MarioKart Arcade GP First Impressions

We take an early look at Namco's arcade incarnation of the GameCube racer.


Visitors to the Amusement Operator's Union (AOU) show that took place in the Makuhari Messe Convention Center late last week got a major surprise when they hit Namco's booth. The company had a playable arcade version of Nintendo's popular home console racing game Mario Kart, titled Mario Kart Arcade GP. Slated for release in the fall, Mario Kart Arcade GP is being developed by Namco on the Triforce, which is an arcade board based on the Nintendo GameCube's architecture, codeveloped by Nintendo, Namco, and Sega in 2002.

From what we saw on the demo version at the AOU show, Mario Kart Arcade GP seems to play with the same basic mechanics as its previous home console releases, although Namco has added a few tweaks to spice up the gameplay. There are 11 characters in the game, eight of which are Nintendo characters and three are Namco. You'll be able to race as Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, Wario, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, Bowser, Toad, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Akabei (the red enemy ghost from Pac-Man). Each of the characters will have different strengths in the final game, but they all had equal abilities in the work-in-progress AOU demo. That and other unimplemented features should be available once the game goes into beta testing, which is scheduled to begin in March.

Mario Kart Arcade GP is the type of racing game that you'll be playing in a cabinet with a driver's seat. The game takes just a few seconds to learn, since it only has two pedals and the driver's handle. The horn on the middle of the handle is the button that you push to use your items. One of the unique things about the Mario Kart machine is that there's a small camera (called the Nam-Cam) above the game's screen that takes a snapshot of your face prior to the match, which gets used as your icon during your race. You'll be seeing your opponents' faces above their characters during the race, so you'll know who's who if you're racing against multiple Warios. The game allows you to race together with up to three other players.

Mario Kart's first arcade entry will even let you insert your own face into the frenzied action.
Mario Kart's first arcade entry will even let you insert your own face into the frenzied action.

Much like in the most recent racing games, Mario Kart Arcade GP lets you save your game data on a rewritable card. Using a card will give you a number of benefits, such as letting you rack up items that you can use in the game and letting you participate in score competitions online.

When you start off Mario Kart Arcade GP, you first pick your character, take a snapshot of your face (but not in single-player mode), and then pick one of 24 courses that are separated into six different worlds, such as a world based on Mario, a world based on Donkey Kong, and a world based on Bowser. You'll also be able to select a weather or a time condition for your race, although that feature wasn't fully implemented at the AOU demo.

After selecting your stage, you get to pick three items out of 100 that you'll be using during your race, and you can collect them by winning races and recording them on cards. If you're not using a card, you'll go through a roulette to choose three of them by luck.

The items, of course, can come in handy when you're falling behind in the race, but Mario Kart Arcade GP has its own unique system to keep the race burning. Although it's really not apparent when you're actually playing the game, Mario Kart Arcade GP features a system called "rubber band," which speeds you up if you're trailing behind in the race. Your car actually becomes faster depending on how far behind the competition you are. The rubber band system gets its name because it allows you to bounce into the front of the race, which in effect will make your opponents fall to the back and then accelerate to the front again, very much like what happens with an elastic band.

If you want to play Arcade GP, for now you'll have to travel to Japan. Will Nintendo and Namco throw US gamers a bone?
If you want to play Arcade GP, for now you'll have to travel to Japan. Will Nintendo and Namco throw US gamers a bone?

As far as the game's visuals go, there's an appreciable difference between Mario Kart Arcade GP's visuals and its GameCube counterpart. The visuals are crisper and feature a greater variety in camera angles, which helps give the action a broader scope. In many ways, when compared to its GameCube cousin, the game's expansive feel is very much like the differences between the arcade and 'cube versions of F-Zero.

Based on this early look, Mario Kart Arcade GP should be a nice arcade appearance by Nintendo's mustachioed mascot and company. The inclusion of Namco characters and tweaked gameplay should differentiate it enough from its console cousin to make it a proper game in its own right. Mario Kart Arcade GP is currently slated to hit arcades in Japan this fall. Specifics on a US release for the game have yet to be revealed.

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