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The rise and fall of the mine cart level

Originally created as the very first form of edutainment, intended simply to communicate the brutal realities of 1920s mining to a generation of kids whose careers were hamstrung by draconian modern health and safety laws, the video game mine cart level soon took on a life of its own.

It turned out that the brutal realities of 1920s mining were actually a hell of a lot of fun, and by translating them so accurately, game developers inadvertently created the greatest and most enjoyable design innovation in gaming history. For a long, none-more-beautiful period, it looked like the joys of mine cart levels would never leave us. But they did. And gaming still mourns to this day. In long-overdue tribute, here’s the 100% accurate GamesRadar account of how it all went down.


The 1990s glory days

For a time, a 2D platform game could not be officially labelled a 2D platform game unless it contained its requisite token mine cart level. Inserted as a way to break up the pace of a game with some seat-of-the-pants, auto-scrolling action, a good mine cart ride (and it is scientifically proven that there is no other kind) could make an average game good and turn a good game into an experience so special as to cause the player to spontaneously evolve. There are several documented cases of that happening in 1993 alone.

Genealogy

There were two main types of mine cart level, although in certain specific examples boundaries can blur:

#1 You are the cart

Above: Say what you like about the pink powder puff. Kirby 64 is a PROPER MAN'S GAME

In this type of mine cart level, the cart/character combo becomes the controllable avatar. You jump, your cart jumps. This facilitated the inclusion of ludicrous-speed, insta-kill platforming and skin-of-the-teeth navigational decisions in even the most ordinarily sedate games. Within the mine carting community, these are commonly referred to as “Proper man’s carting”, or PMC for short.

#2 The cart is your personal platform

Above: For the most part, Rocket Knight Adventures' Sparkster prefers the security of the foot-bound cart

This school of design bonded player character and cart by an invisible elastic band, meaning that while the player was free to jump out of his noble iron chariot, he would always return to it safely upon his descent. With no direct control over the cart’s path and no risk of falling to a tooth-crunching death as face rapidly met track, these mine cart rides were largely aesthetic diversions; merely an excuse to slap a hastily scrolling background over what was essentially, ironically, a fairly static version of the game’s standard action. To the mine carting community, these are known as “Carting for blouses”, or CFB.


The best of the bunch

Say what you like about music, art or natural catastrophes. If the ‘90s proved one thing, it was that nothing brings human beings together like mine cart riding. Following the start of the great 16-bit platformer rush of 1990, everyone was doing it. The kids were even modifying their home-made soap box racers to look like mine carts and smudging coal dust on their faces before going out to play.

 

To mine cart purists, the pinnacle of the genre arguably came in 1994 with the seminal railwork of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country. With speed and track complexity perfectly balanced for an optimum thrill/control ratio, the two levels “Mine Cart Carnage” and “Mine Cart Madness” are rightly revered by carting historians to this very day.

Not just happy to make the levels spectacularly playable thanks to their carts’ brilliantly engineered calibration of weighting and wooshiness, Rare had the sheer audacious genius to compound this landmark step for the genre with one hell of a flourish. In a pioneering move thought foolhardy, even dangerous, by some, in Mine Cart Madness it managed to combine both PMC and CFB in order to create a manly transvestite of a level. And it was a honking great success.

The method? The pace of the cart was matched by the Kongs' forward jumping speed, but the iron steeds of this level were certainly not the reliable old safety nets of traditional CFB. They frequently bailed uncontrollably down gaps in the track, forcing a swift death-or-glory leap to the next, and this was compounded by a borderline terrifying number of enemies, springy platforms and tantalising bonuses, all of which could instantaneously separate ape from cart in a deeply lethal sense.

It was CFB cranked up to death-defying hardcore standards. And standing alongside Mine Cart Carnage, it's what gave back the DK brand its pride. Pure and simple.

35 comments

  • Dredgon - September 3, 2010 3:54 p.m.

    Resident Evil 4 did it great, but 5 was an all around disappointment to the franchise (even though it wasn't a terrible game), and Gears of War only had "The Train's at home on the rails!"
  • OnyxOblivion - April 8, 2010 11:59 a.m.

    Gunstar Heroes praise...I can die happy.
  • kellir - December 4, 2009 10:33 p.m.

    I also loved the lucky luck mine cart levels back in the old days ^^
  • Nigelo - November 7, 2009 3:07 a.m.

    Ah, all you young 'uns! If you want real original Monkey-Cart action, Toki (on the amiga) was definite 'leap-of-faith' platforming, with the scariest mine-cart section ever as it was the last level with no save games and insta-death(tm). :)
  • AuthorityFigure - November 7, 2009 2:35 a.m.

    Nice article. Very thorough and quite bizarre.
  • crumbdunky - November 6, 2009 8:55 a.m.

    Oddly enough, and possibly in a quite unfitting manner, I felt the needcart" myself last year while watching my little lad playing around on Club Penguin on Miniclip. The shame I went through just for that cart game! Created my own little penguin and everything just to race through those mines, tilting and jumping my cart over the obcs and round the corners! The joy! And there I was thinking I was a lone carting crusader willig to shun COD4, KZ2 and GEars just to hit myself up with that mine shaft action! I was really just expressing my rightful desire, a wish that resides in all true gamers! Thanks GR and thanks Mr Houghton! You changed it from a dark, bitter secret into something I can proudly bellow from the rooftops! Viva la carts! That pink penguin is no longer a thing tha shames me.
  • w40kfanatic - November 3, 2009 9:47 p.m.

    aaah, the minecart. we meet again, old friend. you cant really hate minecart levels (until you fail, like, 20 times) also, unsure wether or not this counts as a 'real' minecart level, but what about in gears 1 where your underground and your in the wierd cart thing fighting off boomers.
  • TheWebSwinger - November 3, 2009 8:53 p.m.

    every sentence of this article drips with sarcasm and dry wit. i love this site.
  • SimOniS - November 4, 2009 12:36 p.m.

    Fail, Rail Chase (Arcade) not mentioned ?
  • Ban - November 4, 2009 4:52 a.m.

    @CH3BURASHKA ain't that the truth
  • soullesspanda - November 4, 2009 2:59 a.m.

    Ugh this brings back awful memories of me playing that mine cart minigame from a few of the mario party games. I damn near broke my thumb playing those things. Oh and I dont know why but i hated a level in super paper mario for the wii that had mine carts in it.
  • melch - November 3, 2009 12:29 p.m.

    Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was my first taste of mine cart action.....whip the thuggies indy !!!!
  • GameManiac - November 3, 2009 4:25 a.m.

    What about the one in Mario & Luigi: Superstars Saga? I know for a fact that there was a mine cart bit in that game. (*Sniff*) Im gonna miss those mine cart levels.
  • axis56 - November 3, 2009 3:44 a.m.

    good article. but you could have mentioned DKC 2 for further devoloping the minecart level into a pseudo-rollercoaster level with the haunted house cart levels. heres hoping with the recent announcement of a theme-park in bioshock 2 they revive the level with a bang, shooting splicers from a mistopian rollercoaster cart. a man can dream.....
  • revrock - November 3, 2009 12:19 a.m.

    Oddworld Stranger's Wrath had a great mine cart section!
  • Picnic1 - November 2, 2009 11:32 p.m.

    'Essentially a playable metaphor for the arguments of those cynical journos of old, it was like shooting our way through a barren womb. The final barb was in the way that it even set us up for a return to Resi 4’s finest moment by actually allowing us to climb into a cart at the entrance to said mine, before revealing its run to be pointlessly short and uneventful, ending before the mine proper even began. Truly the most poignant in-game requiem for video game mine cart riding imaginable, Ueda’s standpoint on the genre was made with inarguable clarity. But did he have to be so cruel?' This is great writing! To talk in all earnestness about mine cart levels is a fine blend of poignant, detailed, truthfulness and subtle, dry, comedy gold. I read that platform games used to account for about 25%-33% of all games (especially easy to believe in the 16 bit days) and now account for about a tenth of that. The likes of the Uncharted series, with its Inddiana Jones/Romancing the stone ways may keep the mine cart level alive for it will surely always be there waiting to surface.
  • CH3BURASHKA - November 2, 2009 11:10 p.m.

    Donkey Kong Country - The best goddamn game on the planet.
  • Spybreak8 - November 2, 2009 10:02 p.m.

    I enjoyed the little mine kart sequence in Shadow Complex. I also enjoyed em in Gears of War 1 or 2 I can't remember (I think it was the original).
  • sly123321 - November 2, 2009 10:02 p.m.

    What about all of the mine cart levels in "Crash bandicoot: the wrath of cortex".. those were some of the best.
  • sly123321 - November 2, 2009 9:59 p.m.

    What about all of the mine levels in "Sly"

Showing 1-20 of 35 comments

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