Review: Super Mario Kart (SNES)

Back to the good old days before the blue shell from hell

Less than a year after the Super Nintendo was launched, our pals at Nintendo had the bright idea of taking the Super Mario World universe and squeezing it into a kart-racing game. It sounded like a crazy idea at the time, but they managed to pull it off with style and create an almost timeless game, fondly remembered by gamers to this very day. Of course this was one of the games which everybody expected to be available in the Virtual Console’s launch line-up three years ago, but sadly this was not to be for reasons best known to Nintendo. Finally this injustice has been resolved so we can put our virtual pitchforks away and breathe a sigh of relief.

Super Mario Kart pushed the Super Nintendo’s much-touted Mode 7 capabilities to the max, creating an illusion of 3D which was visually quite impressive back then, and still passable even today. There is a good sense of speed too, especially on the 150cc cup where the action comes fast and furious. With just a bit of practice before long you’ll be power-sliding round all those 180-degree corners with the greatest of ease, watching as the landscape effortlessly rotates around you. It was also quite nice to see that Nintendo got the Virtual Console emulation down pat for this release, as the game looks exactly like it did back on the Super Nintendo console.

There are eight different characters from the Mario universe that you can choose between for your race. Each character's kart has different capabilities with differing levels of top speed, acceleration and handling. Mario and Luigi are the good old all-rounders and recommended for newcomers to the game due to their decent top speed and responsive handling. Princess Peach and Yoshi are blessed with great acceleration but poor handling, which can cause you to skid out of control if you are not careful. Expert players favour Bowser or Donkey Kong Jr. due to their impressive top speed, but if you crash or get hit by a red shell the low acceleration is a pain. Last but not least we have Koopa Trooper and Toad who have amazing handling, but beware, the larger characters can easily push these two around!

The use of weapons was one of the things that set Super Mario Kart apart from other racers of its day. Simply running over a “?” block in the track allowed you to pick up a random item to use at a time of your choosing. The clever thing was good racers get less useful items like green shells or banana skins, whereas if you were performing badly for whatever reason you conveniently often acquire items such as invincibility stars, red shells that homed in on your opponent in front and lightning, the most devastating of all as it causes all your opponents to shrink, which means they can be easily overtaken or even squashed! In addition to that you might get a ghost which lets you steal weapons from your opponents, a mushroom turbo boost or a feather that is useful for jumping walls or holes to form a handy shortcut to victory.

There are four different cups you can compete in: Mushroom, Flower, Star and Special (which is unlockable). Each cup ranges in difficulty respectively and contains five tracks themed from the Super Mario World universe. Anyone who is remotely familiar with Super Mario World will instantly remember Donut Plains, Ghost Valley, Bowser’s Castle and Choco Island. It’s amazing how well these themes translated into racing tracks; Nintendo truly did a sterling job here. In addition to this you can also race on beaches, keeping to the racing line through shallow waters, or even take a trip on Rainbow Road. You’ll start off with 50cc karts that are a complete walkover; 100cc puts up a sterner challenge as it is faster and your opponents will fight back more. Seasoned veterans can enjoy the unlockable 150cc class, but be warned: it is much more unforgiving.

The key to success in any racing game is the quality of design in the tracks, and Super Mario Kart does not disappoint in this area. The tracks are nice and tight and encourage the driver to take the perfect racing line to ensure victory. In addition to having to contend with your fellow racers, there are also environmental obstacles such as falling Thwomps, gophers that latch on to your kart and need shaking off, lava pits and deep water to avoid. There are speed boost strips on many of the tracks which you will want to hit to make sure you stay ahead of the pack. Also, a well-timed mushroom boost can make a nifty shortcut across some tough terrain, and it’s worth trying to get hold of a feather to jump over certain parts of the Ghost Valley tracks.

To help gamers hone their racing skills there is the clever addition of a time trial mode. Your best times get saved so you can try and better them next time you play. The best part is you can even race ghosts of your best performances to help spur you on to better lap times.

The single player mode can get a little old after a while, but as the game always plays in split screen anyway (the bottom screen being a map or rear view mirror in single player mode), it should be a good indication to you that this game was designed from the ground up to be best enjoyed with a buddy. This is where the game really comes into its own as you try to sabotage each other’s attempt at first place, sometimes resorting to cheap shots from a red homing shell just before your opponent crosses the finishing line. So cruel.

The icing on the cake has to be the Battle Mode: if you have a friend with a competitive streak you can have hours of fun with this. Both players are given three balloons and duke it out in a giant battle arena of your choice. All the regular items from the main game can be picked up to be used against your opponent. Red shells make for an easy hit, but skilled players will know when to power-slide around a corner or drop a green shell behind them at just the right time to avoid this. Before long the arena gets filled with green shells ricocheting from wall to wall eventually destined to collide with someone’s kart; it doesn’t pay to stay still.

Gamers who have not yet picked up a Classic Controller would be advised to do so - it totally recreates the feeling of playing this classic SNES game on your Wii. The layout of the buttons and tiny D-pad on the Gamecube controller doesn’t quite feel right. Of course you could do yourself one better and import one of the Super Famicom Classic Controllers to get the authentic experience.

Conclusion

Super Mario Kart has certainly made its mark on gaming history, spawning several sequels on successive Nintendo consoles, not to mention many imitators. To play it today is every bit as enjoyable as it ever was; sure the graphics and sound may have dated, but the core gameplay is still top notch. This is one hell of a fun racing game with enough playability to keep you coming back for more. It’s amazing that Nintendo chose to wait three years before treating us to this seminal game on the Virtual Console, but we’re glad they finally saw sense!

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