Review: Super Mario Kart (Wii U eShop / SNES)

A timely boost for a classic

With a PAL release a mere nine months after the April 1992 launch of the UK SNES, during a 16-bit era where show-boating superior technology and exceptional console power was at the forefront of Nintendo’s objectives, Super Mario Kart remained humble in exhibiting its technical prowess. European gamers had been reminded by a Nintendo advertisement that patiently anticipating the SNES, plus ignoring the temptation of a SEGA Mega Drive, would be “worth its wait in gold. (And 32,767 other colours)”. Not only did it look terrific, but this original racer utilised the system's capabilities to provide smooth, exciting split-screen multiplayer to capture the imagination.

The evolution of the racing game genre was a power hungry process, as arcade titles led the way, but even the hardiest consoles struggled at converting a convincing scrolling road — it was a luxury at the time. OutRun’s spectacular Super Scaler highways were adequately represented on the Mega Drive, and the PC Engine was tolerable at reproducing Chase H.Q., but they appeared unsophisticated when directly compared to the coin-ops. Shortly before the Super FX chip enabled Star Fox / Starwing to soar, polygon racers like Race Drivin’ chugged on unassisted SNES hardware. Nintendo answered this problem with Mode 7, and its SNES effects dazzled by rotating the single-player roads in F-Zero. Likewise, the cartridge inclusion of the DSP (digital signal processor) chip as an extra maths co-processor helped differentiate Pilotwings as a unique launch title when compared to games on rival systems.

The modest 4 megabit cartridge for Super Mario Kart, which amounts to a mere half a megabyte, understated the split-screen wizardry of the time. The DSP chip was instrumental in ensuring two-player competitive racing, and it was the multiplayer that received the highest praise from the magazines of the day. For example, the first issue of Super Play in the UK awarded it 93% in November 1992, and the DSP chip was applauded for its hardware assistance in the same magazine.

Although split-screen necessitated that half the display real estate became lost in single-player, Nintendo compensated for this by providing either a rear view mirror on the lower half of the screen, or a course map that highlighted the placement of other racers. This means that a full-screen picture, without borders, is another reason to be appreciative of Nintendo releasing the 60Hz US version of Super Mario Kart on the European Wii U Virtual Console. Even when later SNES Mode 7 titles like Street Racer added four-player, and a full screen for lonesome racers, the presentation of the roads in Super Mario Kart were smoother, plus its tracks stretched out at a clearer visible viewing angle.

As the first game in the Mario Kart series, it was an inspired decision to place the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom in go-karts, because the low-slung and lively vehicles expressed a youthful sprightliness. It achieved a similar sense of fun as Rare managed using radio-controlled cars in R.C. Pro-Am on NES, or SEGA displayed with bobble headed road hogs hurtling around rollercoaster tracks in arcade Power Drift.

Hideki Konno is well regarded as a long-standing producer on the Mario Kart series, but his role as a director on Super Mario Kart, alongside Tadashi Sugiyama, is of added interest because Konno’s previous work was as map director for Super Mario World. Therefore, it was visually striking in 1992 how effectively Super Mario Kart presented the world of the SNES classic as race courses, which take a picturesque tour around Dinosaur Land. It feels like a snapshot of early 1990s Nintendo background design, from Monty Mole latching onto your kart in Donut Plains, to Boos loitering around Ghost Valley, or Cheep Cheeps diving out of Koopa Beach’s cyan blue waters. For this reason, locations like Choco Island feel unique today. Plus, unsurprisingly considering Sugiyama’s previous role as director of SNES Pilotwings, the tracks scroll, scale and rotate beautifully in Mode 7.

It’s not only the visual design that provides sweet pangs of nostalgia, but from the opening Nintendo logo chime, to a truly memorable title screen theme, the creative input of sound composers Soya Oka and Taro Bando demonstrate exquisite chiptune work. Yet again, the eerily inviting haunted house motif of Ghost Valley, and the foreboding music of King Koopa’s lair in Bowser Castle, link directly back to the sounds of Super Mario World. Super Mario Kart parades a sense of pedigree in its development team, because Oka’s breezy compositions had already been enjoyed in Pilotwings, and Bando would later showcase his upbeat and catchy sound composer skills further in the same role on Stunt Race FX. It’s apparent that the joy of discovering the Mount Must Dash stage in Super Mario 3D World was conveyed as convincingly by the jaunty restyling of the Mario Circuit music as in the layout of the level.

With a GP structure of twenty tracks, spread over four cups, the initial standout to a modern Mario Kart player first experiencing the original on Wii U is not only that Super Mario Kart has shorter courses with five laps each, but that you must also master five tracks per cup. Every corner in the design is carefully thought-out, so memorising the position of obstacles from pipes, to oil spills, as well as deep water, lava and ice blocks is important. The controls are as tight as the track design, but they demand that you learn how the inputs relate to a flat Mode 7 road, as opposed to looser, more forgiving controls in later games. It’s essential to master the timing of a shoulder button hop and understand how it sets the kart into a skid, for cutting a smooth tarmac hairpin without being hindered by speed decelerating grit or rough surfaces. Bouncing the kart is a versatile move, because if timed correctly it can take the sting out of losing momentum from bumping into an opponent, wall or obstacle. However, a clean run is required, as colliding with other racers, or drifting for too long, can spin out your kart.

This places a risk and reward dynamic upon aiming for the hard to reach placement of speed boost arrows, or imaginative shortcuts, which could potentially help or hinder a flawless racing line. Coins are cleverly littered around tracks, and they’re essential as they make your kart less vulnerable, plus collecting ten coins increases your overall speed; zero coins means you spin out after a hit. The audio is an indicator of your performance, so an experienced Super Mario Kart player will listen to the rev sounds of the engine to assist with propelling forward with a rocket start, and as an indicator that you’ve reached the sweet spot of your kart’s top speed. Similarly, different road surfaces have a variety of sound effects. This is also the reason that gamers like Sami Cetin continue to be compelled to push themselves towards achieving record track times, almost 22 years after its release.

Once you dedicate sessions to becoming proficient at a perfect single-player track Time Trial on each of your favourite courses, you’ll be thankful for the sturdy controls and the Off-TV play on the Wii U GamePad, because the urge to beat your record time is compulsive. Previously your Ghost image was lost when you ended a session, or reset your SNES, but the ability to repeatedly race against your best ghost using the ‘Create Restore Point’ is an advantageous perk of the Wii U version.

The eight choices of characters are divided into four main skill sets, based upon three sets of heftiness. Donkey Kong Jr and Bowser are heavyweights with the slowest acceleration, but the highest top speed. Mario and Luigi are middleweights with standard performance, just as Yoshi and Princess are a medium weight, but with a lower top speed and faster acceleration. Finally, Toad and Koopa Troopa are the lightest, but have the most accessible handling, with solid, reliable controls.

With a more rigid challenge, Super Mario Kart is arguably not as forgiving as later games in the series, so it’s potentially less approachable. However, without rubber banding, or a blue spiny shell, it could also be deemed fairer. On the one hand it’s possible to lap a friend or an AI competitor, but this is less likely as the difficulty ramps up after unlocking the 150cc engine class and the Special Cup, where the AI speedsters become increasingly aggressive. Each racer has a direct rival, for example the AI controlled Donkey Kong Jr shoots banana skins to repeatedly place top of the leaderboard against Mario, and Princess hounds Toad with shrinking mushrooms. Nonetheless, the cheap implementation of the AI rivals, who spam attack their character specific abilities and barge you off the side of the track, is a bugbear in the original game. The race leaders sit in a tight pack in the 150cc class, so one mistake can send a pacesetter to instant fifth place, and the loss of an extra life option to continue. Yet, a crafty player will learn the unflinching racing line of AI opponents, and drop bananas or green shells in their pathway.

Later track designs become longer, and offer a more complicated variety of routes, such as dodging Thwomps in Bowser Castle 3. Also, a number of courses have no walls or boundary edges, like the unnerving and ruthless Rainbow Road. Super Mario Kart also includes some of the most ingenious shortcuts in the karting franchise, with an honourable mention given to the only series inclusion of the feather jump power-up, which enables the player to leap across gaps and bound over colourful block walls. A gamer experienced with the original title will demonstrate increasingly inventive approaches to a shortcut, beyond the more obvious use of a feather across a Ghost Valley gap. Instead they may use a mushroom speed-up to hurtle from a jump to a walkway on Ghost Valley 1, or combine a speed boost arrow with a feather across a lava gap in Bowser Castle 1, to exploit a detour that was possibly never intended as a short cut by the developers.

Riding across non-renewable question mark tiles on the track’s surface grants the player items and weapons that have become standardised in the series, but were balanced and versatile when compared to early 1990s retro racers, like RoadBlasters on NES. Many items have multiple implementations, for example a banana can be either dropped behind, or flung in front of your kart. The timing and placement of an attack becomes crucial; for instance a devious player may watch the lower map screen to shrink the racing pack with a lightning bolt, ensuring that competitors no longer complete the jump in Mario Circuit 2.

The incorporation of four competitive two-player battle courses — which are entertaining through simple, effective layout design — establishes Battle Mode as an ideal arena to demonstrate your kart handling skills and balloon popping mastery of the weaponry. Combined with the GP competition, this is excellent today and also helped Super Mario Kart to have a lasting buzz in the memory of gamers as one of the most satisfying multiplayer titles in the '90s on SNES, alongside Super Bomberman.

Super Mario Kart has certainly been well tested in terms of replay value over 22 years. The balance of its items, as well as the tight design of its tracks and controls, etched-out the template for future games in the series. It's the type of game that’s worth purchasing again on Wii U, if only for the convenience of returning to its eternal fun, even when you already own it on other systems.

Conclusion

A combination of Mode 7 and the DSP chip were instrumental in ensuring that Super Mario Kart’s engine purred with smoothly rotating and scaling split-screen tracks. As the first game in the series, the inspired use of low-slung go-karts gave the gameplay a sprightly sense of exuberance. The finest SNES developer talent created visuals and sound compositions, which hark back to the Dinosaur Land setting, and are preserved in history like a 1992 Polaroid of 16-bit era Nintendo.

With controls, track design and item balance meticulously structured, the mechanics over twenty tracks and four cups sketched-out the foundations of the franchise. Alongside a stern 150cc class and Special Cup challenge, boisterously cheap AI rivals can’t dampen the urge to rocket start, hop and power slide your way to a smooth tarmac, perfect lap run. Eight characters with handling based upon weight add replay value for approaching Time Trials, or two-player GP and Battle Mode showdowns. Super Mario Kart propelled the series forward from the starting line as a pacesetter, not only amongst karting games, but as a leader of the pack in the retro racing genre.