Mario Kart Retrospective
- Mario Kart Retrospective
Nintendo has said it considers Mario Kart Wii a "bridge game" -- a title that converts casual, Wii Sports-playing Wii owners into a more hardcore, game-buying type.
For those bridge gamers, this quick retrospective will help fill you in on the history that has made the Mario Kart series one of the most beloved in gaming. For everyone else, it's a stroll down memory lane and a starting point for discussion about your hopes and fears for the impending Mario Kart Wii.
- Super Mario Kart (SNES)
The seminal 1992 release that created an entire subgenre, the original Super Mario Kart at times resembled a typical run-and-jump platform game more than an outright racing title. After all, racers have to collect coins, use items (including one that makes karts jump high in the air) and race on themed courses that came right out of the platformer trope playbook (the fire level, the ice level, the desert level, etc.)
The game had a focus on shortcuts and precise path-finding that set it apart from the racing games of its day, but the real draw for many was the two-player battle mode, which cemented the game as a drunken party favorite for decades. The game was also one of the first of Mario's major spin-offs, and so the spiritual precursor to everything from Mario Party to Mario Golf.
Fun fact: Collecting 100 coins in a single race nets an extra life in the single-player mode. This is a bit odd, seeing as the only way to collect so many coins is with a Game Genie code.
- Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64)
After a longish break, the Mario Kart series reappeared on the Nintendo 64 with 1997's appropriately (if a tad obviously) titled Mario Kart 64. Despite missing the system's launch by a good five months, the game still came off as a little rushed, with plenty of glitches that could be exploited for unearned race times. The game's graphics also suffered as a result, with an odd mix of pre-rendered 2D sprites for the racers and somewhat fuzzy, 3D polygons for the courses.
Still, the game made its mark on the series by introducing staple items like the fake item block and triple shells. It was also the first four-player multiplayer Kart, making party play that much more interesting.
Fun fact: MK64's Rainbow Road is by far the longest course in the series, taking upwards of seven minutes to complete a three-lap circuit (without shortcuts). Maybe "fun" isn't quite the right word for this fact.
- Mario Kart: Super Circuit (Game Boy Advance)
With the advent of the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo finally had a portable system powerful enough to handle a Mario Kart game. The game obviously owes more to the SNES original than the N64 remake, with flat courses and the reintroduction of on-track coin collecting. Super Circuit even featured unlockable tracks taken wholesale from the original game.
Super Circuit was the first Kart game to grade single-player racers with a letter grade based on how precisely they navigated each course. Suddenly first place wasn't enough -- getting that three-star rating was the ultimate goal, and one that could while away many a long car ride.
Fun fact: While Super Circuit required only one cartridge to allow up to four players to race, the mode limited players to racing as different colored Yoshis.
- Mario Kart Arcade GP (Arcade)
By far the rarest Mario Kart game, both the upright and sit-down (pictured) versions of Mario Kart Arcade GP are extremely hard to find in American arcades. Those lucky enough to find a unit will get to experience the only Mario Kart with bucket seats and a full steering wheel (unless you count the Wii Wheel, that is). The game also features a digital camera system that allowed players to identify their kart with an on-screen face.
While there are only six tracks and a single race can cost upwards of a dollar, the arcade game preents an extremely polished and unique experience for players who only know the console versions. A 2008 sequel added new items and new characters including Waluigi, but the two versions are largely indistinguishable
Fun Fact: Mario Kart Arcade GP was actually developed by Namco, which explains the inclusion of characters like Pac-Man and red Pac-Ghost Blinky.
- Mario Kart: Double Dash (GameCube)
Coming roughly midway through the Gamecube's struggling life cycle, 2003's Mario Kart: Double Dash had lot riding on it (pun intended). As the title implies, the big conceit here was a two-characters-per-kart system that was intended to add an extra layer of strategy and complexity to the title. While interesting in concept, in practice the feature ended up being a gimmicky way to hold a couple of items at once. Critical reception was mixed.
The game was notable as the first Kart to offer multiple selectable vehicles, a tradition continued in the DS and Wii versions.
Fun fact: Players with four TVs, four Gamecubes, four broadband adapters and four copies of Double Dash could link up for an impressive split-screen free multiplayer match. All 12 people that have actually attempted this feat were reportedly very pleased with the results.
- Mario Kart DS (Nintendo DS)
This 2006 portable release was surprisingly faithful to recent console versions, save for a slight downward bump in the graphics. The game expanded the single-player offerings for the series with a Mission mode that asked players to complete specific tasks, from collecting coins to defeating bosses.
Mario Kart DS was the first Kart game to have online play, meaning it was the first game to let random strangers mysteriously drop their connections as soon as you got ahead of them in a head-to-head race. It was also the game that popularized snaking , the controversial practice of using power-slide mini-boosts to gain speed on straightaways.
Fun Fact: Mario Kart DS was probably the first game ever to feature a video game controller as a fully playable character, with the unlockable R.O.B. making the jump from tangible plastic hardware to virtual racer.
- Cameos and Products
While Mario himself has been featured in countless cameos over the years, the Kart series itself has rarely appeared as a part of other games. The most notable cameo appearance is probably the pictured Mario Circuit stage in the recent Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which comes complete with racing Shyguys ready to knock the brawlers twelve ways from Sunday.
The karters have been featured on a variety of products, from radio controlled cars and slot cars to plush toys and telephones. But the coolest Kart product may very well be the limited edition Mario Kart stylus available to Japanese Club Nintendo members and E3 2006 attendees like us. Suckers!
- Mario Kart Wii (Wii)
The wait for North American Mario Kart fans finally ends Sunday, April 27, when the unimaginatively-named Mario Kart Wii hits store shelves. The big innovations this time around include the introduction of motorcycles to the vehicle mix and the introduction of the Wii Wheel controller, which slightly exceeded our low expectations in hands-on tests. Don't worry if cheap plastic wheels aren't your thing -- the game supports a variety of traditional control methods.
While 12-player races and the new Mario Kart channel should make online play more intriguing than ever, the frustrating friend code system is still in place.