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.
Super Mario Kart was a commercial smash hit in 1992 and one of the most popular games on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Its unique spin on the arcade racer led to many copycats but no series has ever really been able to usurp the kart-racing genre grand-daddy.
In past reviews I have spoken of the ‘time travel’ effect with some video games and how returning to an old favourite decades later can instantly transport you to that initial childhood memory. I have also written in the F-Zero review about the difficulty of trying to separate the importance of what a game is to the legacy of a franchise or genre and also how to evaluate it from a modern sensibility.
Well, Nintendo’s original in the now very successful Mario Kart franchise compounds both of those ideas. On hearing the bouncy menu music I am quickly thrown back to my old playroom in 1993, playing on a tiny CRT with my younger brother and dad - whom I now suspect was only playing to be the intermediary whenever tempers flared because I had routinely knocked my brother off track with well-timed green shells. Alongside Street Fighter II and the awful Home Alone game we were given for that Christmas with the console, these are some of the earliest gaming memories I have.
Not only that, this title was the birth of what became the mascot kart racing genre and is regularly hailed in many voted lists as one of the greatest games ever made. Which makes this an almost impossible task – how do you review this without leaning on those old cherished recollections or its industry significance? I can’t, in all honesty. But, I will attempt to convey how my experience has been coming back to this old classic in 2022 (happy new year, too!).
Similar to F-Zero, this uses Nintendo’s ‘Mode 7’ graphics technique to simulate the two-dimensional sprites driving in a three-dimensional arena through rotating the background texture map, which was incredibly novel for the time and is still charming despite how dated it looks. The bright Super Mario colour palette still really pops and the character sprites burst with personality.
The single-player is how I have spent the majority of my time but its split-screen multiplayer is the game’s main strength. You select your preferred racer from the Mario series and these are grouped in four weight classes (very light, light, medium and heavy). The lighter characters have much better acceleration but lower top-speed and vice-versa for the heavier ones. I veer towards Toad (very light) as I prefer the instant acceleration over the slower ramp-up that Bowser and Donkey Kong Jnr have once hit by obstacles. But the CPU characters will bully you out of the way constantly, especially on the harder difficulties, so this is something to be considered.
In the Grand Prix (main competitive mode), you will duke it out with the CPU characters in a series of five-lap races on courses designed from levels in Nintendo’s previous mainline Mario game, Super Mario World. The top four of each race gets points depending on where they finish and the tallied points at the end of the series earns the winner with the Gold cup (charmingly illustrated with the characters standing atop a podium as they celebrate).
There are eight different course lands but with most of them being used two or three times each (with more complicated track layouts) to bump up the total circuits to twenty. With the initial three cups (Mushroom, Flower and Star) to race of five tracks each and then the unlockable Special Cup (definitely the trickiest and ending with the infamous Rainbow Road), the game difficulty curve is incredibly balanced. The easiest CPU difficulty (50cc) can be beaten relatively easily although newcomers will likely still need a few attempts to overcome some of the tougher tracks in the Star Cup. The unlockable hardest difficulty (150cc) requires some pin-point driving and track memorisation to regularly beat the CPU for the gold cup and will no doubt generate many clenched teethed expletives on the way to doing it.
To differentiate from F-Zero, the tracks are slightly smaller and the speed reduced to mimic the feel of go-karting. In addition, item boxes are now available when driven over and can range from red or green shells to fire at nearby rivals, banana peels to leave behind you (or ahead) for someone to hit, invincibility stars which also give you greater speed, lightning bolts that make everyone else tiny and slow or ghosts which can steal a nearby racer’s item. The variety in these different power-ups is fantastic and you will find the game gives you the strongest ones (star, lightning) when you are near the back of the pack and when you are at the front you will get the weaker ones like the mushroom (temporary speed boost) or the feather (a rather forgetful one which lets you twirl-jump into the air and was dropped from subsequent games in the series).
There are also coins littered on each track and picking them up will increase your top speed. However, when you are hit by a rival or crash into obstacles then you lose some and once empty your character spins out of control for a brief moment. It’s an aspect which was dropped from many of the following games and has only recently re-appeared in the series, but I can see why it was shelved as it is kind of hard to tell if your top speed is really changing and getting the coins in the item boxes is always disappointing.
The handling of the karts is much more precise than even its sequel on the Nintendo 64 and the game feels like it rewards skilful driving more than luck with items (which is a criticism that has been labelled at the series every instalment since). However, the skid boost in this game is very awkward to pull off but those that can will find they can shave seconds off each lap (particularly handy in the Time Trial mode). I can’t seem to get the handle of it and only use it on tracks with wide corners to get away with it whereas narrow tracks I prefer to simply ease up on the accelerator.
Additionally, the CPU opponents don’t seem to follow the same rules as the player. They have their own special weapons that they use instead of driving over the item boxes and can seemingly use them whenever they feel. They also have the rubber-banding programming that the series is famous for but only really when you are ahead is it noticed (any time your main rival racer is hit you will see them dramatically gain speed on the mini-map below to make sure they are back on your tail). It doesn’t bother me too much given the time this was released and it makes sense to keep the races challenging but when you are fighting for every point on the hardest difficulty, it can grate seeing your points rival steam through the bunch multiple times each race.
This is where my memories of my brother screaming that the game ‘is cheating’ actually kind of makes sense – the CPU characters not only use their special weapons whenever they want, can catch up easily but also can jump over projectiles with military precision, whereas if I try to do it the feeble hop ability fails every time. Previously, my dad and I laughed off my brother’s complaints as childish excuses but now that I am replaying it I can kind of see what he was angry about.
But, despite these issues the game’s still tremendous fun to play and its multiplayer was unbeatable in 1992. Having a second player competing with you and the remaining CPU characters was so exciting; fighting it out over item boxes or laughing at CPU characters getting hit with obstacles added extra level of enjoyment which isn’t quite there on single-player. And then there is the Battle Mode which, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to try out again for this review but is a historically popular additional mode which lets you battle against a friend in one of four arenas. With the aim to hit each other’s karts with weapons, this was a tense experience and truly added to this game’s crown as one of the best multiplayer options.
The little touches also add to the appeal of this game. The jaunty music throughout from Soyo Oka is still as catchy as it ever was (and I love that every character has their own little jingle whenever you finish in the points). And the large mini-map on single-player which takes up the entire bottom half of the screen is arguably wasted space but seeing the mini versions of the character sprites bunched together as you race has an adorable charm that somehow fits the game.
Verdict - I have loved coming back to this old gem. The balanced skill-based racing combined with eccentric power-ups and the simplicity of the controls makes it so easy to pick up and play. The bright visuals and music are fantastic and - to an extent - still hold up to this day as well as the nicely judged difficulty curve. It was a landmark gaming moment as it opened the doors for Nintendo to use their mascot characters in a spin-off game outside of the usual main Super Mario series and replaying it now I am glad to see that it has not lost any of its appeal.