Who would have thought a simple racing game made with crude Mode 7 effects would go on to become one of the most beloved series in gaming? Mario had somewhat of a reputation for starring in games other than platformers, such as Wrecking Crew, Dr. Mario, and even the referee in Mike Tyson’s Punchout so it wasn’t much of a shock to now see him in a racing game. But the fact that not only was it excellent but offered many innovative features and would spawn an entire genre was unprecedented.
Released in 1992 Mario and company take to the streets in head to head racing action rather than butt stomping through different worlds. The 8 characters represent the most popular (at the time) members of the franchise, The Mario brothers, Toad, and Yoshi to Donkey Kong, Bowser, and even a Koopa Troopa. Super Mario Kart was born out of a desire to create a two player racing as opposed to F-Zero’s solitary experience hence the split screen view at all times. The unique mix of straight racing to the finish combined with adding weapons to the mix spawned a genre that still inspires imitators to this day. Even considering its age Super Mario Kart has lost little of its luster and is still an enjoyable experience to this day.
Broken down into 3 Cups (with the Special Cup unlocked after winning 100cc on the prior 3) with 5 tracks each there’s a lot of content on offer. Each race is 5 laps with the top 4 receiving points needed to progress to the end. The option of 50cc and 100cc corresponds to easy and normal difficulty and does more than make the computer faster; it increases computer aggressiveness but it never descends to the rubber band AI bullshit of Mario Kart 64. It’s actually a totally different experience bumping up to 100cc and once you unlock 150cc you’ll need to stay on your toes at all times to even dream of beating the AI.
The introduction of weapons in the mix truly sets Mario kart apart. The traditional Mario items such as turtle shells, mushrooms, and stars are joined by banana peels, lightning to miniaturize the competition and the feather for bigger jumps. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as trailing whoever is in first place only to get a red shell that seeks out and blasts them, enabling you to steal a last minute win. Although the items are simpler than in later installments they serve the shorter tracks well. Anyone in lower positions has a higher chance of getting the better items such as stars or red shells which has always been a point of contention; I will say because the items are so simple in this game it isn’t as bad as some of the later games.
One gameplay feature Super Mario Kart has over some of the series later entries is the use of coins. The coins scattered around the track serve multiple purposes. First and foremost they help you reach your maximum speed; for slower characters such as Donkey Kong and Bowser they are crucial. Secondly any collisions with other players or weapons will cause you to lose a few coins rather than spin out. In 100cc and above you’ll be making a mad dash for those coins as the computer is ruthless. Lastly any time you fall in lava or the boundaries of a track Lakitu will pick you up for a few coins. With nothing to pay him with you’ll have to climb out yourself which is pretty much the kiss of death. A lot of these features are rather innocuous so it’s easy to overlook until five racers pound you from behind and you basically have an epileptic fit on the track. I don’t see why they were removed from the later games as it fit with the Mario theme of the series.
While the single player is fun the multiplayer is what helped Super Mario Kart rise to fame. And unfortunately it’s a bit lacking in this first game. The 2-player limit couldn’t be helped at the time but at the same time there are other aspects that are wanting. The arenas are far too big for just two people, leaving large periods where you won’t even see your opponent. Also the weapon selection is a bit too simple for exciting matches outside of using well timed feather jumps to dodge turtle shells. That’s not to say it isn’t fun but the novelty of it will wear off pretty quickly.
Mode 7 is used to simulate a 3d plane like F-Zero however Super Mario Kart is more advanced in that regard. The terrain is more varied than in that game and the Mario theme makes for some very interesting track locales. Time has not been kind to the overall presentation though. What was once a (relatively) beautiful game is now a flickery and pixelated mess. You can definitely see how this was revolutionary at the time and appreciate it for what it is but a pretty game it is not. The music however is still excellent.
Despite over 9 games in the series (including the arcade games) the original Mario Kart is still worth a shot. It won’t turn heads but in terms of gameplay it is still one of the best kart racers of all time.