Back in the Super Nintendo days graphics weren’t what we expect them to be these days, and yet we were so easily impressed with anything beyond the ordinary it’s not even funny. It was such a gap going from 16-bit days to machines like the Nintendo 64 which were quite capable of reproducing 3D environments. By today’s standards Super Mario 64 still looks incredible. Maybe we will never see such a revolution is gaming as those days.
Super Mario Kart was a change of direction because we were used to platformers or top-down adventure games, but a racing game? How would that even work beyond the fair but still embryonic attempts, some child might have thought in the early 90’s. There has been games with the kind of realism expected from such endeavor but console gamers, especially Nintendo gamers weren’t too keen on grasping the whole concept of a cartoonish game-maker like Nintendo in such a competitive environment.
Nintendo broke a few unsaid rules with Super Mario Kart, not only it cemented the very idea of a Mario spin-off but it also gave new grounds of possibilities from which they could be implemented and used to craft some new, imaginative racing style that would encompass all Nintendo elements and still seem something so completely different, so out of the ordinary for a company like Nintendo.
One can easily say that this burst of enthusiastic has its rots on the famous Mode 7, a graphical capability of the Super Nintendo which allowed for a transitional rotating effect on the background, creating an apparent 3D style though it all was simply ingenious use of height/depth texture management in two dimensions. Whatever it may be, Super Mario Kart offered an amazing control scheme full of depth and handing over to the player complete controle of his kart.
In fact, that so Nintendo, while others might choose muscle cars to emulate the idealization of what you can’t have, they simply put you in control of animated characters driving karts in ever crazier tracks. Some had pits which required Lakity to go over and pull you back into the track.
What made this so far apart from any kind of competitor on its day was the addition of items. Basically you could run over some yellow “?” button and receive a random items that could be used in your favor to thwart the plans of someone ahead of you or simply wreak havoc making the course always more dangerous. The worst you had been doing in the race the better items you’d get. Rays that transformed everyone in tiny racers allowing you to pass over them and stomp them, stars to make you invincible for a little while.
Super Mario Kart, and the series in general was never meant to be a core racer game, the best skilled racer might not always win and whoever’s last place might get a couple of incredibly good items and reach first place in one final lap. It’s the definition of a party game where playing with friends in the same room without any spirit of stark competitiveness is the ideal scenario.
Some other modes like the battle mode were glorious from the start, refined in later installments of the series, yes, but even Super Mario Kart seemed to have it down pretty well by the time it was released. Basically everyone starts with three balloons attached to their karts and every time the person got hit by an item one of the balloons would go away. Whoever survived in the end with whichever number of balloons was the winner. Simple multiplayer fun that allowed so much enjoyment.
You could also try you best in time attack sessions for a more hardcore type of challenge without the need of opponents or items. To this day communities of hardcore karters race to get the best times in each of the many courses. They became so iconic that every new Mario Kart released recently almost needs to have classic tracks for nostalgia purposes; and I should say that in most cases you realize that the courses from former games are the better ones anyway.
The fact you can race with some of the most beloved characters in the Mario universe, even villains, is enough to make this an incredible selling point. Each of them functions slightly different and should respond in distinct ways on the field. Characters like Donkey Kong Jr. and Bowser are heavy, bulky and have the best top speed. It’s easy to say that whenever a lighter kart in in front of them and they collide, the lighter car will be pushed aside.
The lighter karts like Yoshi and Peach have better acceleration and can recover much easier from any items that completely stops them. Their aerial time is also slightly better for some shortcuts. Everything is divided in four championships at three different motor speeds — also known as difficulty levels — and overall it offers a pretty good challenge for players especially in later difficulties and the last cup.
Super Mario Kart is one of the most legendary video-games in existence. Its legacy goes beyond racing games, it goes beyond Mario spin-offs; it’s a testament of genial game design and freshness reigning over established saturated formulas. It taught a thing or two to basically anyone in the industry on how to make a game memorable, absolutely essential.