Mario Kart Month: An Outsider's View Of Super Mario Kart

Kerry sees if the 16-bit classic is still in pole position

Mario Kart 8’s release is now just a few weeks away and everyone here at Nintendo Life is so excited about the game that they can’t sit still without applying superglue to their chairs first.

Well everyone except me; I honestly haven’t been anywhere near a Mario Kart game for at least five years and its been even longer since I sat down and played one properly. But regardless of my complete ambivalence it remains a much lauded series in the eyes of basically everyone else so I thought it would be a good idea to take another look at the original Super Mario Kart and see if that can reignite my interest in the one kart-racing series to rule them all.

My first impressions after booting up the game responsible for every mascot-based kart racer since 1992 aren't good – the title screen and the menus have a distinctly low budget feel with lots of plain text stuck in even plainer black boxes and what little spritework there is being almost entirely recycled from the main game. Of course Mario games have never been incredibly flashy affairs but even good old Super Mario Bros. managed to have a few little extra bells and whistles dotted around, so I don't know what Super Mario Kart’s excuse is.

The original Super Mario Bros. also didn't need seven button presses in six menus across three screens to get going either; never mind the fact that the game asks you twice to confirm things you've just told it to do! If that sounds like nit-picking let’s take a minute to look at the other big contender for player’s time back in the 90’s – Street Fighter II. Even The World Warrior edition – the most basic version of Street Fighter II out there – has you fighting in just two (1P) or three (2P) button presses with no “Are you sure you want to do the thing you've just told me to do?” confirmations. Super Mario Kart is certainly not the first game to feature a tedious menu system, but considering the company this is coming from, I expected better.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that things perked up once I drilled down through the menus and actually started racing; the karts still feel bouncy and light without being beyond the control of the player and powersliding around a corner is tuned just right – I knew when I was pushing my luck and when I did spin out I never questioned Nintendo’s virtual rules. I like that courses have their own distinct style, giving me a little bit of an idea of what to watch out for on the Flower/Star/Special Cup courses before I've even been round them.

But there are issues here as well. Some obstacles are difficult to pick out at speed, making avoiding them on reactions and visual information alone rather hit-and-miss. Some of that’s simply down to the then-impressive Mode 7 used to create the tracks, but it was certainly annoying to get flattened by a Thwomp that I thought I was going to skid past. It’s not all down to '90s technical limitations, either – who thought contrasting the dark brown floor of the Ghost House tracks with a plain black background was a great idea?

So the karts and the tracks are still lovely, but racing against the CPU felt like a chore – they only appeared to be interested in wiping me out, as if just before the race I'd insulted their mothers while simultaneously flushing their cherished pet goldfish down the loo. It also only took a single 50cc cup to see that the CPU finishing order was incredibly static, making four of my seven opponents nothing more than glorified track decoration as far as the rankings were concerned and destroying any sense of personal influence or pretend rivalry in mere minutes. Authentic AI would of course have been far too much for the SNES to handle and remains a completely unrealistic expectation, but knowing where everyone will finish before the race has even started makes it feel as if Nintendo weren't even trying.

The long-term appeal definitely lies in the time attack and two player modes — that’s fine, a lot of games are better that way — but to be frank I expect more from Nintendo than I do most other developers and to see such a bare-bones single player experience is very disappointing. I’ll definitely make sure that I don’t leave it so long next time to go sliding around Donut Plains or clattering over Bowser Castle’s stonework, but I'll also make sure I bring a willing friend too.

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