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
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.
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.
Cubes and Screens
Released on the GameCube in 2003, Super Mario Kart: Double Dash!! added more characters such as King Boo and Princess Daisy from the Game Boy’s Super Mario Land, but the main focus was on fast, chaotic play. For the first time, players selected two racers per vehicle, obliging them to consider how the weight of their courses would affect the spryness and speed of their kart. Going through Grand Prix mode and earning gold trophies unlocked new content such as racers, karts, and levels, another first for the franchise.
Two racers per player meant double the items able to be held. Each racer could use items unique to them, such as fireballs for Mario and Luigi, a gigantic shell for Bowser and Bowser Jr., and heart-shaped shields around Peach and Daisy. The game’s heightened speed and the increased likelihood of items flying, shooting, and bouncing around the track at any moment made Double Dash the most frenzied Mario Kart yet. The game supported up to four players on a single screen, or up to eight consoles connected over a Local Area Network (LAN) using Nintendo’s Broadband Adapter.
Online tech became a centerpiece in 2005’s Mario Kart DS. Taking advantage of the DS handheld’s twin screens, the game placed the racing action on the top screen while the bottom displayed the map and rank of each player–a return to form of sorts that hearkened back to the split-screen interface of Super Mario Kart. Up to eight players could play Mario Kart DS over a LAN, while four could play over the brand new Nintendo WiFi service, matching players against strangers from all around the world, or friends who lived a few blocks away.
Most impressively, Mario Kart DS doubled the number of available courses in the preceding game, Double Dash, from 16 to 32. Half of those were retro tracks plucked from Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64, Super Circuit, and Double Dash. An even distribution of new and classic levels became the norm for each new entry in the series.
Given Mario Kart’s multiplayer pedigree, it’s a wonder Nintendo waited until 2005 to bring the game to arcades. Instead of porting an earlier version, Nintendo published the Namco-developed Mario Kart Arcade GP, an experience crafted for coin-op. Each game was housed in a cabinet sporting a steering wheel, pedals, seat, and a camera that snapped a pic of the driver, whose mug appeared between accouterments worn by their chosen racer, such as Wario’s mustache and yellow cap. Up to six cabinets could be synced up to compete, and players were able to see the snapshot of players who blasted them with items and left them in the dust. Namco mixed in characters of its own, including Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Blinky the Ghost.
Where most Mario Karts included 10 to 12 items, Namco stuffed over 90 into Arcade GP. Many items were exclusive to certain characters. Yoshi’s tongue could snatch items from drivers, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man were able to summon a Galaga ship to abduct rivals, and Bowser could hang Thwomp blocks that crushed players who drove beneath them. To keep players focused on driving, Arcade GP protected players in situations where they would have been left to fend for themselves in other Mario Kart games, such as wrapping drivers in a protective bubble while power-sliding.
Mario Kart GP gained a large enough following to warrant two sequels: 2007’s Mario Kart Arcade GP 2, and Mario Kart Arcade GP DX in 2013. In certain regions, each version allowed players to save data such as their nickname and win/loss record on cards that could be scanned before the start of a race.
Mario Kart Wii, released in 2008, gave players more ways to play than ever before. Catering to the smorgasbord of peripherals on the market, Nintendo supported the GameCube Controller, the Classic Controller, a combination of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and the Wii Remote by itself, held sideways and tilted like a steering wheel to maneuver. So many control options appealed to a wide demographic of players, many of whom gravitated to the Wii for its casual-oriented appeal.
Online play stole the show in Mario Kart Wii. A max of 12 players could meet online, with players voting on which track to contest between each race. Karts were only one method of transportation. Players could select motorbikes and pop wheelies for a burst of speed, although rocketing along on one wheel left them more vulnerable if other races decided to play chicken. Tapping a button or waggling a Wii Remote while in mid-jump performed a trick, which sent them shooting forward upon landing.
Mario Kart 7, which followed in 2011, was a much-needed shot in the arm for the ailing 3DS handheld, whose lackluster library had translated to low sales. Besides layering eye-popping stereoscopic graphics over the formerly-flat polygons, Mario Kart 7 changed up the gameplay by flooding certain regions of maps and affixing hang gliders to vehicles. Gliders proved the more interesting mechanic. Once airborne, players had to choose between staying aloft and collecting coins to increase their speed–a mechanic imported from the original Super Mario Kart — or landing quickly to take advantage of shortcuts and speed pads on the ground. To immerse themselves even deeper in the stereoscopic graphics, players could trigger first-person view by tapping up on the directional pad.
More importantly, Mario Kart 7 stressed player skill and tight handling. In previous games, races were often decided by players who lucked out and got a powerful item like the infamous blue shell. Now, players had to balance stats such as acceleration, speed, handling, and traction, as each vehicle handle differently depending on the weight of the character and the parts chosen.
Gliders, flooded passageways, and a continued focus on skill returned in Mario Kart 8 for Wii U earlier this year. On the surface, Mario Kart 8‘s most impressive addition was high-def graphics and smooth-as-butter, 60 frames-per-second action (in one- or two-player modes). Konno, still captaining the franchise, guided designers as they stirred in new elements such as anti-gravity pads that let players race on walls and ceilings, and the super horn, an item that sent out sound that wiped out other players and shattered the blue shell, a previously unblockable item.
Like the 3DS entry, Mario Kart 8 was still an accessible game, but one that forced players to master their handling of vehicles if they wanted to compete. Nintendo lowered the pervasiveness of “cheese” items, forcing players to become adept at using common items such as banana peels and green shells. The result was a game that maintained Mario Kart’s concentration on fun for the whole family while giving veteran racers ample reason to hone their skills and a feeling of satisfaction that skill bore fruit.
The release of DLC containing more racers, vehicles, and courses for Mario Kart 8, due later this month, marks another big first for the series. Poring over the scant information available about the DLC packs–the second of which will be available in May 2015 — got us thinking about changes we hope to see in Mario Kart 8, and in the inevitable sequels as the series marches on.
Battle Mode was reduced to a shell of its former self in Mario Kart 8, which saw skirmishes unfold on the game’s race tracks rather than arenas designed for combat. Nintendo needs to return the fan-favorite mode to its former glory. Perhaps we’ll get a few Battle Mode arenas in the DLC due out next May, or even the one that drops in November.
Both DLC packs will add characters from other Nintendo franchises. Most notably, Link of Legend of Zelda fame will rev up alongside Mario, Bowser, and the others in November. Why not go even further? Like Smash Bros., Mario Kart should welcome characters from every Nintendo IP, especially the heavy-hitters such as Metroid and Pokémon. It would be more visually interesting to play as Samus, Pikachu, or Little Mac than derivative characters like all eight Koopa kids and Metal Mario.
Embracing DLC shows that the company wants and needs to support their games past release. We think Nintendo should stick to their guns and limit Mario Kart mania to one game per system, but releasing one or two DLC packs a year for each new game would keep long-time fans invested while giving new players reason to jump on the bandwagon.
Whatever direction Nintendo decides to steer Mario Kart, the rich history of the series and the tacit promise that a new version will grace every system is a guarantee that fans, and Mario, will rev their engines for years to come.