Surely, Super Mario Kart will not blow the minds of those who have gone through more recent entries of the series; yet, the game will likely be able to entertain and make one look rather fondly to the franchise’s very well-designed beginning
With so many installments under its belt and appearances pretty much guaranteed, not to mention highly anticipated, on every single Nintendo platform, it is hard to – nowadays – wrap one’s mind around the idea that, at some point in time, Mario Kart did not exist and was not an integral and very important part of the gaming universe. However, such were the days before 1992, when the career of the world’s most famous plumber still solely consisted of saving damsels in distress from the clutches of the latest villain.
In taking the character out of his comfort zone, Super Mario Kart changed all of that: besides marking the inception of what is one of the greatest multiplayer experiences in existence, it left its mark in history by opening up the door to countless Mario spin-off games and spawning numerous imitators that, in trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to capture its excellence, ended up originating the kart racing genre, where the human passion for motorsports meets the whimsical and outlandish wackiness of gaming’s most colorful worlds.
Truthfully, Super Mario Kart’s legacy is not entirely spotless: Mario spin-offs have been terribly irregular even if they have yielded some remarkable titles that rank among the best of all time; and kart racers have often been quick and poorly produced cash-ins, even if some great diamonds can still be found in the rough. Nevertheless, for a game to have such a considerable impact on so many areas and to create a franchise that has stood strong for so many years, with no slowdowns whatsoever in sight, it must hold a vast number of praiseworthy qualities; and those of Super Mario Kart, despite the fact it has been surpassed and improved by many of its successors, remain – for the most part – quite appealing, producing a take on kart racing that is not found anywhere else in the saga.
Super Mario Kart was not born with the intention to make Mario, his friends, and his foes sit on karts and race through familiar scenarios of the Mushroom Kingdom. The original target was to actually build a standard kart racing game with regular characters; that goal, though, quickly changed when one of the developers decided to test how Mario would look aboard one of the vehicles. That piece of information is important not just for the sake of historical contextualization, but also because such an origin story strongly reflects on the title’s gameplay. Sure, Super Mario Kart adorns its racing with a delightful assortment of absurd elements that have now become staples of the saga; still, in the heart of its mechanics lies a very traditional core.
While more modern Mario Kart games, starting with the second installment of the saga, Mario Kart 64, have ventured into locations and track designs that are either too outrageous or that could be used for the racing of a myriad of vehicles, the stages of Super Mario Kart were designed, quite obviously, with karts in mind. These are circuits packed into such tiny spaces that they could, with a lot of effort and creativity, be nicely reproduced in tight parking lots around the world even if some elements such as the deadly lava, occasional jumps, or face-hugging Monty Moles would have to be left out for the safety of the general public.
And, like most kart tracks, which have to make good use of the space they are allotted, the twenty circuits of Super Mario Kart are a combination of short straights and tight turns. Surely, some of that simplicity could be attributed to the technological limitations of the time, which did not give track designers any vertical space to have fun with, consequently producing entirely plane tracks. However, the fact remains that Super Mario Kart is quite true to the sport it is based on; or, at least, as true as the Mario Kart series has ever been.
Coming on the heels of the incredibly successful Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart uses that game as its main source of inspiration for the visual assets that give the Super Mario stamp to this kart racing experience. With the exception of the speedy and high-grip asphalt of Mario Circuit, the sandy shores of Koopa Beach, and the legendary Rainbow Road, with its absent guardrail, all tracks of the game take place in the worlds and levels of the Super Nintendo’s platforming classic: there is Donut Plains, with its dirt roads and bridges; Choco Island, with its puddles of mud; Vanilla Lake, with its heavy snow; Ghost Valley, with its rickety hole-ridden wooden boards; and Bowser’s Castle, with its jumps over lava.
The gameplay of Super Mario Kart is, as expected, quite simple and easy to grasp. Races occur over five laps and, other than steering, accelerating, and breaking, players can use the A button to release items and the shoulder buttons to jump, which comes quite in handy to cut some corners by hopping over water or other small obstacles. The now traditional four cups (Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special) each contain five races and, in all of them, players must rank within the top four, in which they are awarded points according to their final position; failing to do so will cause them to rank out, lose a life, and have to restart the race from the beginning.
As gamers always enter the cups with three lives, they have room for three errors before another failure gets them kicked out to the starting screen, unless they are able to acquire an extra life by finishing three times in a row in the same position. Finally, coins, which can be found all over the tracks, are quite valuable, as not only do they give one their kart’s top speed once 10 are accumulated, but holding none while bumping onto a rival means players will spin out of control and, consequently, lose a lot of time.
The ranking out system, which is a relic from a time game designers slapped lives onto whatever kind of title they were developing regardless of whether it was necessary or not, has both a good and a bad side. From a bright perspective, and given Super Mario Kart does get quite hard down the line, it is nice to have the opportunity to recover from one’s mistakes or from sheer bad luck. From a negative standpoint, meanwhile, if one has performed relatively well in a race but has, despite that, failed to reach a satisfying position that will either land them the championship or give them a bigger edge on the standings, it is possible to simply pause the game and retry it, which is not exactly fair. As such, the system employed in more contemporary Mario Kart games, in which players can either accept the position in which they will finish or restart the cup from the beginning, is far smarter.
Super Mario Kart starts out easy enough. Players that are relatively skilled in the series will likely be able to navigate the first of the game’s three levels of difficulty – 50cc – without much trouble. However, the challenge climbs up the hill quite quickly once 100cc is reached and can rise to brutal levels in 150cc, especially in the utterly devilish tracks of the Special Cup. Many are the reasons behind that. Firstly, the scenarios found in Super Mario Kart are not just pretty worthy reproductions of what was shown in Super Mario World, they are also packed with hazards, usually in the form of enemies, taken straight from that universe; and since tracks are pretty tight, escaping Thwomps that stand in the way or Mounty Moles that pop out of holes, not to mention environmental hurdles like ice blocks, lava, water, broken bridges, and more, while overtaking rivals, staying on the track, and being wary of items, is tough.
Secondly, the narrowness of the tracks combined with the sharpness of some turns makes it quite important that racers break or slow down in order to negotiate some of the more difficult parts of the circuits, a gameplay necessity that got lost with time as the franchise went on. Thirdly, and on what may be one of Super Mario Kart’s most glaring issues, the performance of the game’s AI is practically set in stone; that is, the speed of the other racers will depend on what character players choose to use. For example, racing as Luigi will cause Yoshi to be very fast, Mario to be fast, Bowser to be medium, Koopa Troopa to be slow, and the trio of Princess Peach, Donkey Kong Jr., and Toad to be very slow. What that means is that, save for some cataclysmic event, AI-controlled characters will always finish in that order when players are racing as Luigi, which – as a consequence – makes the unpredictability of race results very low and forces those who want to win the championship to have excellent ranks in all stages of the cups, as the fastest character will most likely win all races if players fail to outperform them.
Furthermore, the fourth ingredient that plays a big role regarding the difficulty of Super Mario Kart is its very unique item system. Absolutely none of the items present in the Super Nintendo outing will be a surprise to those who have only tackled more recent Mario Kart games: there is the mushroom, for a temporary speed boost; the banana, which can be launched backwards or forwards; the green shell and its smarter version, the red shell; the feather, for jumping over items, cutting corners, or accessing some of the circuits’ best shortcuts; the lightning bolt, which makes all rivals tiny and slow; the ghost, for invisibility; and the star, for extra speed and invincibility. What is different, though, is that the probability of getting a good item – though still dependent on one’s rank – is not uneven to the point players in the back of the pack are guaranteed to get stars and lightning bolts while those in the front have no access whatsoever to those weapons.
Due to that, and also thanks to how Super Mario Kart’s tracks are shockingly short, with laps rarely going above the twenty-second mark, climbing up the leaderboard after a stumble is much tougher than it is in all of its sequels: mistakes are punished quite effectively. As yet another quirk when it comes to the item system of Super Mario Kart, there is how characters controlled by the CPU can only use one specific item that is related to their nature: Donkey Kong Jr., for example, only launches bananas; Bowser, meanwhile, releases a fire ball, completely exclusive to the villain, that spins around the area in which it was used; Koopa Troopa uses green shells; Mario and Luigi take advantage of stars; Yoshi employs his signature egg; and both Toad and Peach throw a mushroom that makes rivals tiny.
Although it is a limitation that makes it seem like some racers have the edge over others, especially Mario and Luigi with their invincibility-granting and speed-altering stars, the game’s balance remains unaltered given all characters make pretty great use of the item they are assigned to.
Where Super Mario Kart could have obviously done a far better job when it comes to the gameplay equilibrium is in the quality of the drivers. Separated into four categories, each with two racers, there is a big gap between how easy it is to successfully use them. While Koopa Troopa and Toad have excellent grip and rarely skid, most of the other characters – albeit being much faster – are far harder to control in turns than these two, which severely limits the usage of the roster by those who do not have the patience to master the others’ driving styles. Although it is admirable that there is a good amount of variety to choose from, those differences could have been implemented in a far more accessible way, as it would be done in future Mario Kart releases.
The greatest touch of Super Mario Kart, and by far the area within the game from which players will extract the biggest amount of value, lies in its vast multiplayer mode. While F-Zero, the Super Nintendo’s debut racing game and a title that was built on the same Mode 7 technology upon which Super Mario Kart was constructed, was limited to just one mode (of single-player-only gameplay), Super Mario Kart – perhaps taking advantage of the advances in technology between 1990 and 1992 – successfully takes tridimensional racing to two players.
The result is so excellent that while there is plenty of fun to be had in, alone, winning all cups in Mario GP and besting one’s times in Time Trials, it is clear the focus of Super Mario Kart lied, from the get go, in its multiplayer experience, so much – in fact – that, sadly, it is impossible to play single-player modes in full-screen, as the bottom half is always reserved to showing either a map or a rear-view mirror perspective, with players being able to switch between both by using the X button.
Alongside a human rival, it is possible to play either Mario GP, in which case the two players will be racing a regular cup against other six CPU racers; a good old-fashioned one-on-one Match Race; or the legendary Battle Mode. In that last option, with four battle arenas to choose from, the two players will race around these maps looking for item boxes so that they can use shells, bananas, and other pieces of the game’s arsenal to pop the three balloons tied to the kart of their competitor. It is undeniable such Battle Mode, like pretty much the entirety of Super Mario Kart, has gained superior and more complete versions for other Nintendo consoles; nonetheless, these battles, not differently from the races themselves, still hold a certain degree of mindless fun.
And, in a way, that statement nicely sums up playing Super Mario Kart from a modern perspective. It is clear the franchise has greatly and naturally advanced since its first installment: graphics have become better, songs and scenery have become more varied, races have included more competitors, tracks have grown to outstandingly insane levels of design, and the experience has become more polished. However, Super Mario Kart – as the game of the series that is truest to kart racing itself, thanks to its simplicity – packs an exciting challenge of a kind that cannot be found in any of the other installments. Surely, Super Mario Kart will not blow the minds of those who have gone through more recent entries of the series; yet, the game will likely be able to entertain and make one look rather fondly to the franchise’s very well-designed beginning.