I know it may be hard to believe looking at me these days, but once I was a young man, with the world at my feet and a burgeoning University career (it was the University of Derby, in the first year that it stopped being a polytechnic and started being a Uni, in case you were wondering). For a boy from the mean streets of Oldham, Derby was very glamorous, and in the second year, when we were encouraged to move out of halls and into the community, I moved into a house with three fellow students. I mean, four guys, sharing a house, living away from home for the first time, what could possibly go wrong? Well, what this meandering introduction is leading to is this: it’s now thirty years since the seminal Super Mario Kart launched on the Super Nintendo, and luckily in my student house I had a SNES, and I had a grant (remember those?) and so many nights of Mario Kart madness were to ensue.
Want to come back in time with me, to when this was all fields, in order to see what made Super Mario Kart so special?
Now, Super Mario Kart, when it launched, was a tour de force of Nintendo graphical whizz-bangery. From the early days of showing off the Mode 7 graphics in titles like F-Zero and Pilot Wings to this game, the SNES had a plethora of great titles to play with friends. However, there were none that fitted the bill of a perfect party game than Super Mario Kart. Add a few housemates, some alcohol (this is strictly optional, of course) and away you go. But be warned, friendships have been broken with that red shell!
So, let’s look back at the game first of all, and examine what made it so great. Bear in mind, at this time, there were no great kart racing games: Super Mario Kart is Genesis; the first. Adding in the characters from the Mario games was like the icing on the cake. These characters are all treated very differently in the game, with each one having some strengths and weaknesses, depending on who you choose. If you picked one of the bigger characters, like Donkey Kong or Bowser, they were slow to accelerate but had a higher top speed, so once you had learned the courses and could navigate them without braking, these were the characters of choice. On the opposite end of the scale, Toad was slower, but accelerated like a stabbed rat, so was ideal for beginners as they learnt the way of the tracks. Mario and the rest were more like the middle of the road characters; Jack of all trades. Finding someone that you liked was part of the fun.
Super Mario Kart had three strands to its bow: there was the Grand Prix (GP) mode, a Time Trial mode, and a Battle Mode which really sorted out the men from the boys.
GP mode was a series of three championships (in ascending order of difficulty, the Mushroom Cup, the Flower Cup and the Star Cup) at one of two levels, either 50cc or 100cc. Winning all three races at 100cc level unlocks a fourth cup, the Special Cup, and winning this cup at 100cc unlocks a whole new difficulty, 150cc. Although I still have nightmares about the Rainbow Road track at 150cc speed, as it was a real nightmare!
As you can see, there was a lot to keep you playing, even alone, and with each track also being playable in a Time Trial mode, even the single player was a thriving place. It was of course in the multiplayer that this game came alive.
Playing multiplayer racing was always good fun, with the screen being split horizontally in half, and the second player taking the place of the map that was shown when playing alone. There is no finer feeling than nailing your friend with a shell, just as they are about to win, and flying past them while they spin helplessly in your wake. Of course, running around the room with your shirt over your head is entirely mandatory when you pull this feat off.
Battle mode is where scores were truly settled. You spawn in with three balloons orbiting your kart, and every time you are hit by your opponent, you are reduced by one as they pop, one by one. Screaming around an arena, each on one balloon or life left, while trying to line up a shot created some truly tense moments, both in-game and in the room. Having a braying crowd of inebriated students just upped the ante. Battle mode soon became part of everyday life almost: don’t fancy doing the washing up? I’ll play you at Mario Kart, and the loser gets the Marigolds on.
While Mario Kart has gone on to go from strength to strength, becoming a franchise in its own right as well as creating a whole new genre, it is still the simple pleasures of the first game that I think back to when I reminisce about my early video game history.
I have played literally thousands of games in my lifetime, starting with Pong on a Grandstand video game system in the 70’s right up to Elden Ring and more in this modern era, and there are only a few games that stand out in the memory. Ghosts n Goblins on the MegaDrive and the first Gears of War game. But king of them all is Super Mario Kart. Whether this is a product of the times that I was playing it, the situation in my life with no responsibilities, or the fact that it was an entirely new concept of the time it launched, it has stayed with me over the last thirty years.
But how about you guys out there? Are you ancient enough to have played this at launch, or subsequently? Do you think the sequels are better, or do you agree with me, that simplicity was one of the defining features? Let us know in the comments.