When Mario Kart made its debut in 1992 as Super Mario Kart, there was never really a market for what we call today “Mascot Crossover Games.” (Or at least that’s how I dub them.) The game was developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideki Konno, and Tadashi Sugiyama– and, according to Konno, was made simply because they wanted to create a two-player racing game. There were racing games out there previously, some of them being multiplayer, but nothing quite like this. When Super Mario Kart hit the stores, it was a massive hit and helped create the ultimate killer app game for any Nintendo console or handheld. And while each and every game did something a little different, none ever strayed away from the simple formula. Some were good, some were bad, and others were just plain evil. So, let’s take a look at the Mario Kart games that followed the original SNES game and see just how much has changed.
(For the record, let me just say that I’m not going to go into the arcade versions of Mario Kart since I actually haven’t played them. I know, I’m supposed to be a gamer.)
Before we delve into the changes, let’s talk about what hasn’t changed. First off, there’s what Mario Kart has always been about: items good enough to withstand the test of time. The Banana Peel, the Red Shell, the Green Shell, the Mushroom, the Thunderbolt, and the Star have been mainstays forever. Then there’s the everlasting, ever-enduring course whose theme defines our childhoods– Rainbow Road. Each Rainbow Road is different, carrying its own iteration of the theme, and its own quirks and changes. Every Mario Kart game ends with a Rainbow Road. It’s only natural after all. These are the enduring points to build off of. And for multiplayer mode, there was the Battle Mode, where each player had three balloons and the first to lose all their balloons would be the loser.
The one that started it all.
After Super Mario Kart, came Mario Kart 64 in 1996, which most fans tend to call the best of the series. In this game, the number of courses shrinks down considerably. While there’s still four cups, each now only comprised four tracks instead of the five per cup that Nintendo made for the SNES game. However, what was lacking in quantity was made up for in the quality of the levels. Each level was its own setting and its own time and place. From Moo Moo Farm to Banshee Boardwalk to Sherbert Land, each had truly memorable touches. Character-wise, Donkey Kong Jr. was replaced by regular Donkey Kong, while the Koopa Troopa was replaced by Wario. We see the debut of the Triple Green Shells, the Triple Red Shells, the Fake Item Box, among others. I believe what made this one so well-loved is the multiplayer mode. With four controllers, this has become a staple in any video game aficionado’s Saturday night at home with friends. (I mean, how could it not?) The battle mode for this game, however, stayed pretty much the same.
It must also be added that Mario Kart 64 marked the debut of the breaker of dreams, the bringer of profanity-laced tirades, the cause for several broken video game controllers and quite possibly fisticuffs amongst friends– The Blue Shell. Also known as the Spiny Shell, this is the grandaddy of them all. It specifically targets the player in first, takes them down a peg, giving the other racers a chance to speed ahead. When you hear that noise or see that item flash on another player’s screen, you know you’re in for a world of hurt. And it almost always seems to happen just as you’re at the finish line, doesn’t it? And yes, the Blue Shell does deserve its own paragraph. From the massive amounts of horror stories and insanity that damn item has brought us all, it’s worthy.
Mario Kart wouldn’t come back again until five years later in 2001, with Mario Kart: Super Circuit. This was for Game Boy Advance and was a while before the magic of the internet helped usher in the possibilities of online multiplayer. So, understandably, this game was lost in the shuffle quite a bit. It had the same eight characters, for one thing. While Super Circuit kept the four courses for every Cup, they added another cup known as the Lightning Cup. Super Circuit is also the first place where the use of “Throwback Levels” were implemented. They were made available, presumably, after the player won all the Cups. This would be a gameplay gimmick that would come around again for future Mario Kart games to come. This much forgotten sequel is actually not so bad of a game and had some sweet courses, but it had the misfortune of being on a handheld before the power of the internet went full-on. Super Circuit also brought in the idea of Quick Play, where the player could pretty much pick up and play without any restrictions. It’s something that hasn’t been utilized since, but would probably be very beneficial for those who need to kill a few minutes before they have somewhere to go.
With GameCube’s edition of Mario Kart known as Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, there was a huge change in gameplay that only really lasted for this one game. This time, characters teamed up together to race. One would be driving the car and the other would be handling the items. The usage of strategy and teamwork would prove to be interesting, but yet not ever implemented in future games. Released in 2003, it features a much more beefed up character list than in years past. Joining the Big Eight were Daisy, Birdo, Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, Paratroopa, Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr. and Waluigi. This would also mark the return of Koopa Troopa. And, this would be the first time you’d get unlockable characters in Toadette (with Toad), Petey Piranha, and King Boo. The Grand Prix went back down to the standard four Cups, but added a twist. Once you beat the Special Cup, there would be an All-Cup Tour, which would be like a medley of courses. While the order switched up for the most part, the race always began with Luigi Circuit and always ended with Rainbow Road. Double Dash!! would also be the first game to allow the customization of karts. It gave a specifically designed racer for each character, coming up to a total of twenty-one different karts. This would become a staple in future games, helping give further amusement and strategy to each race. This game also introduced two other types of Battle Modes– Shine Thief (which consists of the player trying to keep their shine sprites from being stolen or even stealing shine sprites themselves) and Bob-omb Blast which is pretty much what you’d think it is (throwing Bob-ombs at players). Items that debuted in this game include the Golden Mushroom (though exclusively as an item for Toad and Toadette), Fireballs (though only to Mario and Luigi) and the Bob-omb (only for Wario and Waluigi). These items would end up having some staying power and would continue to be used for future editions.
People were excited about this MK:DS– and for good reason.
Those who didn’t enjoy the doubling up that Double Dash!! offered soon found themselves with a refreshing reversion back to the old tried-and-true single-kart race with Mario Kart DS in 2005. In this edition, the original eight are featured as the main racers. This game took the unlockable feature from Double Dash!! and added in Waluigi and Daisy. This would also mark the debut of Dry Bones and R.O.B., making a grand total of 12 characters to choose from. DS would also be the one to establish, once and for all, the Retro Stages as a permanent fixture. This would open the field from sixteen courses to thirty-two courses, featuring courses from all throughout the past of Mario Kart. In order to do this, they added four new Cups– The Shell Cup, the Banana Cup, the Leaf Cup, and the Lightning Cup. The new items to be brought into the fold would be Blooper, who’d spray ink on everybody ahead of the person in the kart of choice and the Bullet Bill, which would help bring together some interesting comeback stories of Mario Kart lore– well, at least amongst friends. This is also the first game where a character could only be used in certain situations– Shy Guy, specifically, via Download Play. Along with Mario Kart 64, Mario Kart DS is considered as being one of the best in the series. It’s really a tossup between these two as the best. This would be one of the games that would take advantage of Wi-Fi and have races online with anybody in the world. The next edition, however, would perfect this.
Mario Kart Wii was released in 2008 and pretty much super-sized everything. First off, there’s the mode of Kart racing. Taking advantage of the motion controls for Wii, now you could steer the Wii remote to drive the car. A very novel concept, but for folks like me who are extremely uncoordinated, they still left an option for controllers (thank goodness!). Motorcycles were introduced into the game. These are used in the 100cc and 150cc races. The former only allows bikes while the latter involves both karts and bikes. This caused a little bit of game breakage, to say the least. For items, we see the debut of 3 of them that were promptly removed for the current game– the Mega Mushroom, Thunder Cloud, and POW Block. The POW Block worked a little like if the Lightning Bolt and the Blue Shell had a baby. The Thunder Cloud is a cloud that you have to remove and pass onto someone else before you get struck with it. It works like the lightning but for only one person. The Mega Mushroom is pretty self-explanatory. The big selling point for this game was the online play. While playing with friends in the same room is always enjoyable, sometimes people can’t always meet up at one time in one place. So the internet helps take care of that. Besides, it’s nice to kick someone’s ass at racing and not end up getting punched in the arm because they’re right next to you.
Did we mention the crazy stages? Toad’s Factory? When’d he get the time for that?
Because there’s so many damn characters in this game, let us use another paragraph. Mario Kart Wii, because it features twelve characters for each race, boasts the largest roster in any Mario Kart game. The original eight appear along with Waluigi, Baby Mario, Baby Peach, Wario and Koopa Troopa. As for unlockables, there’s a stunning thirteen of them. They are Daisy, Birdo, Diddy Kong, Baby Luigi, Bowser Jr., Rosalina, King Boo, Dry Bones, Toadette, Baby Daisy, Dry Bowser, and Funky Kong. The thirteenth unlockable is your very own Mii. Yes, you can race as your own avatar in races, should you be able to unlock it.
And that brings us to the present day with Mario Kart 7, which was released this past December. In this game, there are a lot of new things like the gliders, the customization of not only the kind of kart, but the wheels, and the kind of glider that you want. Players are able to exchange ghost data as well as race each other. This can be especially fun for those who want to see how well others do in the games. (By the way, nobody has yet to beat my time in Maka Wuhu– 1:20. God bless glitches.) They stuck with the standard thirty-two courses and eight cups that has been the norm in recent times. Character-wise they made a lot of changes including the controversial one of leaving out Waluigi. Instead they have Honey Queen, Shy Guy (not just downloadable anymore!), Wiggler, Metal Mario, and Lakitu to go along with it (though they’re all unlockables). Number 7 would also bring back coins as currency to unlock all the customizations possible. No more having to come in first in everything– just collect ten coins in every track you do, and you could have them all unlocked before you even win gold! The Fire Flower makes its debut using the power of throwing fireballs, which was first used in Double Dash!!, the Leaf which gives you a tanuki tail to swat everything from bananas to other racers. Then there’s the Lucky 7 option where you get 7 different items (Star, Bob-omb, Banana Peel, Red Shell, Green Shell, Blooper, and Mushroom). Due to the sheer unfairness of this option (though a delight to anybody who lands it), I doubt it will return beyond this game.
For as long as Nintendo keeps running, there will always be another Mario Kart game. Who knows what the next Mario Kart will bring? Maybe there’ll be a handheld to big screen? Or maybe there’s an item far deadlier and more game breaking than the Blue Shell? It remains to be seen. All I know is that it’s a series that’s helped define childhoods, ruin friendships, establish friendships, prompt amounts of profanity, and altogether entertain the masses. What more could you ask out of a video game?