I’ve never been much of a gamer, but I’ll always hold a candle for Super Mario Kart. And all you youngsters our there nodding your head, thinking “yeah, it’s the best Wii game ever”, well, that’s not what I’m talking about here.
On August 27th, 1992, the majestic Mario Kart hit the Japanese market for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), which makes Super Mario Kart 20-years-old today (depending on what time-zone you’re currently in). So what better time to reflect on what is possibly the best game of all time?
Of course, if you’re a serious gamer you may not agree with that assertion – but here I outline why Super Mario Kart for SNES is still a quality game two decades on. And it’s an addiction I’ve never fully managed to shake off.
But first, here’s a quick potted history of Mario Kart since the original SNES launch.
Mario Kart: A potted history
Following its launch in Japan, Super Mario Kart hit the US in September 1992 and then finally landed in Europe in early 1993.
It took five years for a new version of Mario Kart to hit the market, with Mario Kart 64 landing on the Nintendo 64 in 1997. Featuring full 3D graphics, the N64 version was followed by Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. This was actually more like a remake of the original game, and was equally playable.
Mario Kart: Double Dash was released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2003, followed by Mario Kart DS (for the Nintendo DS) in 2005. The DS version is notable, in that it was the first Mario Kart incarnation to feature online play via the Nintendo WiFi Connection.
Mario Kart Wii was released for the Wii in 2008, featuring online play and motion controls. Besides a couple of arcade versions of the game, the most recent Mario Kart release was Mario Kart 7 for the Nintendo 3DS, launched in December last year. Oh, and yes…it’s also worth mentioning that the original Super Mario Kart has also shown face on Virtual Console, Nintendo’s specialized section of the Wii Shop Channel. This kinda brought the classic incarnation to a different crowd, but I doubt many of the new generation of gamers played it ahead of Mario Kart Wii.
Christmas 1993: The Mario Kart addiction takes hold
It was a slow-burner for sure – as with any new game, Super Mario Kart for the SNES took a bit of getting used to. The control pad in particular was challenging given I’d never really played the SNES before, but manoeuvring Koopa, Toad, Bowser et al around corners at speed soon became a breeze, thanks to the deft jumping enabled via the top ‘L’ and ‘R’ buttons. Once I’d mastered that, I could at last stop spending four hours a night after school at a friend’s house, and convince my folks that all I needed for Christmas was Super Mario Kart. And a SNES to play it on, of course.
Fears that their generous Yuletide offering would go to waste were soon replaced with genuine concerns they’d never see their son again. The best part of 1994 was spent working towards black-belt in Mario Kart, and 50cc and 100cc were quickly dispatched to unlock the breakneck 150cc bad-boy.
If you’ve never played the SNES version of Super Mario Kart, or you’ve simply forgotten what it was like, well, here’s a little ditty courtesy of YouTube to give you an idea. The graphics, the music are so…90s.
However, with the main circuits mastered and Gold Cup (with maximum points) a near-certainty all the way through from Mushroom Cup and Flower Cup to Star Cup and Special Cup, I started dabbling with the other game-modes. One of which was Time Trials.
Time Trials were perfectly simple – you raced against nobody else and you tried to do five laps in as quick a time as possible. I can’t remember exactly why, but Ghost Valley 1 was what I did over and over and over…with Toad or Koopa as my drivers. They weren’t as quick as, say, Donkey Kong Jr. (see below), but they were nimbler:
I managed to get my time down to around the 1:12:00 mark over the course of a year, and failed to make much more progress with this. While I did attempt other circuits on Time Trial mode on occasion, they never quite had the same allure of Ghost Valley 1. I was convinced at this point that if there was ever a Super Mario Kart World Championship, I’d stand a pretty good chance of scooping first prize.
Another truly excellent facet of Mario Kart was Battle Mode – this was great to play with friends. You each had three balloons attached to your kart, and you traversed a maze-style structure collecting potential weapons such as red shells, green shells, banana skins, stars and more. It really was edge-of-the-seat stuff, as you tried to escape a roving shell, often to no avail. With three balloons to burst, however, the balance could easily swing in either player’s direction within seconds.
I played Super Mario Kart religiously for about a year, and by 1995 it had grown a little tiresome from so much gameplay. I still liked the game, but I decided to sell the SNES – the likely reason being that I was short of cash and needed to buy something else.
However, with the advent of the Internet era there were to be plenty more opportunities to buy another one in the future. Step forward eBay.
eBay saves the day
It must’ve been around 2003 when I was just getting into the relatively-novel idea of buying things online. eBay was the poster-child of the e-commerce world, and I spent way too many hours at work buying things I didn’t really need. One of those things was a SNES, complete with Super Mario Kart and two controllers, which set me back around £30 if I remember rightly. Indeed, if you’re keen to see the hype for yourself today, you can have a dig around on eBay and find yourself a bargain.
I had a spell of around 6 months playing it reasonably regularly again, but then travel and work took over. It largely sat in a cupboard for the next seven years, but then I procured a cable so it would work on one of the new-fangled digital TVs last year, and so I busted out the SNES once again.
Whilst it’ll never be a regular fixture in my life again, I’ll likely dust it down maybe a few times a year still and play it for an evening or so. It’s still a very playable game too. I still love it. And I know it’s not just me – Guinness recently rated it the top console game of all time (though admittedly across all Nintendo consoles, not just the SNES). And IGN specifically ranked the SNES incarnation number 23 of all time, which wasn’t bad at all.
Bells and whistles
But with this being the 20-year anniversary, I really got thinking about why I like this game so much. Yes, it is immensely playable, fun, competitive and addictive. It’s multi-faceted with different modes, and you can play it with friends or on your own. I have played every version since the the SNES one – on N64, GameCube, Wii and Gameboy, and never gotten nearly as in to them as I have the original.
For me at least, while all the modern versions of Mario Kart are enjoyable in their own right, I feel that all the bells and whistles actually detract from the playability. There’s shaky screens, booms and bumps, and a whole load of ‘distractions’ from the main action. The graphics are tremendous, sure, but in the case of Mario Kart I feel it takes something away from the core enjoyability.
Or, perhaps, I’m just not a kid anymore and I don’t have the time to dedicate to mastering the latest Mario Karts the way I did with the original.
So…what does the future hold for Mario Kart in my life? Well, if I’m being honest, I could do with creating some more space at home, and the SNES should be somewhere near the top-of-the-list for things to get rid off. But I can’t quite bring myself to do it.
I’ve just had a little daughter, and I think I might just hold on to this 16-bit bad-boy for another twenty years. It’ll be REALLY interesting to see what future generations think of it.