All the way back in 1992 I remember leaving the movies after watching Batman Returns with a couple of friends, we were so pumped afterwards and were going to head back to mine for a round of Micro Machines on the Mega Drive, but then one of them intervened. “I’ve got this new racing game for the SNES with Mario!” We all just stopped and looked at each other with a series of confused glares. At this time I didn’t have much exposure to the series, with Super Mario Land 2 being the only one that I owned and really not being able to fathom how a side scrolling plumber could open up into more than two dimensions. With an air of hesitation we decided to give it a go and that was it, from that day we were hooked!
Super Mario Kart was sensational! It was unlike anything we had experienced previously, with it’s wonderfully vibrant color palette, funky soundtrack, responsive handling and fantastic competitive game modes. We’re now here, some 22 years later with 8 installments in the franchise, so how far has the series come since that day? Well, not that far at all actually. Nintendo have kept most of the core gameplay and vision they had for the games very close to the original concept, retaining what actually makes for a fun and thrilling multiplayer experience. It’s all about evolution, not revolution, and if Nintendo are experts at anything it’s refinement. The second game in the series and arguably the first widely recognizable title was Mario Kart 64. This game was a huge deal, both in terms of graphics and scale. With the addition of more native controller ports on the Nintendo 64 we didn’t need to spend so much time arguing about who’s turn it was next or whether ‘winner stays on’ is a viable option if one player was better than the rest.
Gone were the days of rotating 2D sprite tracks and two player modes, we now had better polygon 3D computer graphics and full four player simultaneous carnage. Mario Kart 64 introduced a slew of new track features due to the nature of the hardware it was developed for, this allowed for obstacles including pits, walls, wandering enemies (Damn you Chain Chomps!) and even allowed for change in elevation – an experience almost unheard of back in 1997. It was also our first introduction to the bane of our existence, the reason why we have nightmares still to this day and why we never really wanted to be leading the race for the duration, of course we are talking about the ever homing, always soul destroying ‘Blue Shell’. A pickup so frustrating that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was envisaged by Lucifer himself. It was around this time that we began to see a lot of Kart clones, most of which stood up on their own merits but were clearly influenced by Nintendo’s effort. Before the year was out we were debating which was the better game on the platform, Mario Kart 64 or Diddy Kong Racing? Arguably Diddy Kong Racing was the more advanced title, using full 3D rendering for the characters rather than the upgraded 2D character sprites of Mario, and with a plethora of racing styles including varying vehicle types and planes. But this is where Nintendo as developers really shine through, in the simplicity and accessibility of the games. Diddy Kong was a game used to promote previously unknown characters so newcomers could be familiar with them in upcoming franchises, whereas Mario had an already established cast who even non-gamers could recognize, a true reflection of the brand power behind it. A few years later despite moving onto the next generation of consoles we would still revisit Mario Kart 64 in all it’s glory, but nothing could prepare us for what was around the corner. Enter, Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
The Gamecube era was an odd one, not as poignant or groundbreaking as it’s predecessor and now having to compete with the likes of Sony and Microsoft (Both supporting DVD playback) for home console domination. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! introduced a brand new experience for the franchise, the ability to now ride with another player in the same vehicle and a lot of emphasis on team based gameplay. It was also the biggest roster update yet, with total of twenty playable characters and a possible 190 combinations between them! Similarly with this generation of consoles there was now an option to system link consoles within close proximity to have more people playing simultaneously, a feat that was proved popular via the Xbox with Halo, but alas was more difficult with the necessity of purchasing an ethernet hub and finding enough people to actually make use of the service. The LAN mode also had it’s limitations, with player characters being selected at random due to incompatible game saves. Was this to be the end of Mario Kart’s adventure into network technology? Welcome to 2008! By this point there have been 3 further Batman films released with The Dark Knight only a couple of months away, Nintendo’s latest console the Wii has been on the market for a couple of years and it all leads up to this.
Mario Kart Wii feels like it was hand crafted by Angels and passed down to Shigeru Miyamoto. It’s also probably one of the most played games of the last couple of decades considering the Wii has sold over 100 Million units with Mario Kart Wii alone selling a whopping 34 Million copies! If anything it actually feels like a step back from Double Dash!! but in the best possible way. You could now choose between cars and bikes, there was no more need for over complication or bloated features and the game was much more accessible off the bat. The controller options were now tailored for everyone, even the gamepad-phobic players were utilizing the Wii-Mote’s motion sensitivity and optional steering wheel attachment, so much so that even your road rage hardened Granny could take up the challenge. Since the previous generation of consoles there was also a significant jump in network stability, allowing multiplayer functionality through not only local but online play via your own wireless network. What’s even better is that there was no additional setup required, no subscriptions, no passwords, just jump on and play. It’s amazing to think that until a few months ago Mario Kart Wii still had a huge player base online, up to (and now beyond) the WFC service closure in February 2014. There have even been third party servers appearing in a bid to keep the community thriving and continuing enjoying the experience.
I never actually owned a SNES back in the day, and I was very late to the N64 party.. let alone the GameCube! But herein lies the franchises charm, with the aim of bringing people together and offering a truly enjoyable and accessible gaming experience. It’s a title that defies generational stereotypes, welcoming gamers and non-gamers alike of all ages regardless of ability and one that anyone can be introduced to without prior knowledge of the previous entries. Mario Kart at it’s core has remained the same game for over two decades. Every release feels like a carefully refined version of it’s predecessor, with Nintendo making little tweaks here and there to improve immersion and streamline the gameplay. 22 years ago I was hesitant to even contemplate the notion of the game, but taking the dive is a decision I will never regret. With the recent release of Mario Kart 8 on Wii U it makes me feel proud to have been part of this legacy for so long, and I hope that every new generation of gamer will have the opportunity to be able to share in the same experience that we have.