Across twenty-two years, the Mario Kart franchise has – undoubtedly – traveled a long way to reach the anti-gravity antics that will power its upcoming eighth installment. Features have come and gone, concepts have been introduced and replaced, and significant advances have been made to the series’ overall gameplay. Hence, in anticipation for the release of Mario Kart 8, there is no better time to look back on a magnificent track record of fun racing.
Super Mario Kart (1992)
Super Mario Kart was born out of Nintendo’s wish to, in contrast to the single-player centric F-Zero, create a racing title that had vast multiplayer options. At first, the still unnamed game was not intended to feature characters from the Mario universe, and – likewise – its tracks were not meant to be dressed up with the Mushroom Kingdom scenarios explored two years earlier in Super Mario World. However, when developers decided to test an early version of the software by placing Mario aboard one kart, the pieces began to fall in place, and it became clear that a Mario-themed racer would be the most appealing choice.
The game remains as the franchise’s greatest technological achievement. The Mode 7 Chip, first used to give birth to F-Zero, allowed the scenario and track to rotate around the vehicles, creating a marvelous tridimensional mirage. In spite of the heavy use of that effect, the races ran extremely smoothly at decent speeds even when two of the eight on-screen characters were being controlled by human players. Nintendo was, then, able to create the franchise’s signature frantic races on a machine with limited technology.
Aside from full-fledged racing, the multiplayer focus given to the game since the first stages of its development became clear on the existence of a very fun battle mode. Though it was simple and limited to human players, the matches were completely addictive, and – like pretty much every concept incepted into the game – it would become a staple on the hundreds of go-kart games Super Mario Kart would inspire during the years to come.
Super Mario Kart is notable for holding a few tracks and shortcuts that have some platforming values, occasionally forcing players to jump – or use the famous feather item – to clear devilish obstacles, such as the iconic broken bridge on Donut Plains 3. Those hurdles, that become more frequent as players progress through the cups, and the tightness of tracks turned this first installment into one of the franchise’s most challenging games.
Remarkably, such level of difficulty was achieved without having other racers lean too heavily on items, as each CPU-controlled character was limited to the use of a single type of weapon. To win the hardest races, skill was a must, and so was collecting a good number of coins – which allowed players to go faster and avoid spinning out of control when hit by items.
Super Mario Kart was a fantastic beginning to a lengthy journey. It provided the Super Nintendo with one of its finest moments, and it inaugurated a genre that – more than two decades later – still stands strong and relevant, being an endless source of either competitive struggles or silly family fun. In its charming simple ways, it created a legacy that few games can claim to have matched.
Mario Kart 64 (1997)
As the Big N jumped into the 3-D world with the Nintendo 64, the Mario Kart series went along for the ride, establishing the now commonplace notion that for every step forward the company would take with their hardware, the racing franchise would follow. Mario Kart 64 came into a world on which the go-kart mechanics defined by its predecessor were starting to be explored by other companies.
Consequently, not only did it have plenty of rivals, it also had to face the toughest competition of any Mario Kart game up to this very day. After all, Diddy Kong Racing loomed large and bright on the very same system, while Crash Team Racing came out as Naughty Dog’s stellar response to those two Nintendo-based titles.
Mario Kart 64 did away with the coins that added an extra layer of skill to the gameplay of Super Mario Kart, and introduced what would turn out to be the franchise’s most infamous item: the blue shell. However, since the item targeted numerous racers, instead of only the leader, and produced the same effects as a regular shell once it hit somebody, it was a rather tame version compared to the winged bombs of doom that now haunt those who are frequently ahead of the pack.
On a more positive note, this first tridimensional incursion was also responsible for creating Mirror Mode, a smart twist that toys with the brains accustomed to turning the other way after playing the cups a handful of times; the power slide, a skill-demanding maneuver that was specially hard to pull off on Mario Kart 64, allowing players to gain small boosts after the turns; and drafting.
Thanks to the console’s four controller ports, the multiplayer madness soared to unbelievable heights. While races certainly gained from that fact, it was the battle mode that truly shone. Nintendo crafted four stunning arenas varied in structure and theme (including the masterpiece Block Fort), paving the way for long hours of warfare on wheels. It marks – by far – the very peak achieved by the franchise in regards to the Battle Mode.
The game’s set of sixteen tracks offered some rather remarkable designs, such as: the gargantuan Wario Stadium; the enormous fan service of Royal Raceway and its Super Mario 64 castle; the traffic madness of Toad’s Turnpike, which would go on to be reused in many tracks from future installments; the railway crossing on Kalimari Desert; and Yoshi’s Valley tortuous maze.
The defining trait that united most of the tracks, though, was their length. Never again would a Mario Kart game feature courses that were so huge. Pretty much every single game that followed Mario Kart 64 had three-lap races that lasted for an average of two minutes; meanwhile, some of the tracks here hosted races that went on for over four minutes, with Rainbow Road (the longest Mario Kart track of all) and Wario Stadium surpassing the five-minute margin.
In the end, in spite of its multiplayer fun, Mario Kart 64 paled, especially in terms of graphics and single-player content, in relation to its two biggest generational rivals: Crash Team Racing and Diddy Kong Racing. It was challenging – mostly due to its insane rubber-band AI – and a lot of fun, offering some unforgettable racing moments, but – back in 1997 – a few other companies were able to do go-kart racing better than Nintendo.