Launchin' Red Shells Like It Ain't No Thang
Super Mario KartPlatform: Super Nintendo | Genre: Racing
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Nintendo | Released: 1992
Mascot platformer characters like Crash Bandicoot and Banjo Kazooie have been joining other cute and cuddly animated characters from assorted film and TV licenses in a seemingly never-ending sea of cheaply made, mostly not very fun, goofball racing games for as long as most game enthusiasts can recall. One, singular game is to blame for this trend. The entirety of the kart racing genre is pretty much the fault of Super Mario Kart, Nintendo's near-perfect blending of the Super Mario universe with a ridiculously fun combat-oriented style of go-kart racing. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but quite frankly, that's all pretty much any subsequent kart racer has managed to do: imitate. Nobody--not even Nintendo itself--has managed to recapture the utterly brilliant simplicity of the original Super Mario Kart, though certainly not from a lack of trying.
A first glance at Super Mario Kart in the modern age might make you wonder what all the hubbub was about, considering that it doesn't do much of anything that a billion other kart racers haven't done since. But at the time of its release, it was the only game of its kind. Mario Kart was about as great a pick-up-and-play racer as you could find anywhere. Eight characters from the Mario universe were included--the brothers Mario themselves, perennial Bowser captive Princess Peach, the aforementioned captor Bowser, old-timey Mario nemesis Donkey Kong, good and evil grunts Toad and Koopa Troopa, and Mario's dinosaur buddy, Yoshi--and every racer fell into one of four categories. The bigger guys were slower at the start but could maintain higher top speeds. Others could accelerate faster, handle turns better, or do each of the three just about right.
The game set your chosen racer on a path to kart racing glory, with four single-player circuits, each with four different track environments that borrowed themes from the previous Mario games (primarily Super Mario World). Ghost houses, donut plains, choco islands, Bowser's castle, and the legendary rainbow road were just some examples of the kooky tracks you could race across, and each was jam-packed with shortcuts, crazy obstacles, and awesome weapon pickups.
Weapons and combat are a big part of what made Super Mario Kart so frenetic and fun. Simply driving over one of several question-mark icons on any given track would start a random roll of the dice that would eventually provide you with one of the game's goofy attacks. Stars would turn you temporarily invincible, green and red shells could be shot from your kart (with the red ones actively seeking out the nearest opponent ahead of you), ghosts would turn you invisible and steal the weapon of a nearby racer, and the ever-elusive lightning bolts would shrink the other racers on the track to fun size, making them slower and also crushable via your significantly larger kart. These are just some examples--there were plenty of speed boosts, high jumps, and slippery banana peels to play around with too.
The combative aspect of Mario Kart made it an especially good multiplayer game. Two-player split-screen races were a blast, but the best multiplayer action was to be found in the battle mode. You were given a trio of balloons to surround your kart, and the goal was simply to drive around one of a few square battle arenas (each littered with weapon pickups) and knock your opponent around. Each hit would remove a balloon from your kart, and after all three were gone, it was game over.
Super Mario Kart also took the distinctive visual style of the then-recent Mario games and translated it beautifully into a racing game. The game remains one of the best uses of the Mode-7 graphics engine, scaling everything in the environment better than anyone had seen up to that point and giving it a beautiful look, to boot. Throw in some catchy track tunes, and even catchier little themes for winning racers, and overall, this was a wonderfully presented game.
Gaming society at large has probably all but completely dismissed the kart racing genre, considering that the bottom of the gaming barrel is lined with more cheap cash-in kart racers than you can count on all your fingers and toes. And yet for some reason any time Nintendo announces a new Mario Kart game for one of its platforms, people go nuts. The reason for this is simple: Nintendo practically invented the genre with Super Mario Kart. Though Nintendo has yet to capture the level of excellence of the original Mario Kart with its subsequent follow-ups, people will always hold the franchise in high regard, simply because of what Nintendo managed to achieve with that first, fateful entry.
-- Alex Navarro