Feature: 20 Years of Mario Kart

How the time, and kart, flies

Today is yet another Nintendo anniversary, in this case the 20th anniversary of Super Mario Kart's release in Japan. That's 20 years of powering around tracks and making other mascot's driving lives miserable, while infuriating their masters in multiplayer.

It's a series with enduring appeal that has evolved into one of Nintendo's guaranteed big-sellers, with Mario Kart Wii enjoying the honour of being the second biggest seller on Wii, its sales of over 30 million units surpassed only by Wii Sports. It's also evolved relatively little, with no amount of power-ups, boosts or flying mechanics taking it too far away from its roots as a kart racer. That's also a strength, as it can be enjoyed by inexperienced gamers who just want a fun race, compulsive players who master every track to achieve implausible times, and everyone else in between.

To celebrate the arrival of Super Mario Kart all those years ago, here's a brief history of every major game in the franchise. And no, that doesn't include Arcade GP.

This is where it all began, the game credited with popularising the very concept of kart racing video games and for helping the Mario brand to expand beyond platformers. While it's easy to regard this as a fun but disposable retro title today, at the time it had a major impact, critically and commercially, on Super NES and Nintendo's approach to its Mario franchise. It was a major spin-off that sold in big numbers, and gave other characters an opportunity to earn gamer's affections.

The most important thing was that it was a lot of fun, with 20 tracks — though some were subtle variations on a theme — and eight racers of differing abilities. Working through speed classes in Mario Kart GP mode was the main single player experience, but it was perhaps best loved for multiplayer. Whether racing or popping balloons in Battle Mode, throwing shells and bananas captured the imagination and showed that gaming could be more fun with others. Oh, and Mode 7 graphics were mighty impressive at the time.

If Super Mario Kart showed what could be achieved with Mode 7 graphics, this Nintendo 64 follow-up did a similar job with Polygon-based 3D visuals. The capabilities of the system meant that tracks could have greater variety, including slopes and landscapes that couldn't be produced in the Super NES title. There were eight characters, four cups and a total of 16 tracks, with an unlockable mirror mode, while Versus and Battle Mode now allowed four players to join in multiplayer chaos.

New items such as triple shells emerged, allowing an extra level of tactics in how they were used, while this second title also saw the first appearance of the dreaded Blue Shell, or Spiny Shell. This item would — assuming it didn't hit an early obstacle — pursue the race leader relentlessly, though there were a few tricks to get around it. Some players loved this item, and others loathed it with every fibre of their being, but it certainly added an extra dimension to play.

This was the first portable Mario Kart, taking advantage of the Game Boy Advance system's capabilities to reproduce Super NES level graphics. The visuals have, arguably, not aged well, but at the time were considered reasonably impressive for a handheld while the actual play was enjoyable. As expected, there were Grand Prix and Time Trial modes to choose from, while Quick Run allowed players to choose a track and set various criteria to whatever they please. Multiplayer was also possible, a rare example where those GBA link cables came in handy, though it was limited to four tracks.

Like its predecessors, this title had eight characters to choose from, and followed the lead of Super Mario Kart with 20 playable tracks, albeit split into five cups instead of four. Collecting coins took on a new sense of importance, along with actually winning, of course, with the unlockable Extra Cups. If you earned a gold trophy and collected 100 coins in a cup, you'd unlock an equivalent with the tracks from the Super NES original. There were slight variations, such as hazards and shortcuts taken away, but it added extra incentive in the single player campaign.

If one game experimented the most with the franchise, it was arguably this entry on GameCube. The most obvious change was that two characters now occupied each kart, with one driving and one using items. This mechanic influenced a number of areas, such as special moves and items, and different attributes and performances of a variety of karts depending on team combinations. In Co-Op play the second player would control items, but also perform a slide attack to steal others' weapons and help achieve the double dash boost at the start of the race. Much like the GBA link cable, this was also a rare instance where local online play (via LAN) was possible with the Nintendo GameCube Broadband Adapter, linking multiple consoles and allowing more players to join in.

While these features brought new ideas and levels of customisation not seen before in the series, the basic structure did remain the same. Grand Prix mode had 16 tracks to race through, with Time Trial, Versus and Battle modes all making their customary appearances. The latter did include two new modes, including Shine Thief that was like a 'capture the flag' challenge, which can be fairly hectic when played with weapon-wielding karts.

As the title so eloquently says, this was the DS entry in the series, and the second handheld Mario Kart. It had some firsts, however, notably the first Mario Kart to feature worldwide online play, even if technical limitations restricted it to four player Versus races, no Battles. Local online was more substantial, with a limited number of tracks available for eight players in download play, ideal if only one gamer owned a copy, or full wireless LAN play for eight players that all own the game. The capabilities of DS were implemented in a couple of other fun ways, with the bottom screen showing a map and Balloon Battle encouraging players to blow up balloons using the microphone.

In addition, this title introduced the concept of four cups with 16 retro tracks, taking some favourites from the previous four titles in the series. The core of eight characters was also expanded by unlockable extras, while the Mission mode featured challenges and boss battles to test skills further. With a wealth of single and multiplayer options, this is often regarded as one of the very best in the series.

The current-gen home console entry, this has been a phenomenal success on Wii, boosted in recent times due to being bundled with some systems. Its roots can be more accurately traced to Mario Kart DS, with the team mechanic of GameCube not included. This entry has its own share of new features, such as increasing the number of racers to 12 and offering full races on all tracks through worldwide online play. The online features also expand to the Mario Kart Channel, which combines with a section in the game to provide regular competitions of varying challenges, as well as the ability to challenge Nintendo staff ghosts and those of other players from around the world.

More innovations are evident in the way it's actually played, with the tilt controls of the Wii Remote allowing players to steer with motion controls, made more intuitive by the bundled Wii Wheel. It's also possible to select bikes, with wheelies performed with a flick of the wheel, while tricks off ramps can be performed in the same way in karts or on bikes. When you consider 32 tracks (16 new and 16 retro), and the usual mix of single and multiplayer offerings — though no Mission Mode — along with 24 characters and Mii support, this title continued the good work of Mario Kart DS in terms of modernising the series and taking it online.

The latest Mario Kart has the privilege of being the first in the series with stereoscopic visuals and a number in its title, possibly because being called Mario Kart 3DS would have confused some buyers. In any case, this entry is perhaps rather modest, in terms of innovation, but does have a few exclusive features. The most prominent change is the ability for karts — no bikes in this one — to transform and drive underwater, and most notably glide through the air when making high jumps. Both elements, particularly the latter, allow some creative course designs unlike those seen in the series up to now. The 3DS gyroscope can also be used to steer in a first-person view, a first for the series.

The usual 32 tracks with a mix of old and new are included, though retro courses have been adapted to include boost ramps for gliding. The character roster drops down to 16, plus Mii characters, while multiplayer is served by full worldwide online play for eight racers, local wireless and also Download Play. StreetPass and SpotPass contribute challenges and ghost data content to a Mario Kart Channel, though it lacks the competitions and time trial rankings featured in the Wii iteration. While it perhaps doesn't match the level of content of the DS version, its online options — including communities — and course designs help to make it a worthwhile continuation of the series.

Of course, it all began with Super Mario Kart, 20 years ago today. What do you think of the Super NES original after all of these years, and what are your thoughts on the evolution of the series? Let us know in the comments below.

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