – Koopa shells you could fire at your opponents, mushroom boosts to get you through shortcuts, Boos to turn you invisible, and even those pesky bananas. We may laugh now at how it looks, but the game's use of the Super Nintendo's Mode 7 graphics to make textures appear to rotate in 3D (they allowed for complex 2D sprite scaling and rotation) was revolutionary for its time and set it apart from every other racing game.
Another unique property: Super Mario Kart had three weight classes for racers, and each character not only had unique stats for acceleration, top speed, and handling, but CPU characters even wielded unique powers, such as Yoshi's eggs and Bowser's fireballs. The game's most enduring signature, its drifting mechanic, was not only forgiving for young players, but it allowed seasoned racers immense precision with navigating the often trap-filled courses.
The twenty tracks themselves had personality, something you usually didn't welcome in games, but like so many great level design innovations, they could be used to your advantage. Plant a banana peel in the bottleneck, or before a corner-cutting shortcut, to turn the tide. Then rage as a shell you could never have anticipated rebounds off the course and into your grill. The levels of chaos and mayhem in a typical Grand Prix made it a joy for two players, and indeed, Super Mario Kart was explicitly designed with the multiplayer in mind, a fact Producer Shigeru Miyamoto and Directors Tadashi Sugiyama and Hideki Konno clarified in Iwata Asks interviews. Super Mario Kart is also said to have been the game that made Mr. Miyamoto seriously push for Nintendo's next console to support four players.
Aside from the excellent presentation and gameplay, there's also definitely something zany and cathartic about having all the Mario characters settle their personal grievances by burning rubber on the tracks and shunting one another off the road.
Although it didn't originally begin as a Mario series game until Nintendo tried putting Mario in the driver's seat three months in development and apparently liked what they saw, Super Mario Kart, like Super Mario RPG, added personality and life to the cast of the Mushroom Kingdom, and showed that, true to Shigeru Miyamoto's admittance in a 2012 Game Informer interview, the Mario and Bowser crews are indeed like a “troupe of actors” who are always eager to engage in healthy competition in a truly Olympian spirit.
For all its contributions to multiplayer gaming and the racing genre, Super Mario Kart continues to feature on lists of the best and most influential games of all time. In a way, the success of Super Mario Kart as a spinoff game set the precedent for Nintendo's future in the Mario Party and Mario sports titles. And hey, one day it might even set a precedent for World Peace. (Or not.) This philosophy of friendly competition would later extend to Nintendo's continued emphasis on the social aspects of their games, and, later, the 'Blue Ocean' strategy of the Wii.
Another factor that made my Super Mario Kart experience special was that the two racing games I owned at the time were the nigh-impossible Electronic Arts title Lotus Turbo Challenge, and F1 Grand Championship, both of which were unforgiving and difficult enough to make you rage. The Lotus game all but required memorization of the tracks in question, which is never fun (my Dad and Uncle were only able to beat the final track by taking turns rapidly pausing and unpausing the game, Action Replay-style).
That said, my own time with Super Mario Kart was limited to a brief weekend. I moved back to the Philippines for second grade and didn't get an Nintendo 64 until a couple of years later. That sure was a glorious Christmas morning. Imagine the N64 kid, only Filipino-Korean-American, and you get the picture.
Obviously, Mario Kart 64 was a smash hit with my close friends and I, and also with my two little siblings. The four-player update to Battle mode especially was a delight. Many a night was spent roaming the top level in Block City camping with fake Item Boxes and planting banana traps, only to end it in a dueling triple-green shell joust on the top bridges. There were also the mazelike Double Deck, the orbital Big Donut, and the pitfall-filled Skyscraper.
But the racetracks themselves were no slouch either. Boasting some of the top graphics at the time and a catchy soundtrack, levels like Koopa Troopa Beach, Yoshi's Valley, Royal Raceway, Wario Stadium, Sherbet Land, Toad's Turnpike, Kalamari Desert, and of course, Rainbow Road were memorable in that they portrayed vast and varied vistas of the Mushroom Kingdom that deftly showed off Nintendo's dedication to art direction and aesthetics.
Mario Kart 64 also made full use of the N64's limited sound board, with Mario series composer Koji Kondo's memorable synthesized music and recognizable sound effects that set the tone for later games in the series. I can still recall many of the tracks' catchy themes from memory.
Importantly, Mario Kart 64 also introduced the concept of saving your Time Trials' replay Ghosts, or data, to challenge later (provided you had a Memory Pak to plug into the controller). There were also three Staff Ghosts to race against, a number that would be expanded in Mario Kart Double Dash!! to the entire track list, adding a good amount of replay value to each entry in the series.
Physics-wise, Mario Kart 64 improved greatly upon the drifting system, allowing light characters like Yoshi, Peach, and Toad to pull off three levels or intensities of drifting by tilting the control stick back and forth rapidly, and so a spectrum was created between light characters who lacked top speed but made up for it with high acceleration and the ability to drift-boost around corners, and heavy characters who accelerated slowly and relied more on precise cornering and driving, but boasted incredible top speeds that would let them take off like bullets on the straightaways and knock other karts aside just by bumping into them. Some variation of this system would go on to be used in every Mario Kart clone or wannabe known to man, from Crash Team Racing to Star Wars Super Bombad Racing to Chocobo Racing.
But perhaps the most crucial contribution of Mario Kart 64 to the canon (though it's often forgotten that it originated in this game because it wasn't invincible and pretty often ran into walls) is the introduction of the controversial, infamous, often traitorous, and nearly always unforgivable Blue Shell. (More on that hallowed item in the next installment).
Before Mario Kart 64, I'd always thought of multiplayer gameplay as a two-player affair. Perhaps this was the N64's most revolutionary feature, that it came with four controller ports right off the bat, allowing for more gamers at a time to play and bond together.
Nintendo's success with both early Mario Kart titles stems, in my opinion, from their strong focus on multiplayer – how it could be fun, balanced, and allow for players with different racing styles and of varying skill levels to experiment and find success with different characters.
What's your favorite Mario Kart experience, and why? And who do you main? Don't be shy, let us know in the comments! Next time, we'll discuss Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Double Dash!!, Arcade GP, and Mario Kart DS. Till then, happy racing!
Super Mario Kart - Mario
Mario Kart 64 - Yoshi