August 07, 2004

Article at 1UP

1UP's Essential 50: #29 Super Mario Kart

Super Mario Kart
 Super NES
Date: 1992
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo


  • Created ubiquitous "mascot racing" genre
  • Popularized concept of mascot spin-off games
  • Helped maintain Mario's position as most popular gaming mascot ever
  • Gave Nintendo necessary boost in the 16-bit console wars

Mario A-Go-Go

The recipe is simple enough: take a few mascot characters, stuff them in go-karts, give them weapons and let them loose on a variety of tracks. We've seen it time and time again, from Muppet Racing to Star Wars Super Bombad Racing -- you could argue that it's the most unoriginal concept for a game possible. So it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the original Super Mario Kart was one of the most innovative and imaginative games of its time.

It may not look it, but this was seriously hardcore back in the day.
It may not look it, but this was seriously hardcore back in the day.

Maybe it's best if we stop for a moment and cast our minds back to the dark and grungy days of 1992. Mario's fortunes had changed since the days of Super Mario Bros. Nintendo had quickly seized upon his popularity and turned him into the company's imaginary spokesperson, and his role had begun to shift from plumber to hero to jack-of-all-trades. But his popularity faced a serious challenge from an up-and-coming rival: Sonic the Hedgehog.

The Sonic-versus-Mario fight was a perfect symbol for the battle between Sega and Nintendo that defined the 16-bit console era. Nintendo and Mario were icons, powerful and established, but they were being out-maneuvered and out-fought by a younger, hipper, edgier rival. Sonic had attitude. Sega had the scream. Mario was a fat plumber in overalls. Something needed to be done.

Nintendo largely chose not to fight fire with fire; rather trying to make Mario seem hip (that one regrettable "Play it Loud!" campaign aside), the company chose to further diversify his range. Sonic was outracing Mario at the platforming game, so Nintendo instead set their sights on giving their plumber a better showing in other genres. They began by giving him an added dose of speed: a racing game.

Mode 7

The Super NES had already proven itself to be an exceptional machine for racing games -- although its processor ran at half the speed of the Genesis, Nintendo's custom chipset gave its hardware significant advantages. The most famous of these was "Mode 7," one of a set of special graphical modes the Super NES was capable of displaying. While the console had six other modes, it was Mode 7 that stood out -- it allowed games to create pseudo-3D effects that put the console on par with advanced arcade hardware like Sega's System 16. The technology was used with reckless abandon to little effect in the early days (try finding an early SNES game that didn't feature the title screen or company logos scaling or rotating their way on-screen), but it also paved the way for more realistic racing games. The first example of this was F-Zero, which cleverly didn't bother moving the car around the circuit -- it moved the circuit around the car. By pasting the car in the middle of the screen and then scaling and rotating the track past it, you had a reasonable approximation of a 3D world that worked wonders for racing games.

Castlevania IV's infamous spinning room stages were one of the first effective uses of Mode 7 technology.
Castlevania IV's infamous spinning room stages were one of the first effective uses of Mode 7 technology.

F-Zero, which had turned heads not only with its sleek design but also with its unprecedented sense of realism. Home consoles had never played host to such a fast-paced racing experience with such a free range of motion -- Mode 7's rotation effects allowed the player's sporty hovercraft to move freely through the track, even in reverse. It wasn't true 3D, and in retrospect it's obvious that the racetracks were simply giant bitmap graphics stretched to look like a vast sheet. In 1991, however, it was truly breathtaking, and provided a vital tool for Nintendo's efforts to withstand Sega's relentless media campaigns.

Super Mario Kart was built on the same technology as F-Zero. In fact, Mario's racing debut was largely a facelift of the earlier game -- the pace was slowed down, the graphics were changed, and weapons were added. But the same dazzling sense of three-dimensional motion was present, and the technology of Mode 7 allowed tracks to be something more than mere start-to-finish straightaways. Hairpin turns, traps and even secret shortcuts littered each course and made Mario Kart an unprecedented racing experience.


"All of my favourite games are marked out by the great personal experiences I've had playing them with my friends. With Super Mario Kart, my best friend bought the game mere hours after I did and developed the same addiction to it I did. We played that game so much that we ended up on a remarkably even footing. Through at least a solid year of playing -- be it in Battle, VS or Grand Prix -- we obliterated all our friends but somehow never quite decided which of us was the better. It's also special for me because it was probably the last time we'd have such even, close competition: Where I became the gaming nut you see before you now, my friend became a casual gamer.

"Mind you, we're all still Mario Kart fans today, and we do play Double Dash every so often, but since I'm the only one with a GameCube it's a bit unfair. Still, I'm a fan of the Mario Kart sequels. I know they're not quite the same as the original -- even the GBA version, which used a Mode 7-esque engine but applied it to tracks and gameplay based on the N64 version -- but I appreciate the different spin they've brought to the series. I was never a huge fan of Battle Mode (a rarity, I know), but chucking more weapons into the race modes made the N64 and GameCube races a more madcap experience. It's a different sort of fun to the races in the SNES game.

"Still, I do miss the SNES version, and playing it again for this feature really brought that home to me. I miss Mario Kart actually being more about racing than blowing your opponent away on the final lap, because Super Mario Kart really did have a great racing engine... even if single-player races at higher classes tended to devolve into trying not to make a single mistake while the computer (quite literally) throws everything at you.

"And thinking back, it's strange to see how commonplace something like Mario Kart is nowadays. I still remember -- hell, I still HAVE the EGM where I first set my eyes on Super Mario Kart (sometimes spelt "Mario Cart" -- oops!). It didn't quite look right... and yet it looked completely right, and I had to have it no matter what. After all, when you see a screenshot of Mario driving around the green pipes in the Mushroom Circuit trying to whack Bowser with a red shell... you just know it'll be a fun game." -- Ravi Hiranand

Recipe for Success

F-Zero had already pioneered free-roaming 3D speed on the Super NES; Mario Kart stood apart through its emphasis on the series' characters. By placing Mario and his friends (and foes) behind the wheel, the focus became the characters rather than the cars themselves. Go-karts were perfectly suited to the races: they allowed full view of the characters, were as transparent as possible ("forget Donkey Kong, I want Mario because he's in a red Ferrari!"), and stressed the fun, light-hearted feel of the game. Real-world circuits were dumped in favor of locales inspired by the Mario series: ghost houses, Thwomp-laden castles, even a rainbow.

But even that would have made for a fairly standard racer; the crowning touch was the escalation of the competitive nature of racing with offensive weaponry. Like the courses, the power-ups and projectiles were a perfect complement to the characters, translating the skills and powers of the Mario series to a racing setting yet remaining true to the franchise, and to the sport of kart racing. Not only was the combination endlessly addictive, it also created a template for a sub-genre which remains incredibly popular.

The two-character dynamics of MK Double Dash for GameCube was a fine tweak, but the lack of online support hurt many people's opinion of the game.
The two-character dynamics of MK Double Dash for GameCube was a fine tweak, but the lack of online support hurt many people's opinion of the game.

Nintendo's development team took care to make their dynamic new racer a well-balanced experience, which was largely accomplished by refining each racer's attributes. As the lead man, Mario (and his brother Luigi) were the all-rounders who possessed speed and acceleration in equal proportions, without excelling at either. Heavyweights Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr. were slow starters, but had the fastest top speed. Lightweights Peach and Yoshi were the fastest off the blocks, while Toad and Koopa Troopa had the best acceleration (thanks to their low centers of gravity). 

The mandatory split-screen also ensured that multiplayer (only two players in those days) was a priority with Super Mario Kart, and to this day it's still regarded as one of the best competitive racers ever created. Super Mario Kart matches were more about actual racing skill than the roving battles commonly seen in modern mascot racers, because there was usually just one weapon pick-up per lap. Those of a more violent nature were also catered for with the Battle Mode, another first for the racing genre. Battles in Super Mario Kart were simple one-on-one affairs in a tight arena where the first to hit the other three times won... but it was never that simple or that easy. Red shells weren't as accurate as in the sequels, while green shells were faster -- especially when they were bouncing between two walls right in front of you.

A Hard Act to Follow

Super Mario Kart's combination of originality and simplicity have made it hopelessly difficult to duplicate. Ask the countless developers that have attempted to improve on it without success -- including Sega, with both Sonic Drift and Sonic R. One of the more notable efforts was Ubisoft's Street Racer, which brought a soccer mode as well as a four-player mode to the table, but still lacked Super Mario Kart's eminent playability. Even Nintendo themselves have created three sequels to Super Mario Kart -- on N64, GBA and GC -- all of which have earned a healthy following without ever resonating in quite the same way as the original.

Spawning its own sub-genre was no small feat, but Mario Kart achieved something much more significant as well: it brought Mario back from the brink of irrelevance and kept Nintendo alive for another round of the brutal 16-bit-hardware wars. Nintendo had been working to make Mario a universal mascot for years, but with Mario Kart he was truly freed from the confines of the platform-hopping that made him a star. Over time, this proved to be the key to Mario's longevity; while his traditional adventures are increasingly infrequent (and the most recent Mario platformer, Super Mario Sunshine, was something of a flop), his popularity remains high thanks to his active role in excellent games of every genre. Whether in RPGs, sports, puzzle or party games, Mario continues to be pervasive. Sonic may have won the 16-bit popularity contest with his fast-paced platformers, but it's Mario who endures thanks to his impressive adaptability.

Diddy Kong Racing -- it's just like Mario Kart, but with specular highlighting! Wow!
Diddy Kong Racing -- it's just like Mario Kart, but with specular highlighting! Wow!

At the end of the day, Super Mario Kart set the standard in many ways. It started one of Nintendo's most lucrative franchises -- Mario Kart titles are the best selling SNES and N64 games of all time in Japan. It paved the way for all the Mario spin-offs we see today, from Mario Paint to Mario Party. And it gave Mario something to do between bouts of saving the Mushroom Kingdom, preserving his popularity. 

It also paved the way for the likes of Crash Nitro Kart. But don't let that mislead you -- it was still a great game.

Sonic R
Crash Nitro Kart
Mega Man Battle & Chase
Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing
Muppet Racing
Diddy Kong Racing


Koopa/Toad World Records Site:

This site -- devoted solely to Super Mario Kart records set solely with Koopa and Toad, logically enough -- sadly hasn't been updated for almost a year, but there are still some tough records to challenge there.

Warp Pipe

These guys wanted to play Mario Kart: Double Dash online so badly they created a whole program to trick your GameCube into thinking you're on a LAN when you're actually online. And all that effort only goes to show that an online Mario Kart might just overwhelm the Internet when (if?) it ever shows.

The Mushroom Kingdom:

An invaluable resource for all things Mario. If Super Mario Kart is the daddy of the Mario spin-offs, The Mushroom Kingdom is the family tree. A family tree with pictures and sounds and all sorts of other goodies.