Today, Mario Kart is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises. Appearing on nearly every Nintendo console as well as in arcades and on mobile, the series’ reach is phenomenal. It has given us a variety of racers, from Mario favourites such as Luigi, Peach, Bowser and, of course, Mario, to other series mainstays such as Link, Isabelle and the Inklings. Every new entry brings with it new and inventive tracks, some of which are etched in our memories. These include Rainbow Road, Bowser’s Castle, Wario Stadium, Koopa Troopa Beach and many, many more. The series has also tried to shake things up every now and again. In Mario Kart 64, we were introduced to fully 3D environments, in Double Dash, we got an interesting team mechanic, in Mario Kart Wii, we got motion controls, and in Mario Kart 7, we took to the skies. Each one builds upon the last, giving us new drivers, tracks, items and multiplayer modes. The game’s battle modes are some of the most beloved out there and lovingly compliment the Grand Prix mode. When Mario Kart 8 was originally released on the Wii U, the traditional Battle Arenas were absent. This would be rectified with the updated Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch after fans expressed their displeasure. Mario Kart has also seen other mascot characters release their own kart racing games. We’ve gotten the excellent Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing, which gave us an adventure mode, and even Sonic has entered the scene with the wonderful Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing series.
Everything has to start somewhere and Mario Kart’s story begins in the days of the Super Nintendo. The idea was simple: to create a racing game capable of handling two players on screen at once. The execution would be a different story. In late 1990, Nintendo released F-Zero as a launch title for their new 16-bit hardware, the Super Famicom. F-Zero was a blisteringly quick racer with a futuristic setting. Players could select from one of four racers and blast their way around the unique yet challenging tracks. The game was an instant success, driven by its use of the “Mode-7” graphics mode on the SNES. This mode allowed background layers to be rotated and scaled on a scanline-by-scanline basis. At the time it was exceptional. Even today it looks amazing. F-Zero would be the first of series of games to take full advantage of this graphical system. There was one problem with F-Zero, it was only single-player. When Nintendo sat down to plan their next racing game, they started on a generic kart-racer with the aim of making it two-player. They would have to make some changes from F-Zero to accomplish this. The tracks would be simplified and the racing slowed in order to achieve this. A “battle mode” would be introduced as well, where players could compete directly against one another in an arena setting. A by-product of pushing for a split-screen perspective would be that the split-screen would exist even in single-player, with the bottom screen being taken up by a map. At first, generic characters were used but the karts looked similar to each other when overtaking. A decision was made to add in Mario to see how it looked and the Mario Kart series was born. The game would hit store shelves in Japan on the 27th of August 1992 and from there, the series launched into the stratosphere. Players were blown away by its colourful designs, simple yet fun tack layout and the addictive Battle Mode. The game’s use of “Mode-7” helped it to really stand out.
The game featured eight playable characters: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong Jr, Toad and Koopa Troopa. Each character had their own stats. Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr were slow to accelerate but were the fastest, Toad and Koopa Troopa were light characters who could be knocked around and Mario and Luigi were more balanced. The game also had several items to help you battle the other racers. It introduced the homing red shell, the slippery banana peel, the shrinking lightning bolt and the speed boosting mushroom among others. The game had four cups, featuring five tracks each. The themes would be repeated but the layout would be changed, becoming trickier to master in the later cups. It had three difficulties, dressed up as engine sizes. These were 50cc, 100cc and 150cc. The AI characters would have their own items, something which would be dropped from later games, and they would utilise “rubber-banding” to make sure you never got too far away. Many of these things would go on to become mainstays in the series. The game would see international releases in 1992 and 1993, going on to sell nearly 9 million copies worldwide. It became a must-have for many Super Nintendo owners.
On one of my visits to my local video rental store, Empire, my eyes were drawn to a baby blue box. The box featured Mario and friends in go-karts, racing around a corner. I loved the colourful graphics on the back of the box and decided to give it a try and, thus, began my love affair with Mario Kart. I would rent this game constantly. My friend would come to visit and we would try the balloon mode, seeing who could pop each other’s balloons the quickest. They were intense matches. When I was alone, I would try the Grand Prix mode. The game was challenging and if you finished outside the top four, you lost a life and had to replay the stage again. I remember struggling to make it through, even on 50cc. When I visited my cousins, they had a copy of the game so I sat down to play it. I remember making it through the Mushroom Cup only to finish fourth. I can’t remember exactly when I did it but I do remember the joy of finally winning a cup. When I got older, I would sometimes bring the Super Nintendo and Super Mario Kart into work and race against my colleagues. These could be intense but no matter the skill level, everyone had fun. I adore this game and I love that it kick-started one of my favourite series of all time. It has been surpassed several times, with my favourite being Mario Kart 64, but I’ll never forget sitting in my room, surrounded by the darkness of a winter’s night, racing my way around Mario Circuit 2.