Mario Kart is that rare beast; an incredibly popular series which most gamers have played yet few have a bad word to say about. The key to this has been a clear, basic and successful formula; fast arcade racing featuring Nintendo favourites, weapons, tricky tracks and a fair amount of depth and subtlety. For each innovation, improvement, quirk and controversy, this winning formula has never changed, thus ensuring Mario Kart has stayed at the pinnacle of arcade racing for nearly two decades.
The Original: Super Mario Kart (1992/93)
Super Mario Kart, brainchild of the great Shigeru Miyamoto, was released to an unsuspecting world in 1992 (Japan and US) and 1993 (Europe) on the SNES. The SNES was already home to several seminal racers already (including the equally brilliant F-Zero) but none had the assuredness of Mario Kart's debut.
It introduced the groundwork which every subsequent edition would build upon: GP Mode, Battle Mode, the nightmarish battle mode, individual weapons, weapon boxes; the list goes on. A trend setter, many tried to copy its phenomenal success, sometimes memorably (Diddy Kong Racing), sometimes strangely (South Park Racing), often cynically (M & M Kart Racing). If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the countless clones are testament to its influence.
The polygonal graphic style, though now dated, was highly effective in distinguishing racer, track and obstacles whilst offering a surprising amount of detail in both rider and background. Nineteen years on Super Mario Kart still plays like a dream and can stand up to many racers today, offering a superb single player experience and multi-player joys. The core game-play of the series has hardly changed since.
The Fans' Favourite: Mario Kart 64 (1996/97)
Jake Weston of gamrFeed sums up the feelings of many who believe this to be the ultimate Mario Kart:
Mario Kart 64 was pretty much the reason I got a Nintendo 64. I can remember staying up all night racing on Wario Stadium and playing the addictive battle mode. I remember being completely blown away by Rainbow Road: the look, the music, everything; I practiced that course for hours trying to perfect all the hard turns. I liked the other Mario Kart games all right, but none of them sucked me in quite like Mario Kart 64 .
The use of the Nintendo 64's 3D capabilities offered greater scope than ever before for what was possible in a racing game: pits, falls, hills, bumps and jumps added greater variety to the previously flat tracks. However, the great innovation for the series was the inclusion of four person multi-player; despite the advent of online gaming and the opportunity to mock faceless people across the internet, there are few moments in gaming as glorious as watching a friend/sibling/enemy crumble into the sofa next to you as you spin them out the track with a well-aimed green shell and slide to victory.
Such glory drove every player to greater heights, to learn each course meticulously: when to slide, where weapons boxes are, the perfect place to boost and what obstacles to dodge, all in the name of victory. The single player mode was fun enough, but like every Mario Kart since, the meat is in the multi-player. The game received critical acclaim at the time and posterity has enforced its reputation as one of the finest multi-player games ever.
Going Portable: Mario Kart: Super Circuit (2001)
Super Circuit was the first Mario Kart game to be released on a portable platform (the Gameboy Advance to be precise) and thus took advantage of the Gameboy Advance's very decent multi-player capabilities. Again, continuing the trend set by Mario Kart 64 , the focus was very much on multi-player thrills, but it bore a very similar resemblance to Super Mario Kart , which was no bad thing considering the hardware limitations. Differences in character capabilities really came to the fore here; a choice ill-suited to your racing style could result in loss before the countdown had finished.
The new 'Link-Up' mode was inspired; four players could link up and play together using one cartridge, although you were limited to four courses and different coloured Yoshis. Quick, short tracks worked very well within the realm of portable gaming, which is often subject to sudden stops, starts and five minute blasts on the bus.
A bright palette meant that much of the action was clear as day; a particular god-send, considering the Gamboy Advance's (at least with the original) notorious glare issues. As such, while there was little 'new' to this edition, it was still superb fun, stuck to the series' traditions and laid the portable foundations for the far superior Mario Kart DS.
The Black Sheep: Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (2003)
Eyebrows were arched immediately upon the revelation that the Gamecube's Double Dash!! would offer the first real revolution in the Mario Kart universe; the use of two person karts. Although many crowed that it would ruin the fundamental game-play elements that had made the series such a success, it turned out to be more of a superficial change than expected; it practically gave players the opportunity to stockpile two weapons at once, which could be both a help and a hindrance when desperately trying to switch characters.
Some of the tracks, despite sticking to the traditional styles, were spectacular; the cannon on DK mountain fired karters to the summit where they had to wind down the sloping tracks before many were caught out by the final rope-bridge, whilst the terrific and frantic seven-lap Baby Park is a series highlight.
The two racer system made special weapons all the more important; Bowser's huge shell always caused panic, whilst the indicative bark of Baby Mario & Luigi's Chain Chomp resulted in a mass exodus of the centre of the track. The best players were tactical in their choice of character, weighing up the pros and cons of light, medium and heavy characters (the author's personal choice was always Baby Mario and the Red Paratroopa, although Princess Peach and her boost were always a dark horse). Still, these features did not please everyone, and Double Dash!! still divides opinion.
The multi-player, as always, was particularly great, and was one of the few Gamecube games to make use of the broadband adaptor (for those with eight friends, two televisions and deep pockets), although this was more of a novelty than a necessity. The production was by far and away the best of the series; it looked great and was full of character and detail. Posterity has treated this beast harshly.
Wireless Thrills: Mario Kart DS (2005)
Harry Monogenis of gamrFeed explains his favourite Mario Kart DS memory:
The snaking technique that I constantly used on Mario Kart DS actually ended up breaking my precious handheld. Anyone who's used it knows exactly how heart-pumping the experience can be when you're sliding left and right on a straight stretch and overtaking everyone.
The advent of the DS offered new potential for the series; the use of touch-screen and wireless capabilities. Typically, it was only the multi-player opportunities which were really taken advantage of, the touch-screen being rather unimaginatively left for map purposes and menu selection.
Without wishing to repeat myself (though I appear to be saying the same thing every single entry) the single player experience, despite the introduction of a new mission mode, was significantly weaker than the outstanding multi-player, made all the more accessible without dangling wires and excruciating last lap pull outs by an over-excited opponent.
Single cart play returned, offering eight player wireless racing, whilst for the first time people could race online against each other in four player races. The game style and racing bore much in common with Mario Kart 64 , and the track list was a greatest hits of series favourites.
Although nothing was significantly revolutionised, the new aspects worked well and everything else was improved, sharpened and pushed to full postential to create what is perhaps the most well-rounded 'pure' Mario Kart game yet, and a vital addition to anybody's DS collection. Probably the best in the series so far.
The Latest Addition: Mario Kart Wii (2008)
The latest edition of Mario Kart fitted snugly within the quota of what Nintendo wanted to do with the Wii; accessibility for all. Whether a hardcore karter or a newbie, anybody could pick up the packaged steering wheel and compete. Yet, there was something just not quite right about the Wii offering to the series, whether it be unsensitive and unwieldy motion control, the sometimes bland courses or the lack of real bite and character; it just seemed to lack the swagger and assuredness that the earlier games possessed. In-fact, it is very indicative of the plight of the Wii in general; casual gamers still feel off-put by some of the more established features whilst hardcore gamers are left wanting more.
Perhaps this is harsh, as it was still an immensely enjoyable experience and probably the finest racer on the Wii, but whether this is praise or damnation is another matter entirely. The core elements were there as always, the racing was great fun, the presentation as sharp as ever, but there was just something not quite there. Perhaps it is just me.
Moving into new Areas: Mario Kart Arcade GP & GP-2 (2005/07)
Nowhere in an arcade can you miss the huge and gaudy Mario Kart GP machines; thankfully, the four player action is just as unmissable. It looks great, sounds great, plays great and is a huge favourite of arcades across the world.
Created using Nintendo's Triforce Board, which was also used to great effect on oft forgotten classic F-Zero AX, the 2005 release of GP was swiftly followed by the 2007 sequel GP-2. Heavily influenced by Double Dash!!, it featured card saving, a frontal camera and commentary by Japanese actor Koichi Yamadera. Well worth a quid or two of anyone's hard earned salary.
The Future: Mario Kart 3DS & Mario Kart Wii-U (2011/Between Now and Forever)
From the limited impression of Mario Kart 3DS, it sounds as good as always; the inclusion of underwater and air racing are particularly intriguing, as are the recently announced customisation options. Unlikely to be Need for Speed-esque, they should at least add some variety to the online racing, which surely Nintendo will push on both machines.The terrifying blue shell will be all the more frightening as it zooms out and into focus as it slams into your racer.
However, I think there is still plenty of potential in both instances for touch-screen use; I would particularly like to see a Mashed style system where a particular weapon, perhaps something like a huge bob-omb which lands where-ever on the track you tap the screen and takes out all opponents in the vicinity (presuming the screens will be used as maps). This would be a brilliant and exhilarating use of the touch system, whilst being a potent new weapon (sign me up Shigsy!). Here's hoping for many more years of top karting action.
Let us know your favourite Mario Kart moments below, and the best may be used in later article.