Mario Kart Month: Clones And Alternatives to Nintendo's Classic Series
Posted by Conor McMahon
Every time a Nintendo device is released, it’s a pretty safe bet that Mario Kart isn’t far around the corner. Each new addition to the series further solidifies its well-earned reputation as the party game of choice, bringing together both the masters and the first-timers to join in on the madness and enjoy it regardless of their experience level. It’s the closest thing we’re ever likely to get to world peace, as what argument can’t be sorted out on the race course with a few green shells in tow? Friends, family, strangers and enemies all uniting in the name of (not so) friendly competition is enough to get us teary-eyed, and when the original released on Super Nintendo in 1992 it created an entire genre.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so Mario Kart can definitely claim to have more than a few admirers. There have been plenty of imitators over the years, as developers attempted to capitalise on the sudden interest in Kart racers. Defined by their simple gameplay and imaginative tracks, these titles ranged from the generic to the grand with more examples than we could ever hope to fully collate here. With that in mind, park up and enjoy a small selection of games inspired by Nintendo’s racer, and the genre that kick-started a thousand tiny engines.
Konami Krazy Racers
Just one ‘K’ away from being a bad decision, Konami made the wise choice here to change ‘Kart’ to ‘racer’ and enter into the fray on GBA.
First released in 2001 as a launch game for Nintendo’s handheld, it features nearly all the same characteristics that define Mario Kart and actually managed to slip out several months before Super Circuit did. It follows the formula to a tee and manages to make it work very well indeed, utilising Mode 7 to simulate three-dimensional environments and even allowing for that pre-race boost if the player accelerates correctly during the countdown. Offensive and defensive items were found in bells placed at pre-determined points along the track, and coins collected along the way could be spent in a shop for multi-use variants.
There are a total of 12 characters from a variety of popular Konami franchises including the Metal Gear and Castlevania series, represented by cyborg ninja Grey Fox and lord of darkness / karting enthusiast Count Dracula himself. A sequel for iOS and Android devices released in 2009 added horrors from Silent Hill to the mix — psychological monstrosities evidently make for good drivers. With innovative single player challenges and tight controls, this one is well worth a look for retro karting fans.
Diddy Kong Racing needs no introduction. It’s remembered fondly by many, treasured by some, and we won’t even begin to get into competitive debate on it here. Instead, let’s shine a spotlight on the game that was almost its sequel.
Originally developed as Diddy Kong pilot by third-party giant Rare, Microsoft’s purchase of the company forced a total makeover and cast-change before it could release. Characters switched from the Nintendo-owned Donkey Kong and Mario series to Rare’s Banjo Kazooie series instead, meaning that the bear and the bird took to the skies as Diddy waited it out. The end result finally released early in 2005 for GBA, featuring nine playable characters and some fun multiplayer modes such as dog-fight and head-to-head.
Banjo Pilot is notable not only for it’s distinctive aerial racing, but for its historic place as the last Banjo-Kazooie game released for a Nintendo console. Bananas, KONG letters and tilt-sensor controls were all lost during the transformation - hinting at the game that almost was - but Banjo fans can proudly claim to have a more than competent racer all of their own. Though it was criticised for a lack of story and simple design, it’s still a fun little anomaly in its own right.
Not even the ill-fated Atari Jaguar could resist challenging Mario Kart with a competitor of its own. Thus, the obscure clone Atari Karts was born.
As an imitator, it succeeds in creating a very similar experience to the original Super Mario Kart but does little to make itself stand out as a real alternative. Environments such as the moon and a palace landscape can look nice, but it’s clear that there just isn’t enough workable material here to make anything recognisable. For example — playable characters range from minor guest stars such as Bentley Bear from arcade title Crystal Castles to the utterly unknown Skully, Miz Tress and Miracle Man. Atari buffs will recognise some neat references in cup names, but that’s about it.
All that aside it’s a functional clone, albeit one that came three years later, and can amuse for a few laps at least. There’s only one mode - a standard grand prix with three cups and four difficulty levels to choose from – and this isn’t helped by the fact that computer AI practically maps rivals onto set paths without deviation, such is their ridiculously perfect driving style. Other racers won’t even use items, which grant speed boosts, improve your handling and provide other passive effects. The only offensive item reverses your opponent’s directional buttons, which is effective when playing splitscreen at least but in single player it sucks a lot of the fun out of proceedings. We can’t help but wonder why Atari didn’t include more well-known characters to help boost interest, but perhaps it simply wanted to quickly fill a four-wheeled void in its line-up.
DreamWorks Super Star Kartz
As time went on, boundaries only grew when it came to kart racers. Once a certain bandicoot proved his worth for Sony with a winning title of his own, it seemed more likely than ever that someone could toss their characters into buggies and come up with a smash hit. Enter DreamWorks.
Super Star Kartz — wearing a ‘z’ so aggressively cool that it might as well have worn shades — was by no means the studio's first attempt to create a Mario Kart-beater, but it does represent the first amalgamation of its franchises on the racetrack. By the time it released on Wii in 2011 most of the playable characters had already released multiplatform racing games of their own, even Antz having been represented on Game Boy Color. (Everyone loved Antz, right?) Pulling a roster from some of its most successful movies, DreamWorks' sole innovation is that each racer came with their own special ability a lá Double Dash, such as penguin captain Skipper’s ability to yell into a megaphone.
It serves as a mediocre example of the Mario Kart formula being applied to almost anything, as television networks, cartoons and film tie-ins alike released further additions to the genre decades after it was first pioneered. It’s not at all broken, works fine for younger players and has enough familiar faces to get by, but the core experience is wholly unremarkable. If there’s one thing Mario Kart seems to get right every time, it’s making sure that the fun, active gameplay justifies the charming aesthetic, not the other way around. As a casual, family afternoon it’s sure to provide entertainment courtesy of the lovely Shrek or the Madagascar crew, but like its contemporaries it never strives to be much more than that.
Sonic & All Stars Racing / Transformed
Not everyone is entirely without inspiration however, and when SEGA pooled its collective resources and canon together into a racing game of its own it eventually managed to release something that made Sonic R feel like it was just a bad dream — developer Sumo Digital is due a lot of credit.
Sonic & SEGA All Stars Racing was a major step in the right direction, but it didn’t quite emerge from the obvious shadow cast by the titan that was Mario Kart Wii. With such a loyal fan base and a wealth of material to draw from, it was only a matter of time before SEGA truly rose above emulating its rivals and set out to make a real contender of its own. Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed was that contender. Launching with Wii U at the end of November, it added the ability to transform each vehicle into both plane and boat form to add some welcome variety to gameplay and the tracks themselves. There was a tangible change to control in each transformation, and navigating each ever-changing environment felt equal parts familiar and spectacular thanks to some impressive visuals.
As always the mascots were brought out in full force as well, with the addition of Mii-usage on the Wii U and surprise entrants outside of the SEGA family such as Wreck-It Ralph and, err…NASCAR driver Danica Patrick. It’s a real treat to see so many entrants represented by unique vehicles and transformations, as well as some neat minigames to make use of the GamePad. Something that seems like even more of a defining feature now is the ability to play with 5-player splitscreen using the GamePad as an actual screen, not just a horn. With Mario Kart 8 upon us the Wii U can once again claim it’s karting legend, but for a long time All Stars Racing Transformed was the best choice and fit the task exceptionally well – a reminder to Nintendo not to rest too much on its laurels, which it thankfully responded to with a gleeful gravity-boost.
Want to know more about how Mario Kart has influenced other kart and racing games? Then check out our substantial interview feature with the developers that tried to beat Nintendo at its own game.