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RETRO Game Review - Mario Kart: Super Circuit (GBA)

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

There are so many games to choose from these days and different platforms that it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. And, sometimes you simply want to delve into an old favourite or a series you have heard great things about but never played. Nothing wrong with it, no judging here. In fact, I am definitely guilty of spending many hours playing the old timers as much as the shiny new stuff. So, in this particular section, I will take the time to play a game of the past which could range from the NES era all the way to the Xbox 360/PS3 generation and share my thoughts with a rating out of five.

The Game Boy Advance’s Mario Kart: Super Circuit (2001) is a perfect blend of elements from both its predecessors on Nintendo’s home systems and is a smashing entry in the series in its own right.

Developed as an early release for Nintendo’s GBA console by Intelligent Systems, it was a massive success both critically and commercially however was always one I had missed due to never owning any handheld machine. But, with the recent news from the latest Nintendo Direct that they will be releasing further downloadable content historical tracks for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe pulling from the entire pantheon of the series, I felt it was time to get properly acquainted with this particular game.

Although, I have to declare that I still don’t own a GBA and instead opted for the crushingly expensive Game Boy Player method on a GameCube so that I can play it on a big screen. It’s undoubtedly the optimal way to play this as the GameCube controller maps perfectly to the controls and the feel of the driving is improved with the analogue stick. Of course, if you were to factor in the price of this method into the review then you would need to remove at least six stars from the overall score.

Although it was released over four years after the N64 game, it feels more like a true sequel to the Super Nintendo version. This is mostly because of the hardware power of the GBA more closely resembling the SNES and so the tracks have that pseudo 3D feel through the Mode 7-like graphics technique. But, it does re-use the ‘not-quite-proper-3D’ character models of the N64 game and voice samples (roster too) as well as the majority of the power items, making it a lovely mix of the two previous titles.

Who's your go-to? Toad for me. Wahooo!

Meeting the Standards of Past Games

If you have played a Mario Kart game before, you know the drill by now. Race with your chosen Mushroom Kingdom character through a series of cups with four circuits each and multiple difficulty settings to unlock further cups, with wacky items being used in races to scupper your opponents. The CPU characters will be pushovers in the 50CC setting but by 150CC each race can be an intense teeth-gritting experience with every mistake potentially costing you that gold cup.

The rubber-banding design of the previous games is also present as when you fall behind you will start to get more powerful items like Invincibility Stars or the Lightening power which makes everyone else miniscule and slow. But, there will also be the same few difficult CPU characters which will seem to catch you easily when in the lead. These are almost expected at this point and in no way is a detractor as ultimately the races are always exciting.

The circuits are a fun mixture of typical Mario milieu with some variants on the Mario Circuit, Bowser Castle and haunted boardwalk tracks but also feature some more unusual environments like the Sky Garden, Cheese Land (looks exactly as you would imagine) and the Sunset Wilds desert – which has a neat time-pass system so that over each lap the circuit changes from afternoon to night. Because of the manic action and the many twisty course designs, there is also a helpful arrow indicator which pops up to give some notice for sharp turns and was likely included as a useful way to aid players on the original small-screen GBA system.

It has all of the bells and whistles you expect from a Mario Kart game in that the visuals are colourful, varied and charming and the music is fitting for each course and stupendously catchy too. The controls also feel better than the original game although I am using the GameCube controller so it’s not as clear-cut and they also seem slightly less ‘skiddy’ than the N64 version but, again I can’t speak for actually playing it on the GBA system itself.

The detailed and colourful background art really helps with the immersion of a 3D environment

Setting New Standards

One of this game’s main iterations that is still being employed in the series to this date is the Cup Rating system. This is simply a final rating on your performance throughout the four races and usually requires you winning each comfortably to get the best grade. However, it does add to the longevity with this game because once you have beaten each one and earned gold, then there is still something to strive for to play more. This was the main issue that the previous Mario Kart 64 was slated for as it barely had any replayability factor on single-player and this new system in this game feels like a direct response to that criticism.

Additionally, there are at least 50 coins to grab on each track and when finishing a cup you are granted with your total collected. In the race they provide you a slight speed increase but when accumulated over the cup and reached a total of 100 then you unlock the Extra Cups which is the entire collection of the original SNES tracks revamped with the GBA art style. This is an incredible extra feature that has had me replaying this game over each difficulty multiple times to unlock all of the circuits on all three settings and genuinely loving seeing these as a prize to unlock. The SNES circuits are a lot shorter so races are five-laps instead of three but having the original music return is such a lovely touch and hits all the right nostalgia nerves.

Again, there are also options for Time Trial and Battle Modes as well as multiplayer races but as usual with these reviews I haven’t really been able to delve into these features. For GBA users the game was notable for allowing multiple people to play even with only one copy of the game (although some options being limited as far as I understand) which is a welcome choice given many developers would have chosen to restrict users without their own copy.

Verdict – This is a stellar product because it retains all of the great elements of the first two games in the series and built on wonderful unlockables to add fantastic replayability. It’s possibly the least known or remembered of the series which is a shame considering how great the tracks are and the amount of content contained within would set the standard for the foreseeable games in the franchise. Considering this was an early GBA game and not developed by the main in-house Nintendo EAD team, this was a sublime achievement and still brilliant fun all these years later.

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