Mario Kart Month: A History of the Mario Kart Series - Part One

From pixels to polygons, then back to pixels

As June begins and our Mario Kart Month celebrations throughout May draw to a close, the build-up and expectation surrounding Mario Kart 8 has transitioned into mass play sessions and hands-on racing time. This is the moment on which memories are built, as competitiveness and hilarity ensues from worldwide showdowns, to local multiplayer parties. However, the more time spent playing the new game, the greater the perspective on Mario Kart 8’s position in a series that spans twenty two years. Subsequently, it is a reflective time to look back at its console and handheld predecessors, to consider the established principles of the series, and where the franchise has innovated and evolved.

This recap of Nintendo’s seven forerunners considers the hype of the day, and the perspective of how these games were received during their original release. It sets apart the ingredients of each title, and mulls over retro magazines, and Nintendo Life’s original reviews from their release, to piece together the core components of the series. The recap ponders over how the visual setting of tracks in Mario Kart games reflects the premise and evolution of environments in Mario’s platforming series. It also highlights the retro tracks in Mario Kart 8, based upon their context from the original titles, so if you wish to avoid learning about classic courses in Mario Kart 8, look away now.

This first part covers the first three games in the series.


1. Super Mario Kart, 1992 Japan and NA (1993 Europe), SNES

As the first game in the Mario Kart series, it is indicative of the original title’s dependable gameplay formula that many of the central mechanics have remained prominent throughout all eight games in Nintendo’s core franchise. If four-player split screen gaming was unlikely on a technical level, then online racing was unfathomable on the humble SNES, regardless of Japan’s Satellaview. Yet, irrespective of hardware capabilities, Super Mario Kart is celebrated as a retro multiplayer classic, despite being confined to two-player split-screen racing. This was not just in regard to the competitiveness of a GP or Match Race, but also because of its weapons balance and combat in Battle Mode.

For gamers experienced with the series who are now enjoying Mario Kart 8, it is as blindingly noticeable as the brightest lens flare that the nuts and bolts of the new game originate from Super Mario Kart. Green shells and bananas form a basic weapon set, red shells have homing capabilities, and a mushroom grants a speed boost. More extravagant power-ups are gifted to slowpokes at the back of the racing pack, so a lightning bolt shrinks opponents, or an invincibility star provides a chance for stragglers to catch up. The first game still had the rocket start, as well as collectible track coins, ten of which increased your overall speed.

Super Mario Kart may not explicitly discuss kart stats, or have the modern diversity of seven weight classes, but the dynamics of choosing a light, middle or heavyweight character were firmly in place. This affected how the player decided between acceleration and top speed, plus handling and traction, even if the original game does not flaunt this in its menu screens. The design of each circuit was built around the potential of shortcuts, your kart may not have a glider or an underwater propeller, but the feather item flaunted the risk-and-reward dilemma of attempting an alternative route. Many stand-out Mario Kart games had a unique selling point, from two characters per kart on GameCube, to anti-gravity racing on Wii U. Therefore, the forte of Super Mario Kart, and the only incidence of this item in the series, was the ability to jump gaps and walls with the feather.

All but one of Super Mario Kart’s eight original characters feature in the starting line-up of Mario Kart 8, with the exception being Donkey Kong Jr., who sports a white vest with a custom ‘J’ print. He was replaced from the sequel onwards, presumably because Donkey Kong wore a dapper red tie, which had his initials embellished on it in yellow. After all, it pays to dress smart.

In the first issue of Nintendo Magazine System, from October 1992, Jaz Rignall opened his review comment about the game by complimenting the title’s handling, explaining that “the gameplay is incredible, particularly the “feel” of the karts”. The magazine scored Super Mario Kart as 92/100, but in some respects it is the feel of the game that can vary people’s opinion about it today. To gamers who spent a large amount of time mastering the timing of hopping into a power-slide, to cut corners or drift around hairpin bends, it is the combination of kart handling and tight course design that is appealing about the original. However, the flat tracks and scaling effect of Mode 7, combined with aggressive opponents and rigid cornering, all demanded practise. Therefore, the controls and presentation of Super Mario Kart can feel unusual to gamers who are more accustomed to modern games in the series.

If you are focussing upon Mario Kart 8 at the moment, unfortunately the only SNES track to appear in the new game is Donut Plains 3. However, this highlights how an especially unforgiving track from the Special Cup in the original game has been made more accessible for modern tastes. You are no longer punished for falling off the wooden bridge into the water, and it is interesting how one of the medium length tracks in the original game feels short by present-day standards — there are less laps, of course.

Super Mario Kart was particularly efficient at expanding the setting of Super Mario World to flourish in a new genre, which Paul Rand noted in issue 133 of Computer and Video Games magazine, as he pointed out that Mario had “taken a break from platform romps… and the game borrows lots of features from the Mario Bros series”. From depicting race tracks through Dinosaur Land during the SNES era, to the GameCube’s Isle Delfino beaches, and outer space from Super Mario Galaxy, the Mario Kart series has repeatedly been adept at building roads through Mario’s platforming landscapes.

2. Mario Kart 64, 1996 Japan (1997 North America and Europe), Nintendo 64

Early screenshots of the second game showed a working build called Super Mario Kart R and included a character resembling Kamek on the character select screen, and it instantly impressed players with pictures of a four-player split-screen mode. Mario Kart 64 took a new direction by including longer courses, but only had four tracks per cup, with just sixteen total Grand Prix courses in the game. However, the smaller amount of tracks was alleviated after you unlocked a mirrored portrayal of each course in the extra mode, which was an inventive way of expanding upon the track design and adding longevity in 1996. Wario was also introduced as a new heavyweight character, with his own muddy stadium dirt track, though Koopa Troopa was dropped from the original’s line-up of eight drivers.

Characters were drawn as 2D pre-rendered sprites, and not polygon models, as may have been expected considering the technical prowess of the N64. However, the new polygon built courses now dipped and peaked with hilly slopes in a way that extended beyond the flat Mode 7 tracks of the first game. This gave an added solidity to the architecture and roadside obstacles, like the ice cavern tunnels in Sherbet Land, which was another memorable retro course that would later receive a graphical polish in *Mario Kart Wii. Yet again, Nintendo visually linked their Mario Kart game to the setting of their latest Mario masterpiece, as you could take a detour to Princess Peach's Castle on Royal Raceway. Incidentally, it is Royal Raceway that receives a HD makeover as a retro course in Mario Kart 8, alongside the bustling roads of Toad’s Turnpike, the monotonous N64 version of Rainbow Road, and the disorienting interweaving routes of Yoshi Valley.

For the first time you could hold weapons and items in reserve, such as three red shells that rotated around your kart. There was also a Golden Mushroom, with infinite boosts for a short amount of time until it ran out. Analogue stick controls felt looser, in comparison to its predecessor’s D-pad, but they were just as fine-tuned with intricacies like tilting the stick left and right during a drift to create a mini-boost, signified by your exhaust smoke changing colour from yellow to orange. You could also avoid spinning out after colliding with a banana by quickly pressing the brake button, resulting in your character displaying a musical note above their head. Rubber banding was more noticeable in the second game, and the infamous blue spiny shell first appeared, travelling along the ground to ruthlessly target the race leader.

The first issue of Total 64 magazine gave Mario Kart 64 a score of 93/100, and was realistic in analysing that “Mario Kart was never going to be the improvement Mario 64 was over the earlier Mario games”. However, they also forecast that “If you loved the original, this’ll be your enduring golden youthful memory of 1997 when you’re old and grey”.

3. Mario Kart: Super Circuit, 2001 worldwide, Game Boy Advance

Developed by Intelligent Systems, *Mario Kart: Super Circuit adopted the Mode 7 scaling effects of Super Mario Kart, but its flatter roads have arguably fallen out of favour amongst gamers who are more accustomed to the feel and presentation of polygon race tracks. With five cups, it retained the four courses per cup formula of Mario Kart 64, but upped the amount of new tracks to twenty.

Courses like Cheese Land, Sky Garden, and Sunset Wilds felt thematically unique, although it is the more standard Game Boy Advance version of Mario Circuit that reappears as a retro track in Mario Kart 8. Unfortunately, Mario Kart: Super Circuit did not include the feather power-up, which was an omission that was missed during gameplay, especially after you unlocked all twenty of the retro SNES tracks.

Early screenshots revealed in 2000, and reports from Space World, showed characters with smaller bodies and larger heads, using a Japanese super deformed art styling. However, these draft depictions were changed in the final game. Mario Kart: Super Circuit was well received upon release by the gaming press, and by Nintendo fans, for mixing tight course design and depth with accessibility. In October 2001 EDGE described the Game Boy Advance racer as a “masterpiece” and noted in a ‘Nine out of ten’ review that it “remains true to the ethics of the original”. This was after they explained that in comparison to Super Mario Kart, the N64 game was essentially “a competent title in its own right, was simply an unworthy heir to this weighty mantle”.

Control intricacies were still evident, with spin recovery, rocket starts, and speed boosts if timed correctly when being dropped by Lakitu. Achieving a mid-race mini-boost using a power-slide was altered from the N64 game, because you had to perform a tight prolonged drift for a spark to initiate a small surge forward. The game included a limited selection of multiplayer options with a single cartridge, but the link-up play choices greatly expanded when four players each owned the game. Yet again in October 2001, and with another 9/10 score, Computer and Video Games magazine praised Mario Kart: Super Circuit’s new grading system for adding an incentive to improve upon your performance in each cup, and they explained that it “manages to live up to the planet-sized hype generated since it was first announced”. The system of collecting coins from Super Mario Kart was refined to not only increase your top speed, but a large gathering of coins improved your overall ranking position. The Computer and Video Games review ended by stating that “Mario Kart on GBA is close to perfect”.


Be sure to come back tomorrow for part two in which we cover the next four games, and in the meantime below are some select articles from our Mario Kart Month.