Mario Kart: How The Game Has Changed In The Last 20 Years
- Super Mario Kart
- Mario Kart 64
- Mario Kart: Super Circuit
- Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
- Mario Kart DS
- Mario Kart Wii
- Mario Kart 7
- Mario Kart 8/Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
The Mario Kart series was born in 1992 with the release of Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The kart-racing games see you choosing a racer, hopping into a vehicle, and speeding your way through a bevy of colorful courses. Choose from one of the dozens of available racetracks, organized into circuits across the games for smooth transitions. Snag items to hurl at opponents in an effort to slow them down, or even use them on yourself for a helpful speed boost.
Any fan of Nintendo has most likely played a Mario Kart game in their time, and with such a big anniversary happening this year in 2022, we wanted to take a nostalgic look back at what made each of the mainline entries into the series so enduringly great.
Super Mario Kart
This game set the stage for the rest of the Mario Kart franchise – it was a 16-bit, colorful delight in a time when racing games were all the rage but difficult to execute on a home console. Nintendo, however, was not to be daunted and overcame the challenge to practically invent the kart-racing genre.
Arcade cabinets simplified road movement in racing games, but this home release utilized a background that moved with your kart. The controls, though, were notedly more difficult – your character slips and slides across the course regardless of your skill. The additional challenge comes from the camera, fixed behind you and hell-bent on capturing every slight move your kart makes.
But for what the game lacked in control, it made up for in simplicity. Things were more straightforward – you picked your character and started the race. Not only that, but each character brought their own unique special ability to the table, too. Courses were presented in split-screen format as you navigated tracks inspired by locations in Super Mario World, with 20 tracks divided into four circuits featuring five courses each. This is also the game where Rainbow Road debuted, subsequently experiencing numerous reboots throughout the series.
We had a few different ways to play, too. Single player was an option, with Grand Prix offering regular matches, whereas Time Trials were races against the clock. Additionally, there were three multiplayer modes: Grand Prix, standard matches going head-to-head, or a beloved battle mode that affixed balloons to your kart that the other player was tasked with popping.
Mario Kart 64
The successor to Super Mario Kart was released for the Nintendo 64 in December 1996. Nintendo had a hit on the SNES, and they knew they had to capitalize, so production on a sequel began in 1995 with Shigeru Miyamoto on board as producer. It had a lot to live up to, but by taking the beloved game and turning it into a 3D experience, Mario Kart 64 more than lived up to the hype.
Fans got to experience 3D environments, elevation in terrain, and tighter controls. The backgrounds were no longer just moving pictures but fully interactable. The characters themselves were not 3D but rather sprites modeled on 3D renders. The game also employed a “rubber band effect,” meaning the AI racers won’t stray too far from you, so they’re a bit more difficult to overtake.
Most of the characters have returned from the SNES, but Donkey Kong Jr. and Koopa Troopa were replaced by Donkey Kong and Wario. Characters have been divided into weight classes, each with a different advantage. Lightweights accelerated quickly but were liable to fly off, while heavyweights were slower to start but harder to push around. Middleweights, meanwhile, have no extreme acceleration or weight but steered most consistently.
Mario Kart 64 broadened multiplayer capabilities from two players to four. The Grand Prix returned to allow one player to race in cup matches, with Time Trials available as well. Versus was the standard multiplayer, and Battle Mode was like the previous games in that you were popping balloons.
Perhaps the biggest addition that stuck, though, was items. Picking up a question block gave you one item to use either on yourself (like mushrooms and stars) or your opponents (like shells and bananas). This became a mainline feature, present in every game since.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit
By mid-2001, Nintendo had established itself as the pioneer not only of the kart-racing genre, but of its improvements as well. And with the handheld Game Boy Advance, Nintendo capitalized on the opportunity to make their karts portable for the first time with what’d become the fourth-best selling game on GBA.
While the game received praise for its visuals and portability, hindsight doesn’t do it any favors – the graphics nowadays look clunky in a way that doesn’t hold up with charm and nostalgia. It was developed by Intelligent Systems, the minds that brought us WarioWare and the Fire Emblem series, and despite that, it’s now overshadowed. At the time, it was all the rage.
Before DLC gave the title to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Circuit was the Mario Kart game holding the title for most tracks, with 40 on offer. The playable characters saw no change; the game features the same lineup of faces from the N64 game. Items have once again returned and now include collectible coins, which increase the power of your engine once you collect enough. Collecting 100 even doubles the track count from the initial 20 up to the promised 40.
With multiplayer less straightforward, the game was mostly oriented toward single-player enjoyment, with a couple of options to play with friends. The standard Grand Prix is here yet again, with weight classes once again at play. Time Trial returns as well, and we also had Quick Run mode, where players could customize rules on any course before playing them. For multiplayer, four people could play in either Versus Mode or the still-popular Battle.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
The GameCube had two years to establish itself before the release of Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, so the game released to noted fanfare. Launching in November 2003, Double Dash!! took the world by storm, as it's the second best-selling GameCube game, not terrifically far behind the still-iconic Super Smash Bros. Melee.
The dev team came up against the struggle of trying to attract new players who perhaps didn’t have much experience with kart racing games. A big appeal, however, was that this was the first time every element was a 3D model, including the characters this time around.
While there were, of course, options for standard gameplay in Double Dash!! like the iconic Grand Prix and Time Trial for single-player, the multiplayer was tweaked a bit. You could still race against your friends in couch multiplayer, bring up to 15 friends in with LAN play, and experience the regular versus and battle modes.
For the first (and only) time, two players could occupy the same vehicle, which saw one player driving and the second in charge of items. This decision was widely revered by fans, who are still begging to see it again. The game featured 16 tracks across four cups, where the difficulty is chosen by selecting the engine speed. Players could unlock an additional fourth engine mode, which mirrored the controls and force-set your speed to the fastest option.
Mario Kart DS
Only two years after their last game, Nintendo was back at it again with another handheld Mario Kart, releasing Mario Kart DS in November 2005. They’d done portable kart-racing well before, and they’d do it again with this entry, which is the third best-selling game for the DS.
As multiplayer play trended increasingly toward online, Mario Kart DS allowed for players to race using an internet connection. The game’s producer, Hideki Konno, said of the change that “the technology and time is right." If you weren’t playing online, however, up to eight players could race using cartridges and a local connection.
The game was met with near-universal praise for not straying from the Mario Kart formula, simply improving it while keeping controls comfortable and straightforward.
With two screens on the DS, you raced on the top screen, but the bottom could show a couple of things. You could opt to have it show an overview of the course or a birds-eye view of you and your immediate surroundings. There were eight cups, featuring 32 tracks total.
You began the game with eight racers, unlocking an additional four with gameplay progress. Each racer can access only two karts to start, but after you’ve beaten each circuit with a B or better at the 150cc speed, all characters can select all karts. The standard modes return again but now also include Missions, which see you controlling a specific character with a dedicated goal in mind.
Mario Kart Wii
Some people argue that the Wii was before its time. Nintendo has always been pioneers when it came to consoles, so the Wii was played with motion, and so, too, was Mario Kart Wii.
Not only was this one of the best-selling games on the Wii, but it's also the 16th best-selling game of all time, having sold just under 38.4 million units. Additionally, Nintendo manufactured a peripheral accessory for the game: a plastic steering wheel with a spot for your Wii Remote, allowing for actual steering.
While we'd previously been limited to go-karts, this game had a new vehicle: motorbikes. After choosing between car and bike, 24 characters raced through 32 tracks, spread across eight different cups. Half the tracks were returning favorites from old Mario Kart titles, while the others were brand new.
You had four choices for how to drive. If you had the steering wheel, pop your Wii Remote in and have at it. You could also race with the Nunchuk for steering, controlling the Wii Remote horizontally, or plugging in a GameCube controller.
The four standard modes have returned once again, though Battle was expanded. Players were divided into teams, unable to harm teammates as they sought to pop or steal balloons from the other team. Coin Runners is also an option, a team-based multiplayer mode that saw players speeding around tracks attempting to collect coins.
Mario Kart 7
While the series didn’t have much use for the special effect feature of real 3D outside fleshing out tracks a little, that didn’t mean Mario Kart 7, released in December 2011, wasn’t good – in fact, it was the best-selling title for the 3DS. Mario Kart 7 took the foundation Mario Kart DS laid and built upon it, bringing a few new features and tweaks into the series. It’s especially impressive when you consider that, due to the heavy release schedule from Nintendo in 2011, only eight dedicated staffers worked on the game, eventually bringing in Retro Studios to help out.
There were two big additions – subaquatic vehicles for underwater racing, as well as the new hang-glider attachment for all karts that saw jumps increase in height to send us soaring through the skies.
This entry into the series gave fans 16 racers, with four newbies joining the roster, and players could now customize their vehicles. We raced on 32 tracks – 16 new ones, and 16 remastered versions of old tracks. While the bottom screen once had multiple options for what you could see there, you could no longer see moving objects other than other racers.
The game was critiqued for its reliance on “old gimmicks,” and is seen nowadays as somewhat derivative, though it still holds a firm place in many players’ hearts.
Mario Kart 8/Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
The series' most recent entry was originally released in May 2014 for the Wii U, and was ported to the Switch as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in April 2017, bringing kart-racing to the current gen. The Deluxe version features a handful of improvements to entice players to upgrade. These included bonus content, better graphics, and previously DLC-only content. You’d also receive five bonus racers, the restoration of beloved items, and the ability to hold a second item, too.
The original was the best-selling game for the Wii-U, and with the port to the Switch, that number has only grown. The combined numbers for the original and subsequent Deluxe edition have earned Mario Kart 8 the title of seventh best-selling video game of all time, only behind Minecraft, GTA 5, Tetris, Wii Sports, PUBG: Battlegrounds, and the original Super Mario Bros.
The game features a cool 32 tracks spread across eight cups, while DLC introduced an extra 16 tracks as paid additional content. There are 36 characters to choose from, which means this is the game with the series’ biggest roster yet (though some are limited to the Deluxe version). Older gimmicks like motorbikes, hang-gliders, and underwater vehicles are back again, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe brings antigravity racing – players are sometimes able to drive on walls and ceilings in certain sections of the race.
Deluxe received extra support from the “Booster Course Pass," Nintendo’s paid season pass for the game. By the time all content has been released for it, 48 tracks will have been added to the game. The first batch was released on February 2022, with the second in August 2022 to keep content fresh and players playing.
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