Since the very beginnings of Mario Kart in the 1992 Super Nintendo original, items have been a truly defining aspect of the series. Little did we – and perhaps even Nintendo – know various themed items and effects originally extracted from the traditional Mario universe would go on to become such an integral part of the Mario Kart experience. Karts, tracks and characters aside, the uniquely and carefully crafted item collection sets the Mario Kart series apart from both rival and copycat competition. Unlike competitor's titles, there was always much finesse to item creation within the Mario Kart lineage; a sort of finely-tuned balance was required to keep the tension in every race, and ensure anyone and everyone was in the running for first – whether they were up front or at the back of the pack. Items thrown in with the classic rubber-banding effect meant Mario Kart players would normally be on the edge of their seats until the very last minute of a race.
With all of these nostalgic thoughts in mind — and the release of Mario Kart 8 at the end of this month — now is probably a suitable to time to reflect on some of Mario Kart's most memorable and not so memorable items, and just how they've contributed to the series, evolved as the years have passed and, in a few particular cases, how some have even been completely left behind, or revitalised in both weird and wonderful ways.
First and foremost, we begin with the beloved banana. The item first popularised in Super Mario Kart ironically went on to become a trademark aspect of the Donkey Kong series later on in 1994 when the first entry of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country series was released. The unique differences between the two bananas were the tiny little faces on the Mario Kart peels. Originally just two lines of dots for eyes in the Super Nintendo & Nintendo 64 iterations of Mario Kart, the facial expression of bananas grew a little livelier during the GameCube, DS and Wii generation. There was even a mean looking frown placed upon the Mario Kart: Double Dash!! Giant Banana to provide some balance in emotion. Frown or smile, these silent little faces often highlighted the sheer heroism of the banana when thrown out on the track.
Despite the fearless expressions, it didn't take long for fans to adapt Mario Kart’s banana-throwing antics to real-life road scenarios. The old banana under the wheel trick quickly became the butt of all jokes – to the extent of becoming a pop culture reference. If this was in fact a thing prior to Mario Kart, then it was certainly Nintendo’s speedy series that put it on the map. It is believed the idea may have even been lifted from classic American physical comedy slapstick gags.
The original banana peel slip can be traced back to the 19th century when bananas were considered a public hazard in American towns. Another theory suggests bananas were originally used as an alternative to manure on cinema screens, because animal waste was considered as too offensive to show audiences during this period. Whatever – or whoever – coined the idea of bananas being comical (and even karts spinning-out when driven over them), little did they know the monster they had created when Nintendo eventually released Super Mario Kart featuring the classic banana gag, and then later on in the 21st Century memes and YouTube hit. To this very day, the internet is still littered with countless parodies of Mario Kart – all of them incorporating the classic banana slip.
As for the evolution of the banana throughout the life of the Mario Kart series, it’s been just as interesting as its initial entry. Nintendo has actually been pretty indecisive when it’s come to the long-term vision for the banana, though only in terms of number, not functionality. But heck, if it ain't broken – just add more, or less.
We saw the individual beginnings of the banana in the original Super Nintendo classic, followed by a banana bunch (five to be precise) in 1996 with Mario Kart 64 – though strangely the item box of the banana bunch only displays four bananas. The Nintendo 64 entry was also the first time players were able to hold a banana, or drag a line of bananas behind their kart. It also was the only entry in the series to feature the five-banana bunch. The 2001 Game Boy Advance game Mario Kart: Super Circuit went back to its retro roots with a single banana limit, and then the 2003 GameCube version was released with a single banana and also the one-time Giant Banana – arriving with a fearsome face, but splitting into three much friendlier faced peels when hit.
To the jealousy of rival racers, the Giant Banana was exclusive to Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong (and Petey Piranha & King Boo – having the ability to use character-exclusive items). Defensively speaking, the Giant Banana was capable of stopping and blocking every single item, and causing a longer duration of spin if hit than regular bananas. The 2005 title Mario Kart DS followed, delivering a single banana and triple combo (although the triple bananas were removed from online play to reduce lag), and by the Wii version Nintendo began to show some consistency with the exact same choice. This remained in 2011's Mario Kart 7, and will be similar in Mario Kart 8.
As much effort that has gone into bananas over the years, the sight of them coming up in the item box is still mostly a depressing one. Overriding this feeling of helplessness is the first step to success when using this traditional Mario Kart item. The banana is not a hindrance when in your possession; it’s a key to success – provided its true power is harnessed. If there is one thing that can be guaranteed when it comes to the banana peel in the Mario Kart series though, it’s probably that it’ll always cause a slip-up on the way to the finish line. Often crushing dreams for those on the receiving end, or being the saviour, deflecting enemy items, and perhaps even stopping rival racers from catching you on the line.
After all the yellow fruit has been through – or at least under – over the years, it’s hoped fans will show a little more love and appreciation towards the banana next time they're out on the track. Without the Mario Kart banana, the series would not be half as chaotic as it is today. In our next feature we'll be tracking the evolution of the shell, so expect all the usual suspects — and maybe a few others you've forgotten about, or didn't even know existed. So until then, in the words of Mario himself: See you next time!