What Mario Kart Means To Me

In this personal reminiscence, Nintendo Life contributor Dave Letcavage explains how important the Mario Kart franchise — and gaming in a broader sense — are to him, recounting events of his life in which they've been invaluable sources of entertainment, fun and escape.

You don’t need me to tell you that videogames are possibly the most powerful and potent form of entertainment in existence. What elevates playing a game above other pastimes like watching movies, reading books, and listening to music, is the unrivalled amount of interaction that ensures you’re not just peering into an imaginative fantasy world, you’re actually existing in that space. That kind of immersion and stimulation is especially great when it can cause you to feel as if you’ve hopped into a space shuttle and ventured far away from the confines of the real, and sometimes harsh, world that surrounds you. With the mind and body distracted in unison, so wholesomely, anything you need to escape from can be temporarily erased from existence.

Anyone that has dabbled in videogames should be able to admit to at least a single dance with this sensation – or a similar one – at some point in their life. While it was something that I experienced at a young age, it wasn’t until recently that I was fully aware of the vast potential of its therapeutic powers. So with that, let me tell you a personal story about how the unique abilities of my favourite digital activity have kept me sane over the past couple years. This is a story that, conveniently, revolves around Mario Kart.

It all started in a Sears department store back in 1991. I remember being there with my parents and being utterly bored as they shopped for housewares. Then, when we took the escalator to the second floor, I laid my eyes upon the grey brick of beauty…the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES / Super Famicom). It wasn’t just a boxed unit, either; it was a demo station complete with a copy of Super Mario World, ready to be played. That was the first time that I visited Dinosaur Land and it totally blew my 7-year-old mind. Those lively, striking colours, the fluid cartoon-like animations, and the most-refined controls I’d ever handled made it a super experience, indeed. On the way out, I stared down the boxes on the shelf and dreamt about having a Super Nintendo hooked up to the television in our basement. Unfortunately, that day didn’t come for nearly another year or so.

After months of discussing the pros and cons of Genesis and Super Nintendo with my dad, it was actually Sega’s console that I decided would be most-fitting for my family – the allure of something very different than the NES being what convinced me. I remember giving my dad an assured answer at dinner one day, and it was settled: we would soon be getting a Genesis. Then a few weeks later, without any notice, my dad surprised my sister and I with something unexpected. Because we owned NES and my dad had grown to trust and love the Nintendo brand, he ignored my wishes and passed on the Genesis. Bundled with Super Mario World, we now owned a Super Nintendo, and the excitement of finally upgrading to next-gen was so overwhelming that I didn’t even mind my dad’s last minute switcheroo.

Super Mario Kart Box

But by that time, because I had already played Super Mario World so much at friend’s houses after school, the game wasn’t particularly exciting anymore – even though the novelty of being able play in my own home was nice. Good thing my parents had the foresight to purchase a copy of Super Mario Kart to accompany our new system. Where my sister and I had played many NES games in the past by taking turns or passing a controller back and forth, this was one of the first memories that I have of truly competitive simultaneous multiplayer. We played for hours upon hours on end, racing and battling, so happy to be participating that who won or lost was never really a concern. It was electrifying, and became something of an obsession.

One night not long after the acquisition – it might have been during Christmas vacation – a good friend of mine was dropped off for a sleepover. The first thing that we did, and almost the only thing we did all night, was engage in Super Mario Kart. I recall us stuffing our faces with popcorn and participating in heated balloon battles, completely invested but laughing all the while. After a few hours had gone by, we decided we’d take a break to watch Gremlins, and the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about playing more Mario Kart. Well, about halfway through the movie I started experiencing stomach pains unlike anything I had ever felt before, and as they progressively got worse, my folks decided a trip to the ER might be a smart move.

I hated hospitals. I still do, in fact. The sterile, hard-floor-and-barren-walls lack of décor, accompanied by the thought of extremely ill folks crowding each room, instils the most hollow and depressing feeling in my gut that is hard to digest. That night, I recall being terrified as I rested in my hospital bed, unsure of what was coming. While I was slightly distracted from my anxiety by Spaceballs airing on the television, it was actually Mario Kart that got me through my stay. Even in such a dire situation I couldn’t stop thinking about playing more Kart. I told myself that once I got through this hospital visit, I’d be right back at home racing and enjoying, what was then, my favourite game. All of a sudden, it wasn’t so hard anymore; the hospital wasn’t all that scary.

Super Mario Kart was such an immensely enjoyable escape that I didn’t even need to be playing or viewing it for it to pick me up and elevate me above the fears that were trying to drag me down. Even if you haven’t been in a situation that mirrors mine exactly, I’m sure you can relate. Think of a long work day that loses its minute-to-minute sting because of the anticipation to get home and play whatever enticing game is waiting for you…It’s kind of like that. When the proverbial walls melt away, so can dating troubles, money issues, sicknesses, or any other “headaches” that life commonly serves up. Luckily, in this instance, the headache or stomach-ache that life dealt me turned out to be nothing more than a negative reaction to all that popcorn I had been carelessly ingesting.

Throughout my entire life games have been there to get me through any bad days, especially lately. Without divulging too many details, I’ve been dealing with health complications that have, well, complicated my life to say the least. Some days I can mostly operate as a normal human being, but other days leaving the couch or bed is an adventure I don’t possess the means of embarking on. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to live in those moments, and any rare thing that can cause me to forget and/or look past my current circumstances is priceless. When physical pain plays a part, which is common, rising above it takes a special kind of interference.

Donkey and Diddy exploring Autumn Heights.

That’s where videogames have offered me more than any other form of entertainment ever could. When I have a great game in front of me, the physical pain and the realities of my situation are numbed, and in my mind I’m no longer strapped to a couch in my living room, but I’m out golfing in the Mushroom Kingdom (Mario Golf: World Tour) or taking in the breathtaking views of Autumn Heights (DKC: Tropical Freeze). Videogames have become my go-to medicine, always effective and always capable of being the distraction that I need. And it all started with Super Mario Kart getting me through that hospital visit all those years ago. I’ve been "playing with power" ever since my family adopted the NES back in the mid ‘80s, but it was with Super Mario Kart in 1992, when I learned the ultimate potential of that power and what it can do for someone having a not-so-good day.

So as you may have guessed, I’m ecstatic for the release of Mario Kart 8, and I have no doubt that it’ll be able to provide me with an invaluable amount of relief from the bologna I’m currently dealing with. Simply reflecting on the memories I've made with the series has been comforting to me in recent weeks, and I'm eager to create all new ones with my wife and friends soon enough. From Super to 7, Mario Kart has played a big role throughout my life as a gamer, and for that it means a whole heck of a lot to me. And on that note, I think I'll power up my 3DS and practice my power-sliding while I wait for the new entry. There's a certain chunky gorilla that has been gunning for me for years, and I need to be prepared to dodge his road-hoggin' butt if I want to win any gold trophies.