Super Mario Kart: A look back at the racer that kicked your arse and defined a genre...
30th Nov 2011 | 14:22
If the mere sight of the words 'Super Mario Kart' in big letters on these pages makes your nostalgia gland burst through your chest and bounce around the room like an alien at a Tiesto rave, you were clearly around for the glory days.
The days before the dirty Blue Shells, the snaking technique and Nintendo's obsessive consideration for 'family friendliness'. Sure, it had the random item system for that element of unpredictability, but more than any subsequent iteration in the series, Super Mario Kart was about raw skill.
This feature is taken from Games Master Presents Mario Kart. You can purchase the full magazine in stores or order it online and have it delivered straight to your door. It's also available digitally through Apple Newsstand as well as Zinio. Also read CVG's Mario Kart 7 review.
Push aside its colourful visuals, cutesy characters and chirpy music for a moment. Super Mario Kart on the
SNES was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Now, we love every Mario Kart game made, but if there's one thing that the series has lost over the years, it's fear. What does selecting the 150cc mode mean anymore? The karts are slightly faster and you'll need to power slide to keep up. But that's all really.
In Super Mario Kart, 150cc was the 'you're having a laugh mate' mode. Selecting it made the same chirpy 'bling' sound as all the other options, but somewhere inside the cartridge was an evil laugh cackling devilishly as the game's microchips heated up to a glowing red. No more messing about - this thing was about to wreck you like you'd just insulted its mum.
It was brutal. If you played it you will remember the rage. Modern games take trivial things such as fairness and equality way more seriously than games of the early '90s. While you were restricted to random items usually attainable once per lap, the CPU characters each had their own special weapons or powers that they could use infinitely - and usually would to great effect on the last lap, right before the finish line.
The CPU also stuck its middle finger up at such things as 'top speed' or 'a fair rate of acceleration'. Pah. Super Mario Kart players soon learned never to assume that gaining a large lead and taking perfect corners guaranteed a win.
At any moment the game would decide that your fun is over - like a big brother that was just allowing his little brother to have the upper hand in a fight - and seemingly grant a CPU racer with an invisible rocket. It would slap your head as it breezed past you, then return to take a dump in your helmet before you put it back on for the next race. That's how completely merciless it was.
COURSE IT'S NOT FAIR
These moments of unfairness are things we would crucify a game for nowadays, but that is all a big part of the retro charm of Super Mario Kart.
Sure, the game beat you senseless, but then that made it all the more satisfying when you did eventually get the better of it. It was the sort of satisfaction that made you literally leap out of your chair and shout your first four-letter expletives before nervously watching the door, hoping your mum didn't burst in with a slipper in hand.
It isn't just the difficulty level that differentiates Super Mario Kart from its successors. Technological improvements over the years have allowed Nintendo to create larger, wider, more sprawling race tracks. On the other hand, Super Mario Kart's 'Mode 7' visuals - the technique used to create the game's rotating roads were a technical marvel at the time, but its limitations meant the game's courses had to be crammed into a relatively small space.
So does that make the game's courses archaic compared to modern Mario Kart? No. All of this made for courses that are extremely tight and fast-paced.
From the green light to the finishing line, your fingers were alight with activity as you ninja-slid through a constant barrage of tricky twists and turns, banging out five laps in a little over a minute. That, and the added concern for collecting speed-boosting coins, made for the most intense racing in the series to this day and a style of gameplay that none except the very similar Mario Kart Super Circuit on Game Boy Advance has managed to recreate.
Old though they may be, these were courses of many complexities. Multiple paths like those in Bowser Castle 3 split racers up into chaotic groups, while secret shortcuts like the famed jump on Ghost Valley 1 gave players the risky but potentially rewarding chance to turn races upside down.
The grip on the tarmac courses allowed racers to blister around with little concern, while dirt courses like Choco Island made the karts flair out sideways like rally cars, and the icy Vanilla Lake tracks actually demanded caution on the gas pedal (a first and last for the series).
BATTLING IT OUT
Think multiplayer nowadays and you think Call of Duty. Back in 1993 it was all about Super Mario Kart. Two-player racing was great, but it was the Battle Mode that kept this cartridge in slots for literally years following your 150cc Special Cup victory.
It was minimalist; four battle arenas, all square and fairly simple in design and the same weapon system as the racing. But shooting shells at a human opponent whose movements aren't restricted by the linearity of a race course is a whole different ball game. And so opened up the potential for an entirely different skill set - screen-watching, defensive and offensive driving and mad feather-wall-jump skills.
Everyone who played Super Mario Kart adored it. The series has come a long way since then, with Nintendo adding new innovations with each game, but it's testament to Super Mario Kart's greatness that they dare not stray too far from the original formula.
Karts + items + power sliding = joy. This is the formula that didn't just define the karting genre, it defined the very essence of the word 'fun'.