Growing Up With Mario Kart Part 2: Nintendo's Growing Pains, Unfair Gameplay, An Arcade Pit-Stop, And A Rebirth
In the previous segment, we revisited both Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64. Moving on, when Super Smash Bros. came out in 1999, it's safe to say every other multiplayer game fell out of my life for a good couple of years.
Suffice it to say, when the Gameboy Advance entry, Mario Kart: Super Circuit, came out in 2001, it was totally overshadowed by Super Smash Bros. Melee. But I still played it, and I'm glad I did, because it somehow was able to pack the Mario Kart experience into the tiny color handheld without ruining what made it special. Mario Kart Super Circuit featured pleasant hand-drawn backgrounds, very decent graphics for the Gameboy Advance, and the return of the speed-boosting coins from the original Super Mario Kart. Super Circuit was a hit and remains the top-selling non-Pokemon game for the Gameboy Advance with over 5.91 million copies sold worldwide.
But it was 2003 when Nintendo, continuing to push new ideas into their old franchises, performed their most bold experiment yet with Mario Kart. That's when us unworthy mortals were gifted with likely the most controversial game in the series, Mario Kart Double Dash!! for the GameCube. Double Dash!! took the series' multiplayer components to the next level, allowing for 2-vs-2 local races where you could team up with a buddy (and even character-limited 16-player races if you were one of those people who presumably exist, those who actually had four buddies with GameCubes and four LAN adapters) who would ride behind the kart, take control of the items, and help with drifting.
Double Dash!! was an XXXL-sized Mario Kart, filled with ambitious ideas and excellent tracks, such as the simple but deadly loop Baby Park, the highly technical Yoshi Circuit and DK Jungle, each with huge but risky shortcuts, and the infamously deadly Wario Coliseum, whose hard turns and many thin, unsafe roads tested one's defensive play in the face of the unpredictable. It had a huge roster of characters including King Boo and Birdo, an additional weight class (super-light), a wealth of karts in all weight classes with different parameters (a series first), brand-new items like the Bob-Omb, an improved Blue Shell that never missed its target, unique Special weapons or Defensive items for each character, and the ability (only available when playing with two players on a single kart) to juke, punch, and stun your opponents if you could manage to drive right up beside them. In the hands of an expert team, this drive-by sucker-punch became a last-ditch attempt to secure victory, since missing the juke would undoubtedly send you off the optimal course.
The genius of the Double Dash!! system was that more experienced kart racers could teach their younger siblings how to be good at the game, and sure enough, my three siblings and I would wreck four-player mayhem upon one another.
The racer-unique Special ability items, innovations that sadly haven't made it into subsequent games, made for the ability to pick offensive and defensive 'builds'. My characters of choice were Peach and Daisy, whose Specials were a rotating heart shield that would absorb shells and bananas, protecting the player and letting you use them against your opponents. It was a strong strategy, though opponents could counterpick to trump it – Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, for instance, summoned a Chain Chomp that would eat its way through the crowd irregardless of any defenses (except the Boo and Invincibility Star). The ability to mix and match characters for their special abilities was an ingenious way of adding another layer of depth to the wanton chaos of a Mario Kart race, but they came at the expense of a true sense of balance. You could be doing everything right, race your heart out, use all the items properly, and still lose a Double Dash!! race by being ganged up on, by your friends, by the AI, or by the RNG.
In October of 2005, shortly after I moved back to the USA, I found myself hunting down a well-stocked video game arcade here in California, just so I could try the Namco-Bandai-developed, Nintendo-published Mario Kart Arcade GP. The game featured Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Blinky the ghost as racers in addition to the usual suspects, and boasted a ridiculous number of items – 93, to be exact – which made it tough to keep track of what your enemies, real or AI, could throw at you at any given moment. With 24 courses and three modes including Grand Prix, Time Trial, and VS, the game was close to approaching what might be deemed a real Mario Kart experience.
The real mitigating factors that held me back from committing to Mario Kart Arcade GP were that (A) I didn't live near a cabinet, and (B) the high cost of play, which, in my opinion, was what kept this game from really catching on. You'd have to buy in after every single race, win or lose, and keep track of your progress via a printable 'Mario Card' you could re-insert to continue your racing career and Time Trial progress. Although the game itself was fun, I was quite thrown off by the high price tag to play even just one quick race. A sequel, Mario Kart Arcade GP 2, was released in 2007, but I haven't been able to give it a shot just yet. If anyone wants to hook me up with a machine, I'd gladly take the plunge.
But let's return to 2005. Going into Q4, Nintendo was losing some momentum. The DS handheld, released a year earlier, experienced slower-than-expected Western sales out of the gate, and many believed the PSP would eclipse it entirely. Then came the success of the many versions of Nintendogs and the Mario Kart DS bundle (which I snatched up on day one), and with a later price drop and a glut of classic JRPG ports, the DS took off in a big way, its dominance of the market became unquestionable, and in 2010, with 129 million units sold, it officially became the best-selling video game console in the world.
But I digress. Mario Kart DS was the only game I needed in my DS for many months. Since my grandma totaled my car, to get to college or work, I had to sit in buses between 3 and 4 hours every day, and mastering the many tracks in Mario Kart DS became my way of looking forward to the long commute. I shaved much time off each of the staff ghosts, did all the single-player Missions, and then demolished the competition in the limited (but still impressive for the DS) online play, a first for the series in America and Europe (the Japanese version of Mario Kart Super Circuit supported online play via the GBA Wireless adapter).
Although it was more pared-down than Double Dash!!, boasting few of its innovations, everything about Mario Kart DS was revolutionary, not just in terms of what we gamers expected out of a handheld racing game, but with regards to the quality of the series in general. One of the major pluses was using the bottom screen to display an active map, including showing what items players had. This was a game-changer for so many reasons, and it was great to get that HUD clutter off the main screen.
The fact that there were 32 tracks (16 of them retro tracks, 4 each from the previously released games) was absolutely mind-blowing at the time, as was the fact that racers could choose from 36 different karts. Mario Kart DS was polished in every way – one might say it was perhaps a bit too polished, since this was the first game in the series where snaking (rapid S-shaped drift-boosting across long straightaways) became a very viable and often-abused tactic for victory.
I played so much Mario Kart DS, my d-pad was worn down and the left-right portions of the cross were far looser than the up-down portions. I was seeing tracks like Yoshi Falls, Tick Tock Clock, and Delfino Square in my dreams, optimizing each possible corner in my head. Sadly, I didn't know many people who had DS consoles, and when I did encounter them, I could usually wipe the floor with them. It would take a couple of console generations before I really felt satisfied with what Mario Kart had to offer in the online department.
In fact, I think Mario Kart DS may have spoiled me a little too much, because, with the exception of one more title to be mentioned in the next segment, I don't think I ever fell that far in love with a racing game again.
Please join me in the concluding segment, where we'll go over titles from Mario Kart Wii, Mario Kart 7, and Mario Kart 8. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments – what was your favorite Mario Kart title, and why? Any embarrassing experiences to share?
Mario Kart Super Circuit: Mario
Mario Kart Double Dash!!: Daisy and Peach in the Bloom Coach
Mario Kart DS: Daisy in the Egg or R.O.B.-BLS
Mario Kart Arcade GP: Pac-Man
Missed part 1? Check out what you missed here.