Imagine if you will, a world without Super Mario Kart. Sure, it might have just seemed an innocuous little novelty mascot racer when it appeared in 1992, but in truth it changed a hell of a lot in the driving genre. Firstly, if it didn’t invent the kart racing game, then it certainly propelled it to the forefront of gaming, forging a whole new sub-genre and approach to driving and creating an entire different kind of fun in the process. By no means a driving simulator, but definitely not a simple foot-to-the-floor arcade racer either, the first Super Mario Kart struck a great balance between accessibility and skillful play. And then there were the weapons…
Driving games had been dabbling with combat for a good long time before the SNES arrived. Guns and missiles had been available since Spy Hunter’s arcade release in 1983, and unbelievably 1976 had seen Death Race come in for possibly the first case of videogame demonisation thanks to gameplay based around making pavement pizza out of pixelly little stick men. But with Super Mario Kart, combat racing came of age. Eight collectible weapons and augments, well-balanced across the board and covering everything from nitros to smart bombs to heat-seekers to the careful sniping of the humble green koopa shell. Every item was tailored to certain situations and areas of track, and tactical attacks and defenses became just as important a part of the game as speed control and power-sliding.
But that’s not to say the driving was side-lined. Oh no. While it might only have used three buttons (What? There was a brake? Yeah right.), SMK was no stranger to Mr. Finesse. In fact they go way back. They’re drinking buddies now, but it all started years ago in’Nam. Thus, while its cartoon looks might give some the impression that the game is a throwaway trifle of a thing, Mario Kart is actually a dense, triple-layered victoria sponge cake of karting refinement.
Your cornering arsenal may consist merely of speed, angle and power-side, but that three-hit combo is devastating in practiced hands. A player who knows what they’re doing can hug the inside of the track at top speed lap after lap and open up a gulf of road between themself and the competition. In fact there’s such potential for chiselling away at lap times that the ‘net is infested with sites dedicated to cataloguing records for every version of MK since the original, and competition is still very active and very fierce. That’s a pretty hardcore following for a supposedly simple game.
That’s the combination that has made Mario Kart last. Whether the graphics are Mode 7 or polygon, whether the controls are digital or analogue, the central focus of the game has always remained the same. Straightforward but deep driving control complimented by straightforward but deep item-use to unleash an anarchic but controlled thrill ride. It’s a nonsensical mish-mash of motor carnage, but one which can be mastered skillfully with practice. Throw in the human element, and it’s clear why the world is whooping with excitement over Mario Kart Wii.
Yes, Wii owners are still starved of ‘proper’ games at the moment, but even if the machine had a full roster of triple-A titles heating up the shelves, Mario Kart would still be a big deal. The individual bells and whistles of each title aside, gamers know exactly what kind of fun to expect from a Mario Kart game. Whichever characters, weapons or bunny hops are present or absent from each edition, the formula remains. Just give us a few new tracks to explore and master and we’ll be more than happy to shell each other into screaming, ‘just-about-to-cross-the-line-you-bastard’ oblivion all over again.
And online play as well? Given the strength of competition already burning away in the gut of the MK community, this new version is going to last longer than God and cockroaches combined.