By Robert VerBruggen
April 18, 2008 - No one who played Super Mario Kart on the SNES will ever forget it. The premise, of course, was ridiculous -- amusement parks use go-karts to simulate real racing, and Mario Kart in turn simulated go-karts -- and embellished with all sorts of silly methods for passing opponents without driving better than they do. Why take a corner tighter when you can lob a heat-seeking red shell?
This game truly laid down a foundation, launching all of the subsequent titles' most important features. Players could race in three different engine classes (50cc, 100cc, and 150cc) and three different modes (Grand Prix, one-on-one, and Battle Mode), choose a variety of characters from other Mario games, "power slide" around turns, unlock new tracks, and find shortcuts, most of which required strategic item use. Each location was more obstacle course than traditional speedway, with jumps, cliffs, speed-boosters, even fire, and enemies. If you see NASCAR and think, "What's the point?", this might keep your attention.
And thanks to the item system, there was constant jockeying for position, a never-ending need to white-knuckle the controller. When racing in an engine class that matched one's skill level, there was a continuous risk of a red shell ruining the race at the last moment. By the same token, no matter how far behind one fell, there was always a chance to make up ground rapidly. In a system that might be called "Mario Kart communism," items are more helpful for those trailing than for those leading. The game's most potent weapon, that lethal red shell, is almost completely useless to the leader. Sometimes, on the last lap, it was actually wise to fall into second, blast the new frontrunner, and continue with a greater lead. Future games would build on this concept, giving the best items only to racers in the lowest positions.
After fighting to the final track, players ended up at the suspended-in-outer-space Rainbow Road, one of video-game racing's most notoriously maddening challenges. Lots of racing games demand complex turns, but on Rainbow Road a miscalculation doesn't send you into the wall -- because there are none. This stage gave Lakitu, the cloud-dwelling Koopa charged with rescuing karts from pits, cliffs, and lava, a workout. Thanks to Lakitu one can never die in Mario Kart, but each plunge wastes precious seconds.
Then there was, of course, Battle Mode, an even-more-absurd endeavor. Two players zipped around an enclosed arena, picking up items and trying to score the necessary three hits on the opponent. It was basically a contest in finding red shells and avoiding banana peels (many of which you put there), but somehow it spawned hour upon hour of tooth-grinding competition. (Unlike the normal racing modes, though, childhood fans who return to Battle Mode as adults might wonder what the big deal was.)
For everything it got right, Super Mario Kart left plenty of room for improvement. When racing in an easy engine class or head-to-head against a weaker friend, it was possible to get beyond red-shell range -- and driving alone is no fun. There was also a rather superfluous coin system; the yellow ovals from the Super Mario Bros. franchise lay around the tracks, and the karts had to collect them. Contact with other racers cost coins. Each coin up to 10 slightly increased the kart's speed, and at zero, the kart spun out whenever touched. This discouraged players from exploring the game's "bumper cars" element, and didn't add much in the way of strategy.