Mario Kart Month: A Brief History Of Mario Kart Item Evolution: The Forgotten, The Reinvented & The Heroic
Posted by Liam Doolan
What about those other items?
Whilst core items such as the banana, shell and mushroom have carried the traditions of the Mario Kart series over the past 22 years, there are many other forgotten, reinvented, and even untouched items that arguably continue to have the most impact on Nintendo’s beloved kart racer. These particular items may not have always received as much spotlight as certain others, but more often than not they have at some point, during their illustrious careers (as items), contributed to the fundamentals and overall development of the Mario Kart series – or, at least, provided a trip down memory lane with a fuel-injected dose of nostalgia, in some way, or form. Combined, these items are simply the rest of the line-up – with some operating alone, others being rested or put into a permanent retirement, and a select few even moving onto much grander schemes.
For all the notable core items out on the track that have gone through on-going phases of evolution, there are multiple other items that have been stuck in first gear for years now – some of which to the point they have been forgotten about and left eating dust. Going right back to the pixelated magic of Super Mario Kart in 1992, the Feather – originally known as the Cape Feather in the 1990 game, Super Mario World – is unfortunately the first instance of such a thing happening. To the amateur racer, the feather was nothing more than an item that allowed the player to jump twice as high as a regular driver, but to an experienced racer it was handy for hopping over barriers, corners, gaps, and even avoiding enemy projectiles. The item was fortunate enough to be included in the original game’s battle mode as well, and made locking onto an opponent with a shell a lot harder when they could just jump out of the line of fire with a well-timed button press.
Although the feather item had a good run in the Mario Kart series’ first outing, it was soon after removed from the 1996 game Mario Kart 64, during the development cycle. Despite never appearing in the final version of the Nintendo 64 entry, it was featured in the beta version as one of the game’s items. Much like the legendary beta KF7 Soviet (also known as the Kalashnikov AK47 during development) in Rare’s 1997 GoldenEye 007 shown on the back of PAL Nintendo 64 boxes (and various other regions), the beta version of Mario Kart 64 featuring the feather item is also on display. The image on the packaging for the Nintendo 64 reveals a four-player VS race on Mario Circuit, with the bottom right screen displaying the character Toad along with a picture of a feather in the item box. Overlooking this teaser of a misprint, the feather is believed to have been removed from final Mario Kart 64 item roster due to its ability to exploit short-cuts in the game’s courses, although it didn’t take long for gamers to work out other ways of how to take advantage of the game’s glitches and cut lap times.
In modern Mario Kart times, the feather is associated with not items, but kart weight. In the 2011 title, Mario Kart 7, the feather was re-introduced as a kart class – with the feather class creeping in as the lightest class out on the track. Characters within this classification are easily knocked, have a lower off-road speed and low top speeds, but make up for their lack of size with a high acceleration. To balance out their shortcomings, these characters can instead use a kart that has a high top speed but low acceleration.
A similar case is the coming and goings of the “snatching item” Boo (as described by the Mario Kart 64 double-sided operation card) over the years. Not only has the iconic ghost appeared as an item within the Mario Kart series, but it has also materialised as a character from time to time in the form of King Boo. Most interesting is ghost’s on and off inclusion as both a character and an item since the Mario Kart series’ beginning. Featuring as an item in the original, the 64 entry, Super Circuit, and 2005’s Mario Kart DS, and then spiritually as character King Boo in the 2003 game, Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and also Mario Kart Wii in 2008 – Boo’s history within the series has often been hard to trace at times (no pun intended). One clear fact is; for every game including King Boo in the character roster, the Boo item has been removed. Adding to this is the complete absence of Boo of either form within the recent Mario Kart entry on the 3DS, and the latest Wii U edition, Mario Kart 8.
No clear reason has been provided as to why Boo was not included as an item or character in the latest Mario Kart games, but in a recent interview here on Nintendo Life with Nintendo Co., Ltd’s Kosuke Yabuki, Director for Mario Kart 8, Mr Yabuki was at least able to provide a comment in regards to the game’s character roster:
The Koopalings in particular are some of the new characters that I recommend. For this game I wanted to have them all appear together. They all have superb individuality and their expressions are very unique. I think they are great characters that will definitely give players a laugh or two.
On the other hand, there are some characters that appeared in previous Mario Kart titles, but unfortunately didn’t make it into this game, such as Bowser Jr., Dry Bones, King Boo, and Diddy Kong. I really apologise to players who liked these characters in particular, but the new characters are a lot of fun as well, so I hope you all try them out.
Adding to the mysteries of Boo – not just as an item or character necessarily, is the mostly harmless addition of the trademark Mario ghost on tracks such as Ghost Valley (SNES), Luigi’s Mansion (DS), Banshee Boardwalk (N64) and Boo Lake (GBA). Boo’s appearances throughout each of these circuits all had their unique perks, and are good examples of how the character, item – or however you wish to define the subject, broke a fair few conventions of the Mario Kart series. Boo, essentially proving its versatility, being able to jump between both major and minor gameplay roles within the series. As an item though, Boo will always be known for its ability to snatch and steal, and make players invisible. One other lesser known fact about the item, is its ability in Super Circuit where it could slow down the racer in the lead – a rather impressive feat, considering all the other supernatural abilities it already has.
The Bob-omb leads on nicely from Boo, primarily because of its modern-day reimagining, and too often, forgotten past. The beginnings of this item aren’t as clear as one might think. Technically speaking the Bob-omb item was derived from the inclusion of the Mini Bomb Kart in Mario Kart 64. Fans who grew up with the Nintendo 64 entry will no doubt remember how Bob-omb karts would wander around courses in versus mode seeking a target, and how in battle mode, if there were three players or more participating, one or two people – depending on how many were playing – would be transformed into Mini Bomb Karts when they lost all their balloons, with the task of harassing the remaining players still in the match. Believe it or not, but these were the foundations of the Bob-omb in the Mario Kart series. Additionally, Mario Kart Wii and Double Dash also have certain courses including “Bomb-Cars,” similar to Bob-ombs.
Following the original revelation was the item’s introduction in Double Dash as Wario and Waluigi’s weapon of choice. The item has also maintained relatively similiar properties as the original Bob-omb kart since transforming into an official item – it explodes. Speaking of its explosive nature, in the exclusive Double Dash Bob-omb Blast battle mode, players can carry up to five Bob-ombs at once, and must eliminate opponents with bomb blasts – with explosions’ colouring based on the teams in the scuffle (red or blue). The number of bombs carried at once during this mode had not been seen since Mario Kart 64’s banana bunch, either.
The transparent and multicoloured item box is yet another item you probably wouldn’t expect to find here – but is. Even though it’s not directly a part of the item line-up, the fake item box is – and that’s primarily accredited to the impact the standard item box has had on the series over time. Starting out as a Question Panel (? Block) in the Super Nintendo original (which originated from the Question Block in Super Mario World), these inbuilt road mechanisms quickly evolved into “Item Boxes” during the Nintendo 64 generation – and have remained that way since. Double Dash also introduced double item boxes to cater to the two-kart system, but from here on out, the notable changes are mostly in the aesthetic department.
As for Fake Item Boxes, they’ve been causing trouble under the guise of a regular item block since the Nintendo 64 game. Fake Item blocks are best avoided. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case due to this item’s sometimes well-disguised look over the years. For example, the original Nintendo 64 fake block was almost untraceable with its subtle upside down question mark. Planting one of these in amongst a batch of real ones, and it was guaranteed to accomplish the mission.
Sadly, from this point onwards, things became a bit too obvious – at least to veteran racers. Nintendo began to colour the dud blocks a dark red to give racers a clear pre-warning of the dangers ahead, and as a result the evolution of Fake Item Boxes saw the item become more of an obstruction than a surprise – and, of course, a nasty but nice, and also illegitimate tribute, to the original item boxes we all know and love. A well-placed fake item block on a corner or jump was always a winner. Besides their disguise, these blocks have often had a few odd behavioural traits. In Mario Kart 64 they are able to block shells, and in Mario Kart Wii team play, these blocks can become blue to represent the respectively matched, blue team – which is curious behaviour from such a deceptive item.
Funnily enough, the Coin is in a bit of a similar spot of bother to Item Boxes – though not entirely. Whilst it’s still not commonly considered as being a part of the item roster, officially – it actually is. Starting out in the Super Nintendo original, the coin was used to increase the player’s speed and also aid them defensively. Without coins, a player would spin-out if a rival racer made contact. The coin even featured as an item in the original game’s Question Panel line-up. Super Circuit continued this trend of cash protection, although the coin appearing in item boxes was removed from the game. The coin didn’t reappear again until Mario Kart 7 (prior to this it had been featured in Mario Kart DS’ Mission Mode and Mario Kart Wii’s battle mode, Coin Runners). Paying homage to the item’s abilities in the original game, collecting ten coins in Mario Kart 7 would max out a racer’s speed – often a necessity to win higher stake races. Coins also doubled as a way of unlocking parts and more, and as yet another standalone scenario within the game’s battle mode. Coins make a return in Mario Kart 8, in a similar style to Mario Kart 7, and also return to item boxes as an item after a very long vacation.
Before wrapping up this series on a high note, the Bullet Bill and Chain Chomp are worthy of a mention as well. Brought across from the Mario series – it’s these chaps converted to items that represent much of the modern-day “never say die” attitude featured within the series. These two can drag the player from the back to the front of the pack within seconds. After years of being a pest on the Nintendo 64 version of Rainbow Road, the sporadic Chain Chomp became accessible to Baby Mario and Baby Luigi during the Double Dash era, and was eventually replaced in favour of the menacing Bullet Bill. Nintendo put Chain Chomp back on the chain in the later versions of Mario Kart, often containing it to certain tracks or parts of a track in each outing. While Chain Chomp had a few setbacks such as throwing the racers it was escorting against barriers, or off the edge of the track, the Bullet Bill – originally seen as an item in the DS version of Mario Kart – has always been about pure precision, with the ability to rocket a player from last to first within seconds. It continues to be a popular item with racers who find themselves falling behind.
This brings us to two classic items that have been a part of the series since its inception. The Star (also known as the Super Star) and the Thunderbolt (also commonly known as the Lighting Bolt) are a representation of Mario Kart series at its finest – two items that still remain true to their traditional selves. The star is able to make a racer completely invincible and the thunderbolt can cause complete devastation throughout a field of racers. These items really do speak for themselves in terms of how satisfying it is to use the both of them. Whilst the thunderbolt – not to be confused with the Wii game’s Thunder Cloud – can be considered as more of an item of retribution, the star is truly the most heroic item featured within Mario Kart, due to the invincible power it can provide to a player.
The beauty of both of these items is the fact their original history and functionality remain intact. Both items have stood the test of time, and both keep the series true to its roots. Stars also generally represent the peak of the Mario Kart competition with elements such as the Star Cup and star rankings. Stars are so special, they’re even tucked away in certain parts of recent Mario Kart tracks – both visually, and as items. Some of these locations include under leaf piles in the Wiggler section of the track Maple Treeway, in Mario Kart Wii, and also hidden in vases throughout Mario Kart 7’s Shy Guy Bazaar.
And on that note, this concludes A Brief History of Mario Kart Item Evolution. We hope you’ve enjoyed this fourth and final segment, along with the three previous parts before it. So lastly, to end from where we left off originally – items will always be a defining aspect of the Mario Kart series. They separate it from rival and copy-cat racers alike in a multitude of ways, and at the same time continue to be a core appeal of the series. Where so many have failed, Mario Kart has succeeded thanks to its universe’s uniquely personified collection of items – ranging from the banana peel with a smiley face, right through to the exuberantly animated Chain Chomp. After all, if it wasn’t for these items, the Mario Kart series would just be like any other racing game – a standard old one. Thankfully though – it’s not – it’s more than that, and always will be as long as items continue to be an integral part of the series. So next time you’re out on the circuit, take a moment to realise just how much of the Mario Kart series’ success is owed to its talented cast of items, because without their aid over the years, we probably wouldn’t have the brilliant Mario Kart games that we have today.