Developed by: Nintendo
Platform of Record: Super Nintendo, Super Famicom
With all the respect in the world to Pole Position, and Outrun, and F-Zero, and the countless racing games of the genre’s early years, Super Mario Kart was the true beginning of videogame racing, and as far as I’m concerned, this was the game that FIXED real-world auto racing.
Because I’m gonna say what we all well and truly know at this point, that it doesn’t matter if it’s a footrace or a Lance Armstrong doping campaign or forty cars turning right in the benevolent institution of NASCAR, real reacing is kinda boring. And the naysayers will speak of the complexity of automobiles, or the physical demands of competition, or the discipline required to throw your life at these sports, but that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m saying that the totality of those things add up to a very simplistic premise: Get from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.
Racing, as we understand it, is about competing against one opponent: Yourself. It’s about hitting turns tighter and smarter, honing your mechanics sharper, pumping your muscles a little harder, and doing it against largely optimal conditions. And you do this over and over and over, until the difference between a world record and a really good time are visually imperceptible. You may have to pass or block an opponent, but you’re not competing against the other people on the track as much as you’re competing against the clock and you’re playing for score, and then you’re comparing those scores at the end of the race, and that’s the most boring “versus” game you can end up with.
And you know why that is? Because we know that the sports which combine the race with the thrill of the hunt, and combine it with a ball, with obstacles, with opponents who want to take your head off, and where the participants are forced to react and adapt to unforeseen circumstances, that it is the things SURROUNDING the movement, and the means by which you INTERACT with them, that make sports (and games) awesome. Why do you think that NASCAR fucks around with the restrictor plates that limit the ability for drivers to distance themselves? Why do you think race officials are never too slow to raise a caution flag and get everyone back into the same pile? And why do you think that, down inside, everybody watches auto racing for the crashes? Because those things lead to the most direct interactions that can take place in modern auto racing, and therefore, are the most interesting part of a mundane experience.
But the issues run even deeper than that, because the race most often takes place in a single take. While the ball sports have more natural mechanics in place to reset the action, a race is start-to-finish, insurmountable lead be damned. And unlike a combat sport, where domination encourages the most brutal interactions possible, the dominating leads of racing LIMIT the interaction and the intrigue, for the simple fact that the bigger the lead, the further the distance between the participants, the less interaction to be had. So how do you provide that interaction when successful racing is an antagonist to the idea? And as it concerns the sport of auto-racing, that’s a tough question, because adding elements that could increase the interaction will also increase the potential for danger, and ultimately, increase the likelihood of dead drivers and dead spectators, which will only prove to be a better product until the lawyers sue it out of existence. And it’s why something as benign as the restrictor plates are often criticized by the drivers, because a tight pack is a dangerous pack. The real-world safety concerns are directly opposed to the things that would make these races more enjoyable beyond the thrill of speed itself.
Well, you know what? If we could add banana peels and lightning bolts to real racing, we would absolutely fuckin’ do it. And many of videogaming’s pioneers at least had the right mindset, because even the earliest of “racing” videogames like Death Race and Speed Race knew it was more fun to run people over than to get to the finish line. And then Outrun, Rad Racer, and F-Zero, those games knew you had to throw the occasional clumsy computer opponent in the center of the empty speedway. And then some other games — Spy Hunter, R.C. Pro-Am, and even Road Rash — took it a step further and added combat to the fray, because it’s a hell of a lot more fun to race your friends when you can kill them on the way there.
But if the other sports games and the last two decades are any indication, where the Rocket Leagues are distractions from the mighty House of FIFA, then it’s very well that we could have gone from Pole Position and on to Gran Turismo without much of an interruption, and the genre would otherwise be dominated by the thrill of the things that real-world racing already does. So what frame of reference could a videogame developer possibly have for the ideas of Super Mario Kart? Yeah, sure, you had your car combat games, but where does one derive the inspiration for a superweapon that shrinks all the racers on the track? Or even the idea that weapons can be dodged, like any other action game?
And that is why it could only make sense that the big break came from videogaming’s goliath, looking to prove their mascot can be every bit the utility man as Mickey Mouse, and that you can take Mario and his buddies and put them in any situation, any game, and even any sport, and it will make just enough sense that people will buy millions of copies and rich people can make more money. And as it concerns the videogames of the time, if there was ever a battleground to wage that fight, then the Mario universe was the place to go to war, where Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World could unload gimmick after gimmick after gimmick.
So it’s not just that the course designs were being left to the absolute imagination and the best that console hardware could achieve, built on the premise that when Mario isn’t busy saving the princess from Bowser, he’s competing against his mortal enemies in a friendly kart race. The ideas and designs that F-Zero could merely allude to, Super Mario Kart could take to an entirely different level. Because Mario Kart asserts that the world is not just a series of tracks that begin and end in the confines of an arena or a street racing venue, but a tiny subset of the Mushroom Kingdom and Dinosaur World, and that racing is just one of the countless things that is done in this universe, filled with natural and man-made courses, and lakes, and gigantic falling stone blocks, and even the shells of turtles, which just happen to be a great weapon on the racetrack. And as long as it could make sense in the world of Mario, it could make sense here.
But on top of that, you also have a racing videogame where where the “cars” now have real personality, because much in the way that American football leagues market the uniform over the player — it’s hard to market individuals covered in huge, dehumanizing layers of armor — Super Mario Kart showed there’s a hell of a lot more personality and character to get out of the racer than the vehicle he’s in. The go-kart was ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL to the formula, because you’re not inserting yourself into the role of a faceless driver or a character who can’t be seen, or blasting through nameless generic computer opponents, but you’re playing as Mario and you’re fighting Donkey Kong Jr. for total domination of this particular racing world.
So now, you don’t only have to dodge the other racers, who are portrayed as equals and have enough personality to make it count. But you have to dodge all the chaos and carnage that the participants and the environment are creating. And in the process of doing this, the sum of the moving parts SOLVES the competitive balance, because if you want the racers at the back to interact with the racers in the front, or have the opportunity to catch up, you simply give the stragglers better weapons, you let them throw down lightning bolts, and in the absence of the thrill in being the champion, you allow them to play the role of the spoiler. Boom, simple, done.
But this is where the wonderful world of the allegedly hardcore scream about “skill” and “depth”, and “rubber banding”, and all that delicious nonsense, because if you hate “randomization”, and you hate “luck”, then I encourage you to step back into the realm of the Gran Turismos and the Trackmanias, or to continue playing interesting and functional games like the Mario Karts and the F-Zeros in time trial settings, and continue to get what is, without a doubt, the absolutely most boring racing videogame experience ever assembled, and continue to compete against yourself, in the modes with the fewest moving parts, and the most optimal routes, the modes where the game does not get in the way of the player. Genuine experts want every second to remain tense, because they know it is the tension and variance being created by the weapons, by the obstacles, by the hazards, that makes it worth shooting down the same tracks over and over, with the threat that one bad move could ruin your day. Because most (if not all) of the very best multiplayer games, and most of our great videogames, and even the big game of life itself, all have a common bond: When things go to shit, do you have a backup plan? Until Super Mario Kart hit the scene, no racing game had convincingly answered that question.
And what must also be emphasized here is that, yes, you can find the individual elements of Super Mario Kart within a number of games leading to its inception, but it is the totality of the experience, combined with the then-unprecedented use of its completely over-the-wall theme that was absolutely necessary to go beyond the limits, and a completeness of atmosphere, that got the game its rightful place in history, got the entire videogame industry scrambling to figure out how they could one-up Mario Kart, and spawned an entire subgenre of “Kart” racers, all looking to cash in on that slice of the pie.
But that’s what the juggernaut Nintendo of the eighties and ninties did, they took their gigantic war chest and built cutting-edge, revolutionary games out of a seeming boredom, built their ideas around their most profitable entity, and with a single blow, the “toy company for children” would send the entire videogame industry scrambling to copycat their newest success. And it should simply speak volumes that nearly every racing videogame worth a shit — even those who have nothing to do with go-kart racing — have either followed in the stead of Super Mario Kart or the lessons that the game was preaching, whether played in the “realistic” venues of the Burnout series, the futuristic venues of Wipeout and the later F-Zero titles, and the countless games that downright stole the ideas and applied them to their own mascots. The entire aim and goal of the racing game genre now points towards every single thing that Super Mario Kart innovated. One game to start them all. And that, my friends, is history.