Super Mario Kart: Defining a Genre

“Which Mario Kart is best?” is one of those questions that can start bitter, terrible arguments. Or at the very least, send you into an endless cycle of analysis paralysis as you contemplate which one actually is the “best”.

Do you prefer Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s “best of everything” approach, blending brand new tracks with classics from yesteryear with a twist? How about Double Dash’s team-based mechanics? 64’s early attempts to move the series into true 3D?

For everyone, the answer is different, and I can’t even give you a definitive answer on my own preferences. But one thing we can hopefully all agree on is that even if Super Mario Kart for Super NES isn’t your favourite Mario Kart, it’s probably the most important.

Super Mario Kart was designed from the very beginning to be a game built with two-player racing in mind, but there were challenges to overcome.

Super NES launch title F-Zero had already shown the value of the platform’s “Mode 7” graphics mode, which was capable of taking a flat image and applying a perspective effect to it to create a convincing illusion of 3D. Imagine that you’re looking at a top-down map of a racetrack on a wall in front of you; now imagine that wall collapsing away from you, and the map now being laid flat on the ground — that’s effectively what Mode 7 did for racing games.

The advantage of using Mode 7 for a racing game in this way is that you could move beyond the “horizon-chasing” gameplay of many prior racers; because you were moving the “camera” around a flat image and could spin it in any direction, we were looking at a new age for console racers where you could actually turn around and go the other way, and where the mechanics involved actually turning around corners rather than just sliding left and right across a never-ending conveyor belt of a road.

The tricky part is that although this was a key selling point of the Super NES — its main rival, Sega’s Mega Drive, wouldn’t get similar capabilities until the release of its CD-ROM addon — it was still quite demanding on the hardware. F-Zero ran like a dream and was a gobsmacking launch title, but the size and complexity of its courses and the challenges this then-new graphical technique placed on the humble Super NES made the two-player split-screen gameplay that many fans were clamouring for out of the question.

Producer Shigeru Miyamoto and directors Tadashi Sugiyama and Hideki Konno were unwilling to compromise, however; the new game — which wasn’t initially Mario-themed — was to be a multiplayer-centric title, and as such they had to find a way to make split-screen, two-player Mode 7 graphics work.

The solution was relatively straightforward in theory: scale down the tracks and lower the speed of the vehicles. Instead of futuristic hovercraft hooning around space-age cityscapes at supersonic speeds, now we had the rather more sedate sport of kart racing. And just to make sure the console was truly up to the task, also whack a custom Digital Signal Processor chip in the cartridge to handle the heavy maths required for intensive Mode 7 visuals and 3D calculations.

Super Mario Kart is an elegantly simple and straightforward game in structural terms. In single-player mode, you can either race a complete five-round grand prix or take on a time trial for a single track. In two-player mode, you can play a grand prix together, play a single one-on-one race against each other or take on the game’s “Battle Mode”, in which the objective was not to win a race, but instead to use the game’s various items to defeat your opponent by dealing damage to them three times.

The only unlockables in the game are the Special Cup, which becomes available after you beat the first three five-race grand prix challenges, and the relatively high-speed 150CC difficulty mode, which appears after you beat the Special Cup at the moderate 100CC difficulty/speed setting. After that, the game becomes something to purely play for fun — or competition.

Mario Kart games over the years have often drawn criticism for having rather bare-bones single-player modes, and as you can see, this has been the case for the series since its very first installment. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like as much of an issue here, however; perhaps it’s because, at the time of its original release in 1992, this amount of content was pretty normal. Many games in the 8- and 16-bit eras got their longevity not from seemingly endless content, but rather from raw playability and addictiveness. And Super Mario Kart has both in spades.

After choosing how you want to play — and a difficulty level if you’re playing the grand prix mode; all other modes use the 100CC performance — you get to pick one of eight characters. These are divided into pairs according to their performance, so that in a two-player game both players are able to pick the same “type” of character if they so desire.

Mario and Luigi are thoroughly average at everything, and their cars sound like chainsaws. The princess (this was well before she was referred to as “Peach” in the localised versions, though she had always had that name in the Japanese originals since Super Mario Bros.) and Yoshi have high acceleration but a poor top speed and quite slippery handling. Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr have terrible acceleration but the best top speed and extremely heavy handling. And Koopa Troopa and Toad have moderate acceleration and top speed, but are the least likely to skid out when cornering.

Each cup in the grand prix has five separate tracks, each of which is themed after a particular environment. The different environments are primarily distinguished by how slippery they are, with the icy Vanilla Lake being the slipperiest and the tarmac of Mario Circuit being the easiest to maintain your grip on.

Each environment also has its own unique features, presentation and theme music. Donut Plains, for example, features rather rugged, wild-looking dirt tracks with water hazards, rickety wooden bridges and slippery gravel-covered corners. Ghost House stages, meanwhile, take place entirely atop rotting wooden boardwalks apparently suspended above a bottomless abyss, with lots of opportunities to drive off and fall to your doom.

Not only do you need to master each environment’s unique hazards, but across the 20 different tracks in the game, most of the settings are used more than once — often in different and creative ways. The first Mario Circuit level is a straightforward racetrack, for example — the sort of place you might go on a “team building” kart-racing day from your soul-destroying day job — while the second features a more fantastic “crossover” section where you take a boost-powered jump over the back markers passing beneath you.

The creativity in these tracks is what makes Super Mario Kart special; from a modern perspective, once you adjust to the dated visuals — that Mode 7 effect, although impressive in theory, was super-flickery even back in the day and it hasn’t got any better since — you soon forget that you’re effectively racing around a flat 2D map and find yourself immersed in these weird and wonderful circuits.

And of course, the gameplay is solid, too. The single-player in particular is markedly different from more recent installments in the series in one important mechanical sense: you are the only one who is able to pick up items from the boxes on the track, while all the other racers instead have unique, character-appropriate special abilities that they can trigger at will when you are nearby.

This side of things sometimes makes grand prix races in Super Mario Kart feel like a series of “duels” as you struggle to pull far enough ahead of, say, Toad while he’s flinging poisonous mushrooms that shrink you to half your normal size (and speed) from behind you. It gives you, the player, a sense of power over your opponents, but there’s also a sense of danger; most of the abilities your opponents use do not have a direct analogue in terms of the items you can pick up.

There’s a distinctly arcadey feel to grand prix races, in fact; computer-controlled racers follow a fairly strict, predictable racing line — though they do make mistakes now and then — and the playable character you chose determines the lineup your opponents are almost guaranteed to finish in, barring any particularly exceptional circumstances. Pleasingly, these arrangements are subtly character-appropriate; Mario’s biggest rival is Donkey Kong, for example, since Donkey Kong was the portly plumber’s original rival long before Bowser came along; the Princess, meanwhile, has Bowser hot on her tail, because Bowser is always hot on her tail!

The combination of the asymmetrical abilities and the predictable behaviour of the AI opponents gives the single-player races quite an “artificial” feel; unlike more recent installments in the series, you never really feel like you’re racing seven other “people”. Once again, though, that works in the game’s original context; in 1992, we were accustomed to battling against distinctly artificial-feeling, predictable, manipulable opponents, so it didn’t feel out of place. This game isn’t trying to simulate the feel of an eight-player multiplayer race; it’s you (and perhaps a friend) against the might of “the computer”.

It’s a game that is unashamed to be a video game, in other words — and while this can absolutely be said for pretty much Nintendo’s entire output (particularly in the Mario series) from the 8-bit era right up until today, it feels particularly pronounced when it comes to Super Mario Kart.

And now that Super NES games have hit the Nintendo Switch, you have no excuse not to enjoy this genre-defining piece of gaming history if, somehow, you’re yet to experience it. Give ’em hell, and I’ll see you on the podium.


More about Super Mario Kart

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