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.
You can check out the first part here, while in this feature we focus on the latter four releases prior to MK8.
4. Mario Kart: Double Dash‼, 2003 worldwide, GameCube
The build-up of expectation for a new Mario Kart game is a recurrent theme when revisiting the retro gaming press, and the 9.4 scoring review in CUBE magazine from November 2003 addressed this by describing it as “a rare game these days – a title that lives up to the fevered hype and anticipation surrounding it”. Like Mario Kart 64, there are sixteen tracks in Mario Kart: Double Dash‼, which spans four cups, but the fourth game increased the sense of scale by depicting a wider scope to its tracks. Blue shells also seemed fairer, as they no longer travelled along the ground, so for the first time they hovered in the air above the players, before homing in on first place.
The inventiveness of the course design, including slaloming between the legs of a huge Dino Dino Jungle brontosaurus, was showcased in the All-Cup Tour, which took the racer on a journey through randomised locations. Issue 13 of gamesTM magazine remarked that “the circuits are of a remarkably high standard”. The Pokey enemies and deep sarlacc-like sand pits of Dry Dry Desert, plus the fluttering snow and glittering cave from the GameCube version of Sherbet Land, are represented with fresh detail in the retro tracks in Mario Kart 8. The fourth game in the franchise is notable for controversially removing the hop manoeuvre, which was a fundamental dynamic in previous games for initiating a power-slide. This time, in Mario Kart: Double Dash‼, your karts starts a slide automatically when holding a shoulder button, like drifting in a traditional arcade racing game.
In December 2003, Shane Bettenhausen of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine highlighted that the GameCube game maintained the trusted Mario Kart formula, but through a mixture of weight and control preferences of combining two characters in a single kart, it added a new element of strategy. With an expanded character roster, assigning it a 10/10 score, he explained that “With light, medium, and heavy characters and karts to mix and match, you’ll have a blast experimenting with the vast possibilities”. Mario Kart: Double Dash‼ added a new twist to the kart racing template, and with Local Area Network (LAN) multiplayer, allowing gamers to connect eight GameCube consoles, more people could compete at once. New character appearances included Waluigi, Toadette, and King Boo. Petey Piranha especially felt at home in the fourth game, after his memorable boss cameo in Super Mario Sunshine, especially if you were racing on Peach Beach. Similarly, Battle Mode linked to Super Mario Sunshine, by including an option to be a Shine Thief and hold tightly onto a Shine Sprite until the timer ran out.
5. Mario Kart DS, 2005 worldwide, DS
Returning to a portable platform for the fifth game in the series, Mario Kart DS perfected the core formula that had been running throughout the franchise, without attempting major new innovations, like the more prominent gameplay additions found in the GameCube, 3DS, and Wii U titles. Issue 114 of NGC magazine compared the Mission Mode in Mario Kart DS to the single-player kart racing ideas in Diddy Kong Racing. Mario Kart DS’s missions included collecting coins within a time limit, weapons based objectives, and skill tests, such as steering through numbered gates, or driving backwards. Martin Kitts opened his NGC review by discussing a bugbear often attributed to the series, as he described the AI bombardment of a first place player with items and weapons, as “the main GP mode is the most viciously unfair thing served up in Mario Kart’s five outings to date”.
In some respects, Mario Kart DS prioritised multiplayer matches, which is a consistently praised component of the series. Multiplayer was accessible again via a single cartridge DS Download Play link-up, as long as your competitors did not object to racing as Shy Guy, or being restricted to a limited selection of tracks. However, returning to the 5/5 scoring review in the Christmas 2005 issue of NGC magazine, it serves as a reminder that Mario Kart DS was the first Mario Kart game you could play over a broadband connection, and the magazine also considered it to be “the first proper online Nintendo game!”. Issue 157 of EDGE magazine described the role of Mario Kart DS in the early origins of the Wi-Fi Connection service as “Nintendo could hardly have picked a better title for its wi-fi début.”
Over sixteen new courses, and four cups, the DS title combined the tight track design of the SNES original, but explored more extravagant set-piece events that featured in the GameCube game. For example, the cannon propelled jump during Airship Fortress felt like a continuation of the idea of firing across the volcano in DK Mountain. For its Christmas 2005 issue, EDGE magazine complimented the course design in an 8/10 review by explaining that “The new tracks are the strongest new Mario Kart tracks for some time”. Consequently, the clockwork mechanisms, swinging pendulums and rotating timepiece hands of Tick-Tock Clock return in Mario Kart 8, alongside Cheep Cheep Beach, and the motocross jumps in Wario Stadium. These three Mario Kart 8 retro courses are based upon the DS tracks.
New items for the fifth game included transforming into a large Bullet Bill to be propelled in autopilot through a track, and the Blooper which sprayed ink onto the screen of an opponent and obscured their vision. Although the GameBoy Advance game included all twenty of the SNES retro tracks as an unlockable, it was Mario Kart DS that introduced a random selection of classic tracks in its retro grand prix, which included a selection of sixteen extra courses taken from the first four games. Mario Kart DS is also the main Mario Kart game to be associated with ‘snaking’, which is a technique of chaining mini-boosts. Unfortunately, the concept of a quick boost based upon how well you drifted around a corner was sound, but it became less appealing after gamers spammed mini-boosts on straight stretches of road. Snaking became less prevalent, and more difficult to perform, in subsequent titles.
6. Mario Kart Wii, 2008 worldwide, Wii
The Wii’s library of games was smoking hot as spring 2008 heated up into early summer, which was exemplified by UK multi-format magazines reviewing Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Bros. Brawl in the same Nintendo packed issue. Both games shared a bright and bold primary colour palette, which in hindsight stood out in Mario Kart Wii, as its visuals related back to Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, rather than the added detail and lighter pastel shades in Mario Kart 8. The sixth game included a massive character roster, with the first inclusion of personal Mii avatars, and each showdown was more hectic with twelve competitors clashing per race. With a selection of different vehicles, including karts and bikes, a variety of dynamics affected performance and handling. Each of these were rated, and could be adjusted, for personal preference across a number of parameters.
The hop returned to console racing after being left out of Mario Kart: Double Dash‼, just as you could hop again in Mario Kart DS, and small automatic boosts were earned from building sparks during prolonged power-slides. In a similar regard to Excite Truck, tricks could be performed after launching from ramps, and motion controls using an optional Wii Wheel added an arcade tilting feel to the game, to complement the accuracy of traditional controllers. Tracks had a wider sense of space, in an extension of the approach of the GameCube game, and some were as inventive as ever. As has been consistent across the series, Mario Kart Wii related to the console’s main Mario title, because Rainbow Road combined the conventional multi-coloured track with ideas from Super Mario Galaxy. However, despite its outer space background and the radiant Star Bits, it could be argued that the visual splendour of Super Mario Galaxy could have been better presented to more dazzling effect in Mario Kart Wii.
An interesting perspective was spread over two issues of gamesTM, because their 6/10 score for the offline-based review in issue 69 was readdressed in the following magazine, with a 9/10 scoring online specific review in issue 70. The single-player gamesTM review analysed the Wii game in relation to its five predecessors, and argued that “Mario Kart Wii feels more like a collection of B-sides and rarities – only occasionally living up to its impressive heritage”. The review also reiterated the point that the 150cc difficulty spike was unforgiving, noting that “The rubberbanding of your opponents seems more unacceptable than ever in a modern console game”. In comparison the online review reconsidered the game, and recognised that connecting to race against opponents with worldwide scope transformed the experience. The magazine’s online review concluded that “It’s no exaggeration to say that it can seem like the best Mario Kart ever. Quite the turnaround”. Battle Mode also allowed for twelve players online, with Balloon Battle and Coin Runners being set in huge arenas.
Push Square’s Editor, Sammy Barker, reviewed Mario Kart Wii for Nintendo Life on its April 2008 release, and scored it 9/10. He highlighted Coconut Mall and Wario’s Gold Mine as stand-out courses, explaining that “both of which are really outstandingly thought out tracks and thoroughly enjoyable to race on”. The review also praised the showboating element of the sixth game, noting that “the tricks are really fun to pull off and are a welcome addition to the game”. However, if a player is looking to experience the Wii circuits in Mario Kart 8, it is Moo Moo Meadows and Grumble Volcano that are overhauled in the latest game. Therefore, you can directly compare how much more efficient Nintendo has become at rendering, lighting and portraying windmills, cows, barns, tractors, and gushing lava waterfalls over the last six years.
7. Mario Kart 7, 2011 worldwide, 3DS
The most recent handheld edition of Mario Kart is still fresh in our minds, and it is an excellent title to adjust to the modern mechanics of the series before diving head first into the anti-gravity chaos of Mario Kart 8. Developed in conjunction between Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis & Development team and fan favourites Retro Studios, Mario Kart 7 demonstrated a confidence and an appreciation of the core dynamics that gamers valued most in the series. It was also a late acknowledgement of the game’s placement as the seventh title in the series, since the names of previous games were not assigned their numerical position in the Mario Kart timeline. Nintendo highlighted that it was now possible to “race across land, air, and sea”, as a result of the mid-air glider and underwater propeller additions to your kart. In retrospect, Lakitu’s kart fishing responsibilities may have been reduced in his regular employment, but he was able to subsidise this as a new playable character in Mario Kart 7.
In the seventh game, you could customise and balance your kart’s specifications based upon its speed, acceleration, weight, handling and off-road performance. Achieving a mini-boost from a drift was also deemed fairer, after the infamous snaking days of Mario Kart DS, because the sharpness and tightness of your turn affected the rate at which the sparks from your kart bolstered from blue to orange. Similarly, stunt boost opportunities were littered throughout every track, and could be performed off small mounds, as well as large jumps. Hoarding coins was given a priority, like in Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart: Super Circuit, because in Mario Kart 7 navigating to assemble coins boosted your speed. Amassing coins also unlocked new customisable parts for your vehicle, with increments starting at every fifty coins you had saved. The Spiny Shell was ominously present, of course. A veteran to the series may cynically remark that the only good Spiny Shell is the statue that was bundled with the limited edition of Mario Kart 8. However, the Lucky 7 was an interesting new addition as it inundated lagging players with seven items at once.
In January 2012, Issue 236 of EDGE magazine commended Mario Kart 7 in a 9/10 scoring review, by resolutely expressing that “These are the most intricate course designs in the series, and also the best”. Super Mario Kart was explicit in outlining the risk and reward dynamic of attempting feather shortcuts, but the underwater and glider possibilities of Mario Kart 7 expanded upon this with an even greater variety of potential routes. It could also be argued that the way in which the tracks fit within the worlds established during the Wii era was more strongly exhibited in Mario Kart 7, in comparison to Mario Kart Wii. This was especially as you journeyed across three sections of a long continuous stretch of road in Wuhu Island Loop, visually connecting the game to Wii Sports Resort, in a similar manner to Pilotwings Resort.
It was not just modern games that were referenced in the tracks, the pixelated glory of NES Super Mario Bros. was well captured in Piranha Plant Slide, although the 8-bit look was lost somewhat due to the colour scheme change in the latest rendition of the track in Mario Kart 8. DK Jungle was another circuit that expertly referenced Retro Studios’ expertise at presenting the visual styling of Donkey Kong Country Returns, and alongside the sublimely creative Music Park, they sit with Piranha Plant Slide as the metaphorical Triforce of 3DS tracks in the new Wii U game. Nintendo Life’s Corbie Dillard reviewed Mario Kart 7 during its November 2011 release, and scored it an excellent 9/10. His final words are as apt for this series recap, as they were in the original review, as Corbie celebrated Nintendo’s mastery of the kart racing genre by declaring that “We've seen some amazing Mario Kart releases over the years, and Mario Kart 7 sits right up there with the best of them”.
That brings our history of the first seven games to a close. Let us know which stand out for you, and below are some select articles from our Mario Kart Month.