Evolution of a Series: Mario Kart

by Joseph Trotter, posted on 05 July 2011 / 8,591 Views

 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.

Mario Kart

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.

Mario Lart

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.

Mario Kart

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.

Mario kart

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.

Mario Kart

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.

Mario Kart

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.

Mario Kart

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.

Mario Kart

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.

Mario Kart

Let us know your favourite Mario Kart moments below, and the best may be used in later article.

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RolStoppable (on 05 July 2011)

There's a lot of talk in this article, but in the end not much is said. And to top it off, the writer's personal opinion leads to a ridiculous statement about Mario Kart Wii. If "casual gamers" are overwhelmed by the game and "hardcore gamers" want more out of it, then how in the world could it become the bestselling Mario Kart game of all time? Beyond that, the article could have gone more in detail on the various games. Super Mario Kart didn't have polygon graphics, instead it made use of the SNES's Mode 7 effect which is why all the tracks are flat without exception. Mario Kart 64 introduced the four player mode, but the game was rushed to the market for the Japanese holiday season. The result are things like a low framerate and complete absence of music in three and four player modes, because the N64 GPU was responsible for both graphics and sound and as such tradeoffs had to be made. Better sound would lead to worse graphics and vice versa. Not even a year later Diddy Kong Racing showed that both, a more stable framerate and music, are possible in four player races. DKR also used polygon character models unlike MK64 which used sprites. The only saving grace of MK64 were its four player modes which back then were something unique. Other than that, the game was lacking in pretty much all areas. Don't get me started on those ridiculous shortcuts that cut off a quarter or even half a lap. Mario Kart: Super Circuit is also disappointing, but pretty much all of that can be traced back to the hardware it's on. Just like the SNES, the GBA wasn't powerful enough to handle good polygon graphics, so once again the Mode 7 effect was used to create the graphics. Flat tracks were a step back from MK64, even though the course design was better. But who wants to play a racing game with flat tracks in the new millenium? If this was still the early to mid '90s, then the game would have been cool, but in 2001 it was a few years too late. Multiplayer also became a hassle with multiple systems, games and link cords being required. There were simply too many barriers to get the most out of this game. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! finally fixed the points system of the Grand Prix mode. In the previous games only the first four would get points while the other four got nothing. Also, there were no retries whatsoever during GP mode. If you messed up, you had to live with your bad result. MK64 was the worst in this regard as you had infinite continues, so you could basically cheat the game by doing a race over and over until you got the position you needed to win the GP. But still, not everything was cool about Double Dash!!, the special items led to (great) imbalance and three and four player modes were still without AI opponents. This issue was fixed with Mario Kart DS, but just like with Super Circuit you needed multiple systems and games to play proper multiplayer. At least there was wireless communication now, so it was less of a hassle. Also good, up to eight players could play customizable GPs in local multiplayer. However, online only allowed you to play basic GPs (only four races instead of up to 32) with up to four players. Lame. Lastly, there's Mario Kart Wii which got more things right than any other game before it and thus, unsurprisingly, sold the most. The stupid snaking removed, twelve contenders in races, customizable GPs for up to four players and many tracks that allow different strategies. Never before has it been easier to play GPs with four players. There's so many possibilities on how to play this game, the value is simply incredible.

ioi (on 05 July 2011)

A lot is down to personal opinion though, I enormously preferred Mario Kart 64 over every other entry in the series. Hard to pin down exactly why but it just had more soul somehow even if technically it was weaker than Double Dash or Wii for example.

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Hephaestos (on 06 July 2011)

Good article.... errr reply :p

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kopstudent89 (on 05 July 2011)

I seriously disagree here. RolStoppable said it the best.. the Wii version is really a great game that is super addictive and the comment in the article makes no sense (is it just because it's on the Wii??)

ASStronaut (on 05 July 2011)

Mario Kart Wii is my favourite by far. I've played over 7000 races online. 3 star rank and gotten to 9999 at least 10 times online. To me nothing beats this game.

Bman54 (on 05 July 2011)

I still don't see why people complain about the motion controls in MK Wii. It's the only way I race in the game, and it works perfectly fine. I can still do very well in races with it, whether offline or online. If anything, it's the player's fault if they screw up with it, not the motion controls themselves.

TripleMMM (on 06 July 2011)

Rol should've done this article...

MrT-Tar (on 06 July 2011)

MKDS, followed by SC and Wii are my favourites. I really hope MK3D and WiiU keep the 12 player races introduced in MKWii

Fededx (on 06 July 2011)

I love Super circuit for GBA, I remember how amazed I was at this game at the time, couldn't believe a GBA was that powerful! Besides, it's the one that requires the most skilled players. It's very hard. I loved the SNES courses as well, and besides, it reminded me of the first Mario Kart, which I played so much as a kid. DD was amazing as well, I love how the difficulty was so balanced, unlike the Wii one, which is the worst for me, because you need luck in order to win, not skills. 150cc is simply frustrating... 64 was good, though I always thought it was a bit too slow, and DS was OK as well, that damn "sneaking" technique really pisses me off, but the game was good. Anyway, GO SUPER CIRCUIT!!! :D (I love GBA SP :D)

scottie (on 05 July 2011)

I agree with Rol on the 'which games are best' front. MK:Wii is much better for its time than MK:64 was for its time. The DS version is probably the best, considering it released before MK:Wii, and it's on a portable MK:DD was great fun, as long as you didn't play too competitively. If you did, the only way to win was to play with one character as baby Mario/luigi, fall back to 12, get a chain chomp, switch characters so the one with the chain chomp is driving, then fight your way back to 2nd or 3rd, wait till near the end and use the chain chomp. In all other MKs, if you want to hang on to a powerful item, you cannot use other items. MK:DD broke that, and that's why it could never be played competitively.

RolStoppable (on 05 July 2011)

The only way the DS version can be the best is if you are either totally against local multiplayer or if you are one of the blessed ones who know enough people that not only own a DS, but also Mario Kart DS. Otherwise a home console game is simply more convenient, because the likelyhood to get four player matches going is significantly higher.

Also, you probably didn't play Double Dash!! competitively, because no way does your strategy work. The people I played with all despised the chain chomp, because it was such an awful item. Even though you go at a slightly higher speed, it's not enough to offset the time you lose due to being forced to the center of the track. Additionally, all shortcuts became a no-go. Sorry, scottie, but keeping a tight line combined with snaking completely obliterates the chain chomp strategy. A much better way to win would be to pick either Toad or Toadette (or both), get a golden mushroom and save that for the end of the race. That is actually what really broke the game for competitive play. Well, there was the option to turn items off, but all the "good" players who used the golden mushroom strategy didn't like that thought.

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ASStronaut (on 05 July 2011)

If the Mario Kart franchise belonged to almost any other developer there would be a new one every year to milk the shit out of it.

Arfen (on 05 July 2011)

Mario Kart is one of my fav franchises... Wii version give us an online experience but for me the est mario karts are Super mario Kart (SNES) & and the underrated Mario Kart double dash (GC)

haxxiy (on 07 July 2011)

I missed the standard GPs with two players on MKWii.

Michael-5 (on 06 July 2011)

It's just you with the Wii. Mario Kart Wii is the second best after Mario Kart 64. Great AI, accessible, yet challenging, and a boatload of retro maps. Only downfall is some "new" maps a reused old ones. E.g. DK Summit.

thetonestarr (on 05 July 2011)

I agree entirely with Rol, and also point out that not only is it the best-selling Mario Kart of all time, it's also the best-selling racing game of all time. Though, I am one that doesn't like MKWii much, but that's not for any of the reasons mentioned before. I just feel it's TOO detailed and flashy, and that the tracks are too oversized. I personally liked the 8 racer formula. Mario Kart DS is the best, IMO. I've beaten that game countless times.

WiseOwl (on 05 July 2011)

The Mario Kart arcade games I would love to try.

ljlrj (on 05 July 2011)

in mutiplayer mkwii i got hit with 8 blueshells but there was 16 throwned yes i counted c,c and still manage to get 1st place

KylieDog (on 05 July 2011)

Super, 64 and Wii are the only ones I like. For their time 64 was most enjoyable, but Wii is the best of them.

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WiseOwl (on 06 July 2011)

Mario Kart HD for the Wii-U is what I am looking for.

Lostplanet22 (on 05 July 2011)

The article is kind of lacking for a franchise like MK, somehow Mario Kart DS was my favourite I even played it for years after his release :). MK64 on the other end I played the least but that is also because of a great concurrent and the other 50 kart racing games on the market..

Dr.Grass (on 05 July 2011)

I quite agree about MK Wii - I didn't quite love it that much, but I could see how popular it was. There were some mad 4-player split-screen action going down on our huge projector screen. Now what I'm really interested in is the online component of the Wii U offering. Defintitely a possible killer-app.