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Tracking 23 Years of the Mario Kart Franchise

David Craddock | 10 Nov 2014 11:00
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Mario is the ultimate everyman. A humble plumber, Nintendo's mustachioed mascot trades plungers for fireballs when Bowser rears his ugly head and threatens the peaceful Mushroom Kingdom. Yet according to Nintendo, Mario is no hero. In an interview with Game Informer conducted in 2012, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and other iconic Nintendo properties, likened Mario and his friends and foes to a troupe of actors able to play lots of different roles.

The video-game equivalent of a character actor, Mario has done it all. He's scaled construction sites, refereed boxing matches, picked up tennis rackets, kicked soccer balls, and put the pedal to the metal Nintendo's long-running Mario Kart series, arguably the most popular the his secondary roles.

Early on, however, Mario wasn't involved in the series at all.

Getting Up to Speed

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When Nintendo launched the Super Famicom in Japan on November 21, 1990, only two games were available: Super Mario World, and F-Zero, a racing game centered on blistering speeds. Developed over 15 months, F-Zero was the first game to use Mode 7, a graphical technique built into the hardware that allowed developers to scale and rotate flat images. F-Zero's futuristic tracks scrolled smoothly around players as they raced, fooling them into believing that the game was employing advanced 3D tech.

F-Zero garnered praise from Japanese and American audiences, but Nintendo saw room for improvement. Despite being lightning-fast and visually tantalizing, F-Zero only supported one player. Hideki Konno, a designer who had directed Super Mario World, dreamed up a two-player racing game featuring go-karts and Mode 7 graphics, and starring a generic character in overalls. Roughly four months into development, Konno and Miyamoto decided Mario, Nintendo's most recognizable face, would work better as the title character. They dubbed the game Super Mario Kart.

Konno and his team designed Super Mario Kart for multiplayer from the ground up. In two-player mode, the screen was divided between Player 1's progress on top and Player 2 on the bottom. The game retained the split-screen interface even in single-player mode, placing the map on the bottom. Alone or with a friend, players jockeyed against Mario and his friends over 20 colorful tracks themed after locations from the Mushroom Kingdom such as docks haunted by Boos and wide-open plains bordered by pipes and rolling green hills.

Unlike F-Zero, which featured hazards planted around the track, Super Mario Kart put hazards in the hands of players. Driving over gold "?" pads armed players with items such as red shells that homed in on the next racer up, banana peels that sent karts spinning, and mushrooms that gave players a burst of speed, which let them pass players or, more advantageously, go off-road. Racing was only one form of competition. Resembling deathmatch in a first-person shooter, Battle Mode saw players drive around and blast one another with shells and other items strewn around each arena.

Next Generations

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After the success of Super Mario Kart, which sold millions of units in just a few years, a sequel on Nintendo's new platform, the Nintendo 64, was a given. Levels in Mario Kart 64 were rendered from polygons, which allowed artists and designers to create intricate courses such as Yoshi Valley, a tangle of paths that crisscrossed through a gorge; and Wario Stadium, a dirt-bike track covered in mud, sharp turns, and hills that sent players soaring through the air. Items such as the mushroom and banana peel returned, and were joined by devious new additions such as the Spiny "blue" Shell, which streaked through the air and dive-bombed the lead racer.

On top of 3D graphics, Mario Kart 64 sported a truckload of new gameplay mechanics. Up to four players could race or battle it out in Battle Mode on the same console. Players interested in bragging rights could save ghosts of their races to Memory Paks and trade them with friends, challenging one another to beat their best times.

Mario Kart 64 also cemented a trend: Nintendo would only release a single Mario Kart per platform. Mario Kart Super Circuit debuted on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, marking the first handheld chapter in the series. Super Circuit lifted several assets from the N64 game, a testament to the GBA's capable technology. Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Bowser Wario, and Donkey Kong returned, all of whom had been selectable on the N64 game. (Donkey Kong Jr., not the original DK, had been at the player's disposal in the SNES original.)

Super Circuit would go down in history as the only Mario Kart to not introduce new characters, but it made up for the lack of new-old faces by packing more courses than any Kart to date. Alongside 20 new levels, Super Circuit included all 20 levels from Super Mario Kart, making it the first entry in the series to feature retro levels. Up to four players were able to race or battle by stringing four GBAs together via Game Boy Link Cables.

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