Back on the Super Nintendo, the kart racing genre really didn't exist until Super Mario Kart launched in the fall of 1992. In those days, I know I read Nintendo Power and maybe a few other magazines, but I'm not sure I could honestly tell you what triggered me to want the game. Maybe word of mouth from other friends or a demo in a store, maybe I just liked the box art. It doesn't matter, though, because, once I had it, I was instantly hooked.
Earlier that year, though, another SNES racer, Top Gear, released for the system, and it really is the first racing game I remember that used the Mode 7 graphics to its advantage to break away from the overhead or three-quarters view that most NES racers employed. Yes, there were a few NES games that used some visual tricks to achieve a behind-the-car view, but they ended up having very minimal scenery and were extremely repetitive.
Top Gear opened my eyes to a new level of graphical fidelity, and I remember renting it from a local video shop many times for weekend racing. It's worth nothing that the music from this game is excellent; check out some YouTube clips to jam out to this early 90s electronica.
However, games like Top Gear, while fun in their own way, didn't have much in the way of personality (you chose from four cars that were mainly distinguished by their colors and slightly different bodies). Super Mario Kart, on the other hand, was bursting with character (and characters) in a way that no racers before had.
The Mode 7 graphics allowed Nintendo to pepper the tracks with items, coins, oil slicks, warp pipes, lava pits, and more that made racing suddenly more than just staying away from the walls and other drivers. It felt intimate and challenging--but, most of all, fun.
That fun stemmed, in large part, from the fact that you actually got to see who was driving. I can't recall any prior racing games that had visible characters with expressive faces and reactions to what was happening on the track. The fact that all eight playable characters were denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom (save Donkey Kong, Jr., whose residency is debatable) made it an instantly likable premise. It just made a weird kind of sense that Mario, Luigi, Toad, Peach, Bowser, Koopa, Donkey Kong, Jr., and Yoshi would all be up for some go-kart action.
Like Top Gear, each racer had a different balance of speed, handling, weight, etc., but players were also drawn to make a selection based on how much they liked Toad or Koopa (my favorites), Mario or Luigi, or even the villainous Bowser. In Top Gear, you might have liked one car's color or style a little more than another, but you were probably going to make a choice based on driving specs alone; Mario Kart made it fun just to pick who you'd be racing.
In classic Nintendo fashion, Super Mario Kart introduced a very solid but simple racing mechanic and added an all-important twist by including an array of items to spice up the action. As with all great gameplay hooks, it was easy to learn but had considerable depth as you learned how to best use the items to your advantage. The item list featured a mix of offensive weapons (Green Shell, Red Shell, Lightning Bolt, Banana Peel), defensive (Feather, Boo), and speed-enhancing (Starman, Mushroom, Coin). It was a zany combination of powers that suddenly made it a game about more than just learning the right curves around the course: items let players compete in new ways that helped widen the appeal of the game beyond a car-enthusiast niche.
To further open the playing field, Nintendo made the important (and sometimes divisive) decision to let items be a mix of luck and strategy. The question mark blocks on the ground give players who drive over them a random item; except it's never been a truly random assignment. Each game in the Mario Kart series has balanced item distribution a little differently, but there is always a certain of "rubber banding," a way of dynamically distributing the items so that players lagging behind get more powerful items and players leading the pack get less powerful items.
While this approach has frustrated some, it's a key part of why Mario Kart games are so approachable: everyone has a shot at winning if they get perfect item at the right time. In that way, the game draws subtly on the mechanics of many classic playing card games, allowing a certain amount of luck to be involved in what would otherwise be a game of pure skill. This clearly resonated with the gaming public at the time, as Super Mario Kart was the third-highest selling game of all time on the SNES. It was an instant commercial and critical success, starting a new franchise for Nintendo and really birthing a sub-genre of kart racers.
Of course, while the single player Grand Prix mode was fun (and a great way to learn the characters), the two multiplayer modes are what defined the first (and all subsequent) Mario Kart. You and a friend could choose to race head-to-head or try the never-before-seen battle mode.
Nintendo smartly realized that the new item system they created could be used in enclosed arenas that promoted a free-for-all death match of shells and banana peels. Using a three-balloon point system (an early example of representing game "health" with the in-game character models), two players could duke it out in a set of four unique battle courses. This would become a staple of the series, although it really came into its prime in Mario Kart 64, which I'll get to in my next post.
A few things are unique to this game:
- Character-specific items: Computer-controlled instances of characters have some item drops that are never available to those racers when they're player-controlled. For example, Yoshi drops eggs and Bowser drops fireballs.
- Never-seen-again items: Feather and Coin are items that only appear in Super Mario Kart. However, the "Coin" item will be making a return in Mario Kart 8! Feather was a weird item that made you jump really high and was instrumental in achieving a special shortcut in courses like the first ghost house course. It was also helpful to dodge shells or make quick getaways in Battle Mode.
- Donkey Kong, Jr.: He's only in this game, replaced by Donkey Kong in subsequent games.
- Five Courses, Five Laps: Later games in the series moved to a standard of cups with four courses with three laps each, but the original Kart used a different structure!
Super Mario Kart was a landmark game, both in gaming history and in my own life. It's one of the games that defined the SNES era for me: I remember sleepover parties with friends involving hours of Mario Kart tournaments, complete with hand-drawn brackets. Visits from friends were rarely complete without sharing a few laps or rounds of battle mode. The lighthearted sprites on the screen and cheery music were the perfect backdrop for the trash talk that would inevitably flow in the room during the course of playing the game. People got worked up over Mario Kart then (as now), and it was a fierce (but always fun) race to 1st place.
Nintendo captured lightning with this first kart racer, and it served as a blueprint for a new way to start using the cast of characters in Mario's world in different ways. Mario had already had a few other outings (puzzles in Dr. Mario, golf in NES Open, etc.), but the inclusion of the rest of the cast really proved that players would respond positively to seeing the Mushroom Kingdom outside of a platformer.
Super Mario Kart may have been surpassed in graphics and complexity by later entries in the series, but it remains an incredibly fun and engaging racer to this day. If you have a Wii or Wii U, go download it from the Virtual Console now and see why it still rocks.