Mario Kart Super Circuit gave Nintendo fans their first taste of on-the-go karting when it released on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) in the summer of 2001. That tiny cartridge was a free pass to race anywhere, anytime, and it was a big deal. Of course, the limited hardware of the GBA meant a return to form to 16-bit era graphics powered by the GBA's "Mode 7"-esque scaling effect (fun fact: GBA only supported modes 0 through 5). The verticality and full 3D levels introduced in Mario Kart 64 would return in all later Kart games, so this stands as the last 2D title in the franchise.
But let's back up a minute. If you haven't been following, this is part three of a seven-part series leading up to Mario Kart 8 on May 30. In it, I'm revisiting each of the main Mario Kart games and sharing some memories, impressions and other fun content celebrating this unique and groundbreaking series. Catch up on the SNES Super Mario Kart post, the Mario Kart 64 recap, and then head back here to keep reading!
While the 3D visuals had to sit this one out, a number of features from the N64 game did make it into Super Circuit, giving the game a more updated feel. Cube-shaped item boxes replaced the flat item "squares," shells and banana peel items were available in multiples, and the four cup/four race/three lap structure remained intact. Additionally, all eight characters from MK64 made a return, with no additions to the bunch (sorry, Koopa Troopa fans), and they looked significantly better than the sprites in Super Mario Kart. Nintendo's animation department devoted more frames of animation to each character, and the models appear to have been developed as 3D models turned into flat sprites (a la Donkey Kong Country). These touches gave the game a fresher feel even though it was hamstrung to a dated art style by the less-powerful portable hardware.
You'll notice from my pictures that I played this game on a Game Boy Advance SP. That "SP" is important (it stood for "special") because it meant that the screen had a light. It wasn't actually backlit, the way most modern devices are; rather, a light was built in to the top of the clamshell that illuminated the screen. You could even turn it off and on using that unlabeled button hovering above and between the D-pad and A/B buttons (to save battery life). After years of owning an original Game Boy, I was excited when the Game Boy Advance was announced but disappointed to learn that it still contained an unlit screen. I had avoided all other iterations of Game Boy (the Pocket and Color models) since none of them solved the lighting issue, and I was determined to wait out the GBA, too. It just was too frustrating to not be able to play in a dark room without some gangly add-on. Thankfully, Nintendo wizened up and released the SP, which I quickly requested as a gift (probably...it's hard to remember). This was also the first Nintendo portable that featured a clamshell design and a rechargeable, lithium ion battery--both facets of nearly every handheld device that the company made thereafter. Mine still works today!
Mario Kart Super Circuit was easily my most-played game on the GBA. The short circuits (no pun intended) were great for a spare 15 minutes of downtime, so it was almost always the occupying the cartridge slot when I left the house.
But, for all of that, the game feels fairly similar to the SNES offering. Yes, there are tweaks, but this was not a groundbreaking game. That's not to say it wasn't a good, or even great, game. It was--and the critical reception backs that up with a Metacritic score of 93. It's not really much to complain about, as having a pocket rendition of the excellent original game with all-new tracks was really novel at a time (especially when you compare it to the comparatively rudimentary graphics of the original Game Boy). On top of that, the game contained all of the original game's tracks as an unlockable mode, so there was really a lot packed into this game pak. But, for me at least, there was still the realization that this wasn't pushing the series forward more than it was a (really fun) sidestep.
The coin system was a unique aspect of Super Circuit; whereas the first game had coins to collect on the tracks, the coins here affected the gameplay in a more significant way. From Mario Wiki:
On the course, coins are collected to increase a player's top speed. If the player has zero coins, they spin out if they come in contact with another racer. Fifty-five coins are found on each course.
This added a nice bit of strategy to races in addition to item placement; however, the constant beeping when you have zero coins is quite obnoxious. Coins would not be featured again (outside of extra modes) in another Kart game until the 3DS' Mario Kart 7, and they are also set to factor into Wii U's Mario Kart 8.
You may have noticed that I've made it a fair way into this post without mentioning the multiplayer. That's certainly not because it wasn't on offer from Nintendo; no, they made sure to include it the series signature mode even in this smaller package (both Vs. racing and Battle flavors). The problem was that, due to the hardware limitations of the GBA, it was a pain to actually get a match going. In order to play with more people, you had to have the Game Boy Link Cable, which (of course) was an additional expense and item to tote around (assuming you wanted multiplayer on the go). To Nintendo's credit, the game featured a "Single-Pak Link" mode that allowed a group of two to four players to compete with only copy of the game (just with fewer options). This feature would become a bigger deal--and a more useful feature--on the wireless-capable Nintendo DS, but I love that Nintendo was already experimenting with this type of pro-consumer behavior before it was even expected.
There's no question that Mario Kart Super Circuit made a bold statement: here was a true Kart experience you could put in your pocket; the significance of that should not be understated. Still, this entry represented refinement, not revolution. I loved it at the time, but it's not been an entry I've gone back to very often once Mario Kart DS came out. The barrier to entry for multiplayer inherently limited the legs of what was otherwise a fairly impressive entry, especially considering the platform. As I mentioned before, Nintendo deserted this 2D style after this game; it would be interesting to see if they would attempt an eShop-exclusive new title using the engine from this game (or the SNES) as a sort of retro throwback endeavor.
Really, though, despite the extra content and newer elements, I'll probably always be more likely to go back to Super Mario Kart than this game. It's not because this is a bad game at all; it just doesn't hold the same nostalgic significance, and it's not possible for me to easily sit down with a friend for a quick race. More than anything, it embodies proof positive that a console experience could be accurately translated to a portable, and that's perhaps enough for this little racer.