Retro Review: Super Mario Kart

Nintendo has managed to put Mario and co into just about every scenario a person can imagine at this point, but if we’re being honest, the Mario Kart series easily trumps the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom’s sporting ventures. Super Mario Kart is not only the first in the series, but the game that showed how well this formula could be applied to just about anything.

The Basics

Super Mario Kart came out on the Super Nintendo toward the end of the summer in 1992, just as kids like me were heading back to school and looking for new reasons to avoid things like homework. I was ten years old when I got the game for my birthday a couple months later, at which point my living room quickly became a hub of juvenile disregard as we passed around controllers and Pixy Stix, giddy laughter and memories. I spent far more time perfecting the art of firing a red shell around a corner in the game’s Battle Mode than I ever did on social studies.

While Mario had already been featured in a number of sports titles by that time, these were very typical sports games where his likeness was simply used for a bit of brand recognition. Golf was just golf, and Tennis was just tennis, though years later Mario and co would return to both ideas with a little more style. Super Mario Kart was the first game to redefine a sport with a Mushroom Kingdom motif all around, giving birth not just to the kart racing genre but to other great and over-the-top Mario sports games like Super Mario Strikers, which are a genre unto themselves.

Racing? In a Mario Kart Game?

The first and most important thing with any racing game—even one that might be off its medication—is that the controls are tight and responsive, so you only have yourself to blame for mistakes. While you can’t always avoid a red shell, the driving here can be masterfully precise when you spend some time with it, and as far as items are concerned this game is a lot less cheap and random than others in the franchise. The driving mechanics are more important in this first iteration than with any other version of Mario Kart.

There is one thing missing here which has since become a staple of the franchise: You can’t get a mini-turbo boost from drifting, so you really want to save your drifts for those extra tight corners. Often you are better served to kind of hop around a bend, or even let up a bit on the gas to ease into a turn, which is something you definitely won’t find in any other Mario Kart game. I even used the brake button once or twice while playing for this review. Really, the brake button.

While you might miss powersliding if you are familiar with later games in the series, Super Mario Kart has a couple of unique tricks up its sleeve which I feel make up for that mechanic’s absence. There are coins scattered throughout the tracks, and your kart will go incrementally faster with each one you collect up to a total of 10. You lose coins when you make contact with other racers, fall off the track, or are hit by most of the items. When your coins are spent completely you not only go slower, but you are more vulnerable, and can be spun out just by bumping into an opponent. Boost pads (or Zippers) also play a larger role here than in other Mario Kart games, which makes it that much more important to find the right line through each course, similar to F-Zero which came out a year earlier.

On the whole the driving mechanics of this game make the experience feel quite a bit different from the rest of the series. In a strange way, this is a more realistic driving game, which sounds completely ridiculous but I’m speaking relatively. You have to be much more careful in your approach, and driving itself is far more important than the use of items.

Getting Into the Groove

There are 20 tracks here in total, broken down into four cups featuring five courses apiece. This is more than Mario Kart 64 had years later, however in Super Mario Kart many of the levels are rather similar to each other. There are really only eight different course types on display here, featuring sometimes minor differences between them as they increase in difficulty with each cup. You’ll have to unlock the Special Cup on the 100cc difficulty to experience its sometimes punishing lineup.

Each of those eight level types takes a somewhat different approach and will require you to rethink your strategies. Instead of focusing on powersliding and overpowered items, Super Mario Kart makes each track an experience with its own set of rules. You can bump the walls in Ghost Valley, but only once before they disappear, and there are very temping shortcuts in plain view which require an expert hand to pull off. Meanwhile, in Bowser’s Castle the winning approach will be about making tight turns without getting caught up on hard edges, and hitting the many zippers which are often placed to require near-perfect driving.

One thing Nintendo really got right with Super Mario Kart is the progression from one stage to the next, which when you stop to think of it is really not dissimilar to a typical Mario platformer—just with tracks and cups instead of levels and worlds. Much of the gameplay here feels influenced just as much by platformers as other racers. In some cases retro games can frustrate modern players who are not accustomed to repeated failure while they learn, but in a racing game the desire to improve your time or place higher is easier to digest.

By the time you get to the Special Cup on 150cc you will be in for quite a challenge, and even hardcore gamers will feel accomplished to place first overall in that one. Super Mario Kart is a whole lot more difficult than any other game of its ilk and this will be made evident to you when you attempt your inaugural run of the dreaded Rainbow Road. This final track was specifically designed to be as punishing as possible, with no barriers to keep you from falling off at any point, and sharp corners leading into narrow stretches to all but ensure your failure. This is a masochistic experience, even for good players, because even when you’re having a good race just one bump from another driver can send you over the edge with so little room for error. Victory here is that much sweeter, or so I’ve heard.

Though the difficulty level of the Special Cup can seem pretty harsh, it’s something to strive toward if you find yourself really getting into the game. Aside from Rainbow Road all seven of the remaining track types can be found in earlier cups, so players of all skill levels can enjoy most of what Super Mario Kart has to offer.

Destroying Childhood Friendships

Even though the items are not as important as in future installments, they do add a great dimension to the gameplay and this is probably what sets kart racing games apart for most players above all other things. Most items have a tactical use which can either save your life, shave off a bit of time, or hopefully cause a bit of damage to your opponents.

Green Shells fire straight ahead and bounce off of walls, or alternatively can be dropped behind your kart as a stationary trap, much like the Banana Peel. The Red Shell will home in on your nearest opponent, nearly guaranteeing a hit if you use it wisely. These three items are the most tactical of the bunch.

Other items like the Mushroom give you a burst of speed, which is particularly handy when you can use one for a shortcut over rough terrain. The Feather is almost exclusively used for shortcuts, allowing you to jump fairly high into the air, and it can also help you avoid attacks. Coins are self-explanatory—you get two of ‘em—and the Boo (which can only be found in Battle Mode) grants temporary immunity while swiping an item from another player.

The cheap items Mario Kart games are somewhat notorious for are not as prevalent here. Mainly, the Blue Shell does not exist to punish the front runner, and the Bullet Bill won’t simply autopilot stragglers back into the race. However, the Star is here, which gives not only increased speed but immunity from attack and the ability to spin out opponents on contact, and the Lightning bolt will shrink and reduce the speed of all other drivers. The game isn’t completely without overpowered items, but you’ll find their impact much smaller.

Your AI opponents don’t pick up items from the item boxes, but have their own special abilities which they can use at pretty much any time. Often it gets to be a little bit frustrating if you have a character like Yoshi on your tail, throwing a seemingly endless barrage of eggs into your path, or Bowser with his fireballs which are more difficult to dodge. Mario and Luigi can both activate star power at any time they please, making them completely invulnerable and thwarting well-considered attempts to knock them off their game. AI racers will also often jump to avoid your shells, which human players cannot do. Basically, they cheat a bit.

I have a fondness for little green men

I have a preferred driver in every Mario Kart game, and in this case I love my Koopa Troopa. If you attempt to take him from me I might settle for Yoshi, but you might also end up with a couple of cracked ribs. As it turns out Toad is the better alternative to Koopa Troopa and they play identically, and all of the drivers can be broken down into four pairs.

The Showdown: The heavyweights here are Bowser and Donkey Kong, and they tend to move quite slowly compared to the rest. They do have a higher top speed, but acceleration is pretty important in a game like this where going slightly off course or being stopped altogether is not always a matter of choice, and their poor handling makes it that much more likely you run into this problem.

The Bros.: Mario and Luigi are your balanced options which try to give you fair performance in every category. They go just fast enough, they handle just well enough, and they reach their top speed quickly enough to work reasonably well.

The Dino and the Princess: Yoshi and Peach have the highest acceleration, but the lowest top speed, so they might make good options for beginners but they will quickly fall behind. I also want to point out that Nintendo came up with the brilliant names for these couplings, not me.

The Small Guys: With Koopa Troopa and Toad you get balanced speed and acceleration like with Mario and Luigi, but the difference here is that they have the best handling in the game bar none. Almost all players seem to prefer these guys.

I mentioned earlier that each driver has their own special abilities, but this only applies to AI opponents. When you are behind the wheel no such abilities exist, and the more unique items those AI drivers use can’t be picked up from item boxes either. The choice of your driver is entirely about speed and handling, or if you’re like me, ~green-ness~

WE WERE NEVER REALLY FRIENDS!

Battle mode is where most people spent the bulk of their time playing the game back in the day, and if you’ve got a couple of friends who are into retro gaming you might be able to recapture that thrill. Most of the core mechanics of the game are the same here as in one of the racing modes, but the focus is purely on destroying each other. Be warned: this stuff can get pretty intense.

Each player starts out with three balloons around their karts, and up to four people can play simultaneously. The goal is to defend against attack to hold onto these for as long as possible while you try to snipe each other with shells, or mess each other up in any way you can. Whenever you are hit by an item you will lose one of your balloons, so after three hits the match is over for you. Each match normally only lasts a couple of minutes.

There are four maps here to play on, and each offers a slightly different configuration of walls to duck behind and more open areas to unleash mayhem. The game works best, in my opinion, when it feels a bit like a 3D version of Pac-Man, one player desperately trying to escape or find a useful item while another chases them down through narrow passages. Like Pac-Man eating a power pellet, if you are being chased and you pick up a Boo from an item box you can turn the tables on your rival.

Graphics and Sound

This is one of the first games to really take advantage of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 chip as more than just a gimmick, though F-Zero was the real pioneer with that technology the previous year. This is what makes 3D racing possible on the 16-bit system, and that works very well. Some games that used Mode 7 seemed more interested in creating trippy effects, which could be more of a distraction than anything else, but Super Mario Kart put the tech to good use.

The only trouble is that sprites scaled with Mode 7 don’t look particularly sharp, so when you really stop to look at what’s on your screen you may find it’s basically just an abstract mess of pixels. Have a look up top at the screenshots I took for this review to see what I mean. It does look better in motion, but it’s still, at times, a little bit grating on the eyes.

The music and sound design in this game are top notch, as should be expected from a Nintendo title. Bonus: since the mini-turbo hadn’t been invented yet, you don’t have to deal with Princess Peach repeatedly crying out at you like in Mario Kart 64, and that is a huge mark in the plus column for Super Mario Kart.

Verdict

Future games in the franchise will appeal more to some, but Super Mario Kart offers several things that later additions have mostly done away with, such as coins, relatively realistic driving mechanics (I said relatively), and items which are a bit less cheap on the whole and promote a more tactical approach. There is definitely a place for this game in most collections, and its high degree of challenge may keep you playing against the AI for quite some time before you truly master it.

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