With the upcoming release of Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U, we should all take the time to look back on everything the series has gone through over the past 22 years.
Featured image by Kulit7215
Now is the perfect time for a Mario Kart retrospective, what with how much hype the new Mario Kart 8 is getting due to its May 30 release date being right around the corner. Fans of the series and newcomers alike will find it worthwhile to understand just how the technical and visual grandeur of the new game came to be.
There were plenty of stumbling blocks and surprising innovations that have led up to this moment, all of which have contributed to the state of the franchise as we know it now. From the invention of the karting genre to the introduction of hang gliding, Mario Kart has had its fair share of ups and downs. The popularity of the series, however, is testament to just how enduring it is.
1992: Super Mario Kart for Super Nintendo
The first game in the series is the iconic Super Mario Kart. Widely regarded as the game that began the video game karting genre, Super Mario Kart set the stage for an extremely lucrative genre and franchise.
Sporting popular Nintendo characters like Mario, Bowser, and even Koopa Troopa, SMK introduced players to a slippery-but-fun karting game that was more complex than the choppy 16-bit sprites would have you believe.
Elements of gameplay such as powersliding around corners and strategically placing trap powerups have endured throughout the series, remaining largely unchanged. In every version of Mario Kart, drivers can pick up mushrooms for a quick boost or lob some banana peels onto the track to trip up other characters.
Multiplayer modes in all Mario Kart games were essentially set in this first game. Players can either compete against each other in the Grand Prix tournaments or, for a more intense experience, go head to head on any track in the game. With 20 unique tracks, that was nothing to scoff at.
Battle Mode was an even more intimate multiplayer experience. Each player and NPC had three balloons (or “lives”) where the goal was to use weapons to free your opponents of their balloons. This design might seem familiar: that’s because every Mario Kart after Super Mario Kart has followed suite.
“Super Mario Kart was a breath of fresh air that some people argue began a new era of multiplayer games.”
So what makes this game anything but a little brother to following games? The biggest thing that makes this game unique in the canon of early Mario Karts is its coin system. Collecting coins, unlike future games in the series, was an essential strategy to winning races.
Collect ten coins and you’ve maxed out your speed for the course, but don’t get hit because you’ll lose some of those precious metals. What’s worse, if you fall off the course, Lakitu—the caretaker of the tracks—will take a two-coin tax for placing you back on the track. But be careful: because of the nature of the coding in the game, if you get more than 99 coins during a race (an unlikely feat), your coin count will return to 0.
The game was quite well-received, garnering praise from many sources for its brilliant use of Mode 7 graphics and tight controls. In a world of platformers and fledgling adventure games, Super Mario Kart was a breath of fresh air that some people argue began a new era of multiplayer games. The first in the Mario Kart series was undeniably a gaming landmark.
1996: Mario Kart 64 for Nintendo 64
With a new console came a new Mario Kart. The game sported updated graphics and tracks as well as a few additions to the cast. Mario Kart 64 starts to show off some more technical aspects of the game that helped the game become more enjoyable in future installments. Things like weight classes and new AI contributed to a more complex experience.
Driving through 3D tracks and interacting with 3D elements was a big draw for Mario Kart 64. Gone were the days of chunky, flat pipes and flat powerup boxes. Still, while the environments were rendered in 3D, the sprites couldn’t be modeled in 3D due to processor constraints. It’s for this reason that, while the tracks look gorgeous, the drivers themselves do seem a bit choppy.
The new Mario Kart also brought elastic band AI, a programming trick that stopped drivers from getting too spread out on the track. What this translated to for the player was an effect of “fairness”: first place drivers rarely picked up anything but a green shell or a banana while players in last picked up blue shells and lightning with almost every chance at a powerup.
On a less technical level, Mario Kart 64 brought a few new faces to the pool of eight drivers carried over from Super Mario Kart, although not without some cuts. Rather than the original cast of eight, Koopa Troopa and Donkey Kong Jr. were replaced with Wario and Donkey Kong himself.
“The game was praised not so much for its single player experience but for the multiplayer gameplay.”
A new mode was added as well: Time Trial. In this single player mode, players could race three times around a track while the game recorded the best times. You could then choose to race against your “Ghost” in order to keep track of just how far ahead of behind of your best score you are. As a bonus, you were able to save Ghost data onto the N64’s version of a memory card to bring to your friend’s house as an extra incentive for him or her to beat your times.
While the game continued the tradition of having three different levels of difficulty (50cc, 100cc, and 150cc), the N64 version introduced the “Extra” difficulty. This mode, later known as “Mirror Mode”, flipped the direction of each turn in a given track. Simply put, if the normal difficulties have you turning left after the Thwomp, now you turn right; extrapolate that to all turns.
Once again, the game received excellent reviews, maintaining an 83 out of 100 on Metacritic. The game was praised not so much for its single player experience but for the multiplayer gameplay. While the single-player was often seen as something you could quickly tire of, critics applauded how innovative and replayable the multiplayer experience was, despite not introducing any new concepts to the franchise.
2001: Mario Kart: Super Circuit for Game Boy Advance
Largely considered a throwback to Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart Super Circuit certainly sported many of the same aesthetic elements of the original game. Levels had the same appearance (largely flat planes) and the game reintroduced the coins system. It even included the twenty original tracks from Super Mario Kart.
This was the first portable version of Mario Kart and, despite hardware limitations, managed to add in a few new features. One notable new mode was the “Quick Run” mode that allowed one or more players to race a single track against other NPCs. This was different from Time Trials in that it didn’t create a ghost of your best time and it included other drivers. The multiplayer version of this mode was called “VS”.
What made Super Circuit unique was not only the fact that it was available on a portable device but that multiplayer was possible with only one game cartridge. While the game was admittedly pared down in this mode, two players could connect using a link cable and race against each other, even battle, with only one physical copy of the game.
Super Circuit carried over all the drivers from the N64 version with no new additions, although it did sport reconstructed versions of all the tracks from Super Mario Kart as well as 20 original tracks. Unfortunately, Super Circuit was only available for a brief time on the eShop to those who participated in the Nintendo Ambassador program which closed August 12, 2011.
Super Circuit was one of the highest rated Mario Kart games ever. Despite some reviewers being (unrealistically) upset over the “downgrade” in graphics from Mario Kart 64, gameplay was praised by all. Because of the popularity of Super Mario Kart, Super Circuit found a home with those fond of the original while still enticing new fans due to its addicting multiplayer experience.
2003: Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for GameCube
Double Dash may have introduced a new aesthetic to the Mario Kart franchise with its dual driver system, but not much had actually changed. Still, sixteen new tracks and a new battle mode were no small contribution to the series, especially alongside the addition of a plethora of new drivers.
Probably the most notable change to the game is the way in which you have to pick two drivers instead of one for each race. One driver stood/sat on the back of the kart and flung items forwards or back while the other drove. Naturally, the drivers could switch if need be, seeing as how each driver could hold one item.
The most significant impact this change in style had was the introduction of couch co-op. Whereas previous multiplayer races had been competitive, this new arrangement allowed for a new type of cooperation never seen before in the series. Add that to the ability to combine 8 GameCubes together with the GameCube Broadband Adaptor and you have yourself a party.
There was also a new battle mode in Double Dash: Shine Thief. The game is basically Capture the Flag but instead of getting the flag (a Shine Sprite) back to your base, you simply had to hold onto to it until the match’s timer ran down.
Along with the smorgasbord of new characters came the ability to pick up powerups that were unique to specific characters. Bowser Jr.’s Bowser Shell and Baby Mario’s Chain Chomp were game-changing special items, although Triple Shells and Fireballs could definitely inflict some real damage as well.
Once again, this installment of Mario Kart did very well with the critics. Scoring an 87 out of 100 on metacritic, the game was praised for its addictive gameplay and the strategic co-op mode. While some critics complained of the game simply being “more of the same” but with a few lazy aesthetic band-aids, these critics were few and far between.
2005: Mario Kart DS for Nintendo DS
The Nintendo DS version of Mario Kart didn’t bring much new to the series although it was well-received. Probably the biggest innovation in a portable Mario Kart game was the ability to play online without cables, although new additions like Dry Bones as a playable character and a new single player mode did add to the experience.
The game had sixteen unique tracks as well as sixteen tracks recreated from other games. Unlike its portable predecessor, Super Circuit, Mario Kart DS boasted impressive 3D visuals with huge ramps and other acrobatic features. Much like the Game Boy Advance version, however, this portable game felt very much like an spiritual sequel to an earlier game. In this case, Mario Kart 64.
Online mode was fairly limited, not unlike the single cartridge multiplayer mode in Super Circuit. Out of the 32 available courses, only 20 were available to be played in the online mode. On top of that, you were only able to play at the 100cc difficulty level. That being said, there was a matchmaking system that paired you up with compatible opponents as well as the friend code system that Nintendo has used for years now.
In addition to online mode, players were able to play against their friends in the single cartridge or multiple cartridge modes without the need for an internet signal or a cable: players only needed to be within a certain range of each other. Even though the single cartridge mode was limited once again, the ability to play against others without the need for a physical cable was a welcome change from previous Nintendo titles.
Like Super Circuit, Mario Kart DS was very well received among gamers and critics alike. The game was lauded for its online multiplayer mode, especially considering how the series had been evolving more into a party game than a single player experience.
2008: Mario Kart Wii for Nintendo Wii
The Wii edition of Mario Kart was full of surprises and new features. Despite leaving behind the two-player karting aesthetic established in Double Dash, the game still felt like a solid addition to the franchise. The inclusion of new characters, new vehicles, new items, new karts, and even bikes made the game feel like a refreshing new take on the game’s concept.
The biggest difference between this game and previous entries is of course the use of the Wii Remote. Players inserted their controller into a plastic steering wheel and literally turned the wheel to steer their characters, pressing the Remote’s buttons to activate items as though they were pushing a car horn. The experience was a wholly more engrossing one but if it wasn’t for you, GameCube controllers were supported as well as other gamepad options.
There were some other gameplay additions as well, such as aerial tricks that grant you a boost when you land and the return of coins in a new battle mode called Coin Runners. In Coin Runners, players won by gathering the most coins, collected largely by hitting opponents with items to knock their coins loose.
Multiplayer got even more intense with the inclusion of online tournaments. Players could now compete against each other on an international level, playing through Cups in order to improve their standings. Unfortunately, Nintendo stopped supporting the Mario Kart Wii multiplayer on May 20 of this year. User-supported servers are up and running, however, and seem to be stable so far.
Like most other home console Mario Kart games, the Wii edition didn’t grab as high of a score as its portable predecessor; scoring 82 out of 100 on metacritic isn’t bad, though. Critics and reviewers argued that the Mario Kart series was becoming too easy, a complaint that had been building momentum over the course of the past few games.
2011: Mario Kart 7 for Nintendo 3DS
Big changes came in Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS: hang gliders, underwater karting, kart customization, and of course sixteen new tracks alongside sixteen revamped retro tracks. New drivers made an appearance as well, such as Metal Mario and Shy Guy.
The most notable difference in this Mario Kart was the inclusion of hang gliders and, to a lesser extent, propeller-driven underwater karting. Many tracks had large jumps that sent you flying into the air where your kart promptly sprouted wings. You were forced to avoid obstacles as you dived and dipped your way to the other side of the jump. These jumps often served to break up the monotony of regular karting and did a good job of keeping you interested.
With the disappearance of bikes came the customization of karts. While you had the ability to choose which kart you drove in previous games, Mario Kart 7 was the first to actually let you choose which components you wanted to take with you for each Cup. Body, wheels, and glider were all customizable with new parts to unlock as you progressed. Each part had its own strengths and weaknesses and could be bought with the coins picked up during races.
What’s more, the standard Heavy/Middle/Light class system was expanded to include Feather (lighter than Light) and Cruiser (one class lighter than Heavy). Add these new classes to the new items in Mario Kart 7 and the gameplay was just the right amount of new to keep gamers interested.
Mario Kart 7, out of all the portable versions of the game, was the least-well received, although many still think of it as a great game due to its dedication an excellent formula. More and more, however, critics and gamers alike are becoming frustrated with the repetition in gameplay and design in the Mario Kart franchise. That being said, how different could it be seeing as how it’s the seventh game in the series?
2005-2013: Mario Kart GP Series for Arcades
A lesser known entry into the franchise, Mario Kart GP was a popular game in arcades, especially in Japan. The game featured the use of go-kart simulation including seats, steering wheels, and foot pedals for brakes and acceleration.
The GP series were the only games in the franchise that featured characters not owned by Nintendo: Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Blinky, all from the Pac-Man arcade series, were included in the game. There was also Mametchi, a character from the Tamogatchi toy line, and Don-Chan from the Taiko no Tatsujin arcade rhythm game.
The game was targeted more towards Japanese audiences due to the continuing popularity of arcades but was also adopted for International audiences. Unfortunately, there is no word of a European release of the latest installment in the series, Mario Kart GP DX, though it is now available in America.
There is significantly less info available on the reception of this console-turned-arcade version of Mario Kart. From what I’ve gathered, the arcade-going public seems to think highly of the game, extolling its excellent graphics and engrossing gameplay. Unfortunately, few professional reviewers have taken a look at it: arcade audiences are significantly smaller than those who played Mario Kart on a console.
Mario Kart has gone through quite the evolution over the last two decades, although the gameplay still remains true to the original, genre-defining game. We’ve seen new characters come and go as well as see new racing tactics evolve, disappear, then resurface only to disappear again. Coins have faded in and out of Mario Kart canon with multiple purposes throughout the series. New game modes have popped up here and there, although it’s safe to say that the main game remains unchanged.
With the upcoming release of Mario Kart 8 and all of the hype that’s accompanying it, it’s important to look back and take a moment to appreciate what a journey the Mario Kart series has been through. Before you dive into the newest installment, bust out that Super Nintendo and take a crack at Super Mario Kart: you’ll be surprised at how familiar it feels.