Oh we can zoom all the way to the moon
The car. One of mankind’s greatest, and worst, inventions. It allows any ordinary person to cross miles within minutes, but in the wrong hands, it’s a dangerous tool. Of course, I’m talking about Mario’s hands. Many a friendship has been ruined by a poorly timed item at the finish line. No wonder the MVA doesn’t allow red shells on the roadway anymore. And yet, despite all odds, we embrace that hecticness, constantly coming back to it. Why? Let’s be honest, we love it because of that unfair chaos, because it contributes to the unpredictable thrill rides the series is iconic for.
You know the drill by now if you’ve been following this retrospective, so let’s do a quick drive-by of each game in this series!
Super Mario Kart kickstarted this series on the SNES by riding the coattails of Nintendo’s recent hit, F-Zero. Like F-Zero, Super Mario Kart was a racing game that used the SNES’s Mode 7 to emulate a 3D effect, driving forward and making turns on a 2D plane with the occasional vertical hop and skip. What set them apart, excluding their themes? For one, Mario Kart was slower and easier to control. It’s still no cakewalk, SMK is by far the hardest to control in this series, but it’s much more beginner friendly than driving the Blue Falcon. Secondly, SMK brought many power-ups to emulate the collectable-loving nature of the main Mario games. Coins were littered across the course, and picking them up increased your speed. Item boxes gave random power-ups that could give you an edge, from slippery banana peels to projectile shells to speed boosting mushrooms.
Further setting it apart was the addition of a creative new competition, Battle Mode. Everyone’s still racing around, but instead of blitzing towards the finish on a linear course, they’re locked in an arena attacking each other in an all-out brawl! It amplifies and accentuates the chaos of the item-based gameplay, making Battle Mode an excellent party attraction.
All these and more make Super Mario Kart a beloved classic, but I can’t confidently say it aged well enough for me to willingly give it a go. The use of Mode 7 to emulate 3D space was extremely impressive for the time, but now that we have actual 3D? I feel like I’d appreciate the technological feat less than I’d appreciate a more reliable view of what’s in front of me. But I’ll get into why that is in a bit.
And so the groundwork of this series was laid! A little later Mario Kart 64 burst onto, what else, the Nintendo 64. Taking the series into proper 3D does a lot to improve its learning curve by increasing player’s field of view, as does making the roadways much wider. Tracks gained more verticality with ramps and towering structures. More unique track features presented new obstacles to deal with and shortcuts to exploit. It was a huge step forward in accessibility and visuals!
Mario Kart 64 also began the tradition of each new entry iterating new items into the mix. 64, however, is especially notorious for introducing the Blue Shell. This single item forever changed the Mario Kart experience because of one principle. It appears at random, and it exists solely to attack the player in 1st, with no chance to avoid it (unless you get REALLY lucky and careful with a boost). The existence of this item makes it impossible to be sure that the most skilled player will win a Mario Kart race. But you know what? I’ve made peace with that long ago. That, and it feels great to exploit a Blue Shell when you’re not in 1st and steal the victory. I have no shame.
Mario Kart Super Circuit then came out for the GBA, and… I have to be honest, I have very few impressions of this game. I played it thanks to the 3DS’s Ambassador program, but I quickly lost interest in it. Mostly due to how it handled and how it felt to navigate a 3D course with a 2D plane. This is why I doubt I’ll get into SMK. It’s cool to have a portable Mario Kart, and it looks like it has great backgrounds for its time, it just failed to grab my attention beyond the Mushroom Cup. I felt disengaged and uninterested in it, and those complaints were at the forefront of my mind during my test drive. That was my experience with it, anyway.
Then we come to my entry point into the series, Mario Kart Double Dash. I hear a lot about this game from Mario Kart fans, and as I write this retrospective, I’m starting to see why; it took a lot of big experiments with the series’s formula! The most obvious gimmick is the addition of dual drivers who handle driving and items separately, while being able to switch on the fly. This opens up some unique opportunities for co-op racing! As an extension of this, racers are no longer glued to a single kart. Now any racer (duo) can use any kart within a given weight class, and there’s plenty of vehicles to choose from.
This makes every character’s playstyle more versatile. Because you have two racers, you can also carry two items, doubling your arsenal and shenanigans. Also, there’s character specific super-items! Because few things say “screw you” like blasting an opponent with a giant shell that only Bowser and Bowser Jr. can use.
For the first time in the series, Battle Mode got a significant revamp. The balloon popping mode remains in tact as usual, but now, there were two additional options. Bob-Omb Blast was basically Balloon Battle, except with only Bob-Ombs. And lots more of them than usual. The designers knew exactly what destruction they were beckoning. There was also the new Shine Thief mode, where everyone chases after a Shine Sprite and attempts to keep it to themselves for a set timer. It’s a change that redirects the chaos around a single focal point.
The Gamecube’s graphics still hold up today. Everything is vibrant and smoothed into natural but cartoonish and exaggerated shapes. I have my bias for obvious reasons, but this game not only introduced me to this beautifully hectic spinoff, it put major new twists on so many things people already loved about it.
Unfortunately, many of these additions were one-timers, and have been dropped from the series. Nevertheless, Mario Kart DS took a little risk of its own, adding a brand new Mission Mode that acted as a brand new single player campaign with unique objectives and even boss battles! Though, that addition has also been absent from future Mario Karts.
What did stick around are the new retro courses, bringing back various tracks from previous Mario Karts. These 16 Retro courses were added in parallel to the standard 16 new courses, effectively doubling the series’ standard of longevity! I never played MKDS myself, but I expect it would have kept me busy for a very long time if I did.
Which brings us to the next game… Mario Kart Arcade GP? I was just as surprised to find such an arcade game existed as I was to see any arcade machine made after 2005 in person. Huh. I’ve very little experience with this one, but I can say it feels a lot different than standard Mario Kart. Tracks are more elongated with faster speeds, more like your typical arcade racer. Loud color commentary plays every time Luigi hits Pac-Man with a red shell. Also, Pac-Man’s in this game! Did I mention Namco developed it? I never got to play it enough to form a conclusive opinion on it, but I felt like it was alright. Arcade GP got a few sequels, so it presumably did well on merits other than the IP alone.
Naturally, the Nintendo Wii had to get in on the karting action too, with Mario Kart Wii. Ignoring the obvious motion controls (which I personally enjoyed), what was the big addition to the series here? Bikes. Motorbikes, and just as many of them as there were karts! Karts and bikes controlled mostly similarly, but bikes traded some drift-boost capacity for the ability to do wheelies and gain speed on straight roads. Also, every vehicle gained the ability to do tricks from ramps, adding a little boost for paying attention during jumps. To top it all off, online play! Hey, it wasn’t great, but somehow I found it infinitely more stable than Brawl’s was.
Also of note are a few changes to Battle Mode. First, a brand new game type, Coin Runners, where players compete to grab the most coins. Secondly, Balloon Battle no longer works by last-man-standing rules, instead changing to a point-based ruleset. Thirdly, all Battles were team-based, no free-for-alls allowed. Coin Runners has become one of my personal favorites, but I miss the elimination aspect of Balloon Battle. And forcing everyone into teams? Kinda undermines the chaotic appeal of Battle Mode. Sure, it’s a wonderful option to have, I’m glad it was introduced here, but it feels less wonderful when it’s not really an option. Still, Wii remained one of my favorites in the series for years.
Before the Wii’s online servers went down, we got the next Mario Kart on 3DS, fitting titled Mario Kart 3D… Mario Kart 7? Well, it’s accurate if you ignore the arcade games. This one pushed two big twists, the first being customizable karts. Instead of unlocking individual vehicles, you unlock pieces you use to build them every race -- a body (including bikes too!), wheels, and a glider. It’s a neat idea, though it’s been criticized for how it takes away from the uniqueness of each vehicle. I definitely empathize with that complaint, but I personally enjoy enough of the parts I get to toy around with that I still like the feature.
Oh, and that glider? That’s the other twist, racing underwater and in the air. Well, kinda, anyway. Your vehicle transforms when you enter appropriate areas, but these segments are usually extremely brief. Being underwater makes the physics a little floatier, but not much else. Gliding through the air, while it feels good, is stiff to control to the point where it feels almost on rails. These additions make for good set pieces, but they didn’t hook me during gameplay.
I felt that Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, even if it was obviously piggybacking off of MK7’s hype, pulled off this concept much better. Every vehicle mode made a big difference in how you controlled and raced. It felt as if I was actually racing on water or in the air instead of driving through a set piece. But I’m getting a bit off topic.
There are a few other things of note on 7. Wii’s Battle Modes came back, but this time with the option to host free-for-alls as well as team battles! More curiously, a handful of new race tracks lacked the option to have lap settings changed… because they were impossible to do laps on. About three courses were huge, marathon-length tracks divided into three legs. I love this concept, since it changes up how races progress and gives me more to do while learning these tracks! That, atop a still further polished presentation and an actually reliable online service, made it one of my favorite pastimes on the 3DS.
At least they seem to be committing to that new naming convention with Mario Kart 8. Now, I already gushed a bit about this game in this old blog listing off my favorite games, so let’s cut to the chase.
I love everything about Mario Kart 8. The controls feel great. I can’t ask for better visuals or music. It’s also the first game in the series to introduce paid DLC, and it does so to surprisingly wonderful effect. Every new course is even better icing atop the already delicious cake! DLC characters bring in unexpected but lovable faces such as Link from Zelda and Isabelle from Animal Crossing. The new 200cc mode, while a bit silly, is exactly the kind of speed I love and gave me a new challenge I love adapting to. This difficulty dares you to adopt a brand new playstyle and moderate your gas pedaling. The courses obviously weren’t designed for it, but in an odd way, that makes its chaos and challenge all the more charming to me.
One thing I failed to mention in that old blog was 8’s flagship gimmick, anti-gravity tracks. In execution, it mostly just lets you drive on marked walls and ceilings. It creates some impressive visuals, but functionally, it’s not that different than just choosing route A or B… except for one little twist. While in an anti-gravity section, bumping into certain objects or rivals gives you a mini-boost. It’s a tiny change that does enough to shift your strategy to be a little more aggressive. It does matter, but it’s also somewhat forgettable.
Its one major flaw was the most bare-bones Battle Mode in the series, and it’s a glaring one. There weren’t even any actual arenas to battle on, only a bunch of race tracks from normal play. So it’s a huge relief that when this game was ported to the Switch as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, it was given a real Battle with five game types, new items, and actual arenas! Deluxe even brought back double items from Double Dash, making every race more aggressive! MK8DX raised the bar for how much post-launch support I expect from Nintendo’s biggest hitters, because I didn’t expect a game I already enjoyed so much to get exponentially better.
Also, Mario Kart Dash is coming to mobile devices! Apparently! We still know nothing about it. I think it’ll be at least okay, but I can’t exactly have an experience or opinion on something that has yet to exist. The closest parallel I can draw in the mobile industry is Sonic Forces Speed Battle, and I don’t see Dash sticking so close to that formula/model, so… jury’s still out on that one.
Do I believe that Mario Kart has hit its peak? Personally, I’d say it has for now, but there’s no reason that it can’t be topped in the future. This road has had some bumps and the occasional bad traffic, but unlike other Mario spin-offs, it’s stuck to polishing a single formula for generations. It’s playing it safe, but it’s the most well received Mario spin-off to date. Is it getting stale? It might be. Is there a risk of it steering off course? It already did with the original MK8 Battle Mode. But the iterative gimmicks are gradually piling up to make something that feels fresh enough to keep me coming back for more. It’ll take something big to pull me away from a game that has its hooks as deep in me as MK8DX, but I’d respect more of the same out of a series that isn’t broken.
Although, rubberbanding that makes the AI faster than you can even go is still annoying.
The Mario Kart series is one of the most reliable thrill rides I’ve ever been on. If I want an adrenaline rush, the competition at 150cc (or higher) is exciting and fast enough to get my fix. It’s full of bull, but I accept and embrace that. After all, Mario multiplayer spin-offs tend to embrace fun and wacky hijinks before balance, and as long as they’re fun for it, that’s okay. But does that same philosophy translate well to Mario platformers? That’s worth looking into next month...