Nintendo's go-kart racer's roster is comprised of Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Donkey Kong Junior, Kooper and Bowser. The statistics of each character are hidden, but each character on the top row has the same attributes (top speed, acceleration and handling) as the character below. Since there are eight playable characters, there are essentially four different types of racers to choose from. Mario/Luigi are balanced, Yoshi/Princess have excellent acceleration, Toad/Koopa Troopa excel in handling, and Bowser/Donkey Kong are the fastest.
Mario Kart GP mode has 4 cups, Mushroom, Flower, Star and Special; each consisting of five tracks. All the tracks are fairly short, often clocking up 18-30 seconds per lap for a total of 5 laps. There are three levels of difficulty; 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc which include faster karts and more aggressive opponents. However, in 50cc, you only have access to the first 3 cups.
At the end of each race, scores are awarded to the top four racers (9 for 1st, 6 for 2nd, 3 for 3rd, and 1 for 4th). At the end of the fifth track, trophies are awarded for the top 3 racers. One thing that irks me about old racing games is where you have to secure a podium finish to continue. It's the same in this game. Miss out on the top 4 and you have to use one of your three retries. Lose all of them and it is game over. I much prefer to accept a loss and move to the next track rather than being forced to replay it.
The controls are straight-forward, A button to accelerate, B to brake, R to jump/power-slide and Y to shoot weapons. The jump ability is very useful for leaping over hazards/small off-road sections and power-sliding gives you a tighter turn. The way the cars handle allows you to either drive simply, or power-slide around the corners; there's a lot of satisfaction if you can whiz around the track without colliding with obstacles/sides or go flying off the track.
The game-play isn't just pure racing; you need to utilise weapons for attack and defence. Driving over question mark blocks which are painted on the floor gives you a weapon from the iconic arsenal; green shell, red shell, banana, Mushroom, Starman, lightning bolt, ghost, and a feather. The shells are fired forward; green shells bounce around the track and red shells home in on their target. You can drop shells behind you which basically act like a mine. Bananas cause opponents to spin out when they drive over them. Mushrooms to give you a speed boost, Starman grants you invincibility and temporarily raises your top speed. Lightning Bolt shrinks all 7 of your opponents. Ghost (multiplayer only) makes you invisible and steals an opponent's item. The feather gives you a larger leap which can be used to take shortcuts. The weapon selection isn't as biassed as modern versions; it's quite common to get a red shell when in the top couple of positions.
The weird thing is, the AI controlled opponents have their own weapon system. Each character has a single special weapon that they use; Bowser's Fireball, Peach's Toadstool, Yoshi's Egg, but other characters do use one item from your roster like Koopa has the green shell, Mario and Luigi have Starman. Additionally, they will leap over any weapon dropped by other AI controlled opponents.
Collecting coins scattered around the track will give you a small boost to speed, and offer some protection when hit. You lose a couple of coins when hit by items, and a single coin if you collide with another driver. If you have zero coins, you will take a greater hit and lose more time. Falling off the track will cause Lakitu to sweep down to catch you, taking a few coins as a charge for his services. The computer opponents cannot collect coins, so much like the weapon system; it's one rule for you and another for everyone else.
Due to the brevity of the tracks, there doesn't seem to be much weapon use, but if you do get hit, it becomes a high penalty. Losing 2-4 seconds on a lap that lasts 18 seconds is a high percentage, which can mean you often go from 1st to 5th in one hit. If that happens on the final lap, it is rage- inducing. Finishing second place at the end of the Mario Kart GP mode is a common occurrence. The computer opponents are incredibly consistent, meaning that you have to finish 1st at least three times and are almost certainly required to finish 2nd twice. If you come second, you can almost guarantee your rival will be 1st; so finishing 3rd or 4th on a single race basically ends your chances of taking the title.
There's a Time Trial mode to set your fastest times. This is pure racing against the clock, and you don't even get any Mushroom power-ups as speed boosts like in future editions of the game. The multiplayer allows two players to play the main Grand Prix game mode, Match Race; a one-on-one race with items, or play Battle Mode; a last-man standing death-match which takes place in an arena.
Much like F-Zero, the game utilises Nintendo's 'Mode 7' technology, which created the illusion of 3D by scaling and rotation of bit-mapped tiles. Mostly, the graphics look nice, but there's a few tracks where the floor tiles or the backgrounds look ugly and are hard to focus on. Also like F-Zero, the game is played in split-screen, even in single player. On the lower half, you have a map which shows the positions of the other racers.
Nintendo's games usually contain great music, and this soundtrack was one I always appreciated.
Back in 1992, Super Mario Kart was a landmark game, a pioneer of the kart-racing genre, and launching one of Nintendo's most popular franchises. It holds up well for a 23 year old game and is nearly as good as I remember. The weird weapon system and the extreme difficulty are the main culprits, but there's plenty of enjoyment to be had.