Released a few years after Super Nintendo, Super Mario Kart was an odd proposition: Nintendo’s mascot Mario, his brother, friends and foes ride in go-karts, racing on pseudo-3D flat tracks based on very familiar Mario worlds.
Weapons included turtle shells, fire flowers, and, uh, bananas. They’re all mainstays of the Mario Kart experience now, but back then, compared to the more buttoned-up racing games of the 1990s, it all felt so silly. And funny. Super Mario Kart was a critical and commercial success, with racing and multiplayer battles further enhanced by the N64 version, which had four controller ports from the start.
Nintendo has continued to evolve the series over three decades and 14 games, offering different vehicles, co-drivers, handheld versions, and just…so…many…tracks. The company’s official celebration of this milestone (pun intended) appears to be the addition of eight new tracks to the latest iteration of the game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxebut the racer’s influence goes beyond the console.
It spawned remote control cars, theme park rides, mobile spin-offs, and an army of contenders trying (and failing) to replicate the magic of the Mushroom Kingdom racer. Here, on the eve of the franchise’s 30th anniversary, some of Engadget’s most passionate Nintendo gamers reminisce about their favorite Mario Kart moments.
Throw turtle shells in the Tokyo arcade
I would have liked to write about the Super Nintendo Land Mario Kart ride, but COVID-19 derailed my plans to visit (in the name of journalism, of course). So I’m going to tell you about my favorite version of Mario Kart: the arcade version. Get behind a cute cartoon steering wheel, adjust the seat as it was almost always configured for a child and play Mario Kart as if it were a hyper-real driving experience.
Mario Kart Arcade GP DX is actually the third arcade edition of Mario Kart, made in collaboration with Bandai Namco, which meant including characters like Pac man and other third-party characters. I played it while living in Tokyo, which meant the race announcements were voiced by Rika Matsumoto, who I later learned had also voiced Ash Ketchum in the Pokemon lively. (Yes, that was a peak experience in Japan!)
These machines also had a small camera that took a picture of the racer in the share and superimposed a Mario hat and other objects on it. It was cute, but stupid. You could save your progress to a card system, the kind of thing you’d see on many arcade machines – especially in Japan, but that felt a bit too serious to me. I was there, I was sometimes a little drunk, and I wanted to beat my friends at Mario Kart, behind the wheel. When I wasn’t hanging out at home with my Nintendo console (tragically, at this point, the Wii U), this was my Mario Kart home away from home. But I still haven’t played Mario Kart VR. I’m sure I can fit in a quick rush when I return to Japan to visit Nintendo’s theme park. – Mat Smith, Head of UK Office
Battle Mode with a Millennial Elder
It’s a bit painful to admit that my introduction to Mario Kart came via the original Super Mario Kart. Yes, I am a geriatric millennial. Didn’t get it on launch day, but I’m pretty sure it was mine by Christmas. I’ve played almost every episode since then, with particularly fond memories of the ridiculous battles I had with my post-college friends on Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: double dash. But the original will always hold a special place in my heart because of one very nice feature: battle mode.
My best friend and I have played an impressive number of Battle Mode matches over the years. Of course, we’d also love to play with the Grand Prix mode, but there was something intensely satisfying about going head-to-head, trying to pop each other’s balloons with red seashells and banana peels. It was the great equalizer; in race mode, there is at least one skill that comes into play.
But Battle Mode is more about getting as many weapons as possible as quickly as possible in hopes of getting lucky in a red shell. You don’t have to be a skilled runner, although it can certainly help escaping disaster. The almost total randomness of Battle mode was a big part of its appeal, however – it’s hard to get too mad at your friend when you’re just as likely to defeat them in the next round.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also played the traditional Mario Kart Grand Prix levels endlessly – I still love those ghost house worlds, not to mention the sheer terror that Rainbow Road still evokes after all these years. But Battle mode was a great little experience when you just wanted to focus on throwing shells and nothing else. Since Nintendo has dabbled in battle royale style games with Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, it seems like the perfect time to bring back Battle Mode in the next Mario Kart. – Nathan Ingraham, Associate Editor
Let’s talk about Rainbow Road
There have been a ton of epic tracks throughout the 30 year history of Mario Kart, but for me there is one course that has risen above its place on the track and left a lasting impression like no other: Rainbow Road. Now, I will fully admit that when it comes to pure gameplay, there are plenty of tracks like Wario Stadium, Baby Park, or Koopa Troopa Beach that are more fun and engaging. What if the only version of Rainbow Road we had was the original Mario Kart on SNES – which was a bit of a crude and spartan affair – I probably wouldn’t have written that snippet at all.
But when Nintendo recreated Rainbow Road for Mario Kart 64, the track has become more than a race; it was a party. The extra elevation and reduced gravity make it feel like you’re floating on a roller coaster, while the neon-like insertion of familiar faces from previous Mario games brings warmth to the cold black void. And then there’s the soundtrack (please check out this version, which really does the song justice): it features playful woodwinds mixed with synth guitar that smoothly transitions from soothing to energetic to almost soulful at times. Rainbow road to Mario Kart 64 is part Technicolor Dream Drive, part Nintendo Hall of Fame, and part Victory Tower. – Sam Rutherford, Senior Writer
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