Retrospective: Super Mario Kart

There’s influential, and then there’s Super Mario Kart. Even by Shigeru Miyamoto’s lofty standards, the 1992 SNES racer had an explosive impact on the videogame landscape, but its blast radius was relatively contained. Mario’s main adventures from Donkey Kong to Mario 64 encouraged subtle shifts in the way people thought about and designed games in general. Super Mario Kart conjured a new sub-genre out of thin air, and defined it so clearly that it is still being slavishly copied 22 years on. It has never been bettered, and attempts to stray from its perfect formula – including Nintendo’s own – have frequently ended in disaster. It is the über cartoon racer.

The staggering thing about Super Mario Kart – and surely the reason it has been so widely and flagrantly copied – is that its component parts are so very simple. Eight characters dividing into four handling types, eight items, a scattering of track furniture, and 20 tiny, tight little tracks that would fit in their entirety on to a single texture of a modern videogame. The Mode 7 scaling technology that turns those flat pixel maps into consistent worlds that slide and spin past your racing sprite was a beguiling effect at the time, it’s true. But in terms of content and design, Super Mario Kart is a model of beautiful, balanced economy that few games can match.

But beauty and balance aren’t the first of its qualities to come to mind. Chaos and capriciousness would be more like it. Super Mario Kart has been engineered for a scrupulously fair unfairness; it’s a game with a cruel streak as deep and malicious as it is even-handed. Pack leaders scrabble for coins and banana skins while the untalented and unlucky are showered in stars and lightning strikes. CPU drivers teleport from a distant second to nip past at the last corner and steal victory. It’s maddening, but because it’s not a faceless car but a character you’ve known and loved (or hated) for years – and if it wasn’t hated, it soon will be – your anger has a personal punchbag, and it makes you more involved, not less.

Also crucial to the game’s chaotic argy-bargy is the excellent weighting of the karts, which governs collisions as well as handling. The way Donkey Kong and Bowser can smash their way through the field, while Toad or Yoshi will need to use their grip and acceleration to pick their way gingerly past the competition, gives real presence to the flat sprites. The coin system (which was only reprised in the GBA’s very similar but less taut Super Circuit) added a level of tactics, tight competition and tension to this that later editions in the series would lack.

Like its fellow in-house SNES classics Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario Kart was a masterclass in tactile gaming physics before most developers had realised such a thing was possible or even desirable. The sophistication, bite and character of its handling still come as a surprise today, as do the variety and conviction of the track surfaces, communicated through the slightest details of animation and sound.

All these elements bounce (often literally) off the wickedly tight track design. Later Mario Karts, even the excellent DS edition, have been constructed with four or more players in mind, and feature long, wide, meandering, eventful tracks, heavy on the spectacular gags and gimmicks. They’re perfectly fit for purpose but can feel ham-fistedly scripted and rather forgiving after revisiting the original’s cramped and tortuous karting arenas. As much as Super Mario Kart cultivates a feeling of randomness, it seldom is actually random. From the Flower Cup onwards its tracks are some of the finest tests of precision and skill the racing genre has seen, punishing mistakes with pratfalls, and precipitous drops from the edges of Ghost Valley or the painfully psychedelic Rainbow Road. No trackside barriers here.

With their secret shortcuts – some accessed via the jump of the sorely missed feather item – and perilous and silly style, Super Mario Kart’s tracks are extremely closely inspired by the Super Mario platformers, making this the most deserving spin-off ever to bear the name. There are other reasons for that, too: the pure, guileless surrealism of the giant fish on the victory screen for one. And the fact that, despite being an abiding twoplayer classic in both GPs and the brutal Battle Mode, Super Mario Kart is still the most absorbing and challenging game in the series to play alone.

It’s such a perfect archetype that it’s now hard to believe that a world before Super Mario Kart existed. A world before the zip start, the hop, the item set so perfect in conception that even its stylistic antithesis Wipeout ushered in a new era of gaming by robbing from it wholesale. Half of this game has become the
rock-solid, rote-learned foundation for a genre and the other half has never been successfully imitated, even by its creators. If that’s not the definition of a classic, what is?