Mario Kart seems to be one of those series where the ever-improving nature of the sequels makes it hard to go back and play the less polished earlier titles. Sure, revisiting tracks that didn’t return is fun, and the battle mode certainly got worse over time, but each installment focused on making things a lot more fun for multiplayer racing. Super Mario Kart is admittedly rough to go back to in a few ways, but this first installment in the series does manage to have a few reasons to give it a look.
Super Mario Kart is the first game not only in the Mario Kart series, but it also essentially established the kart racing genre. The kart racer formula is pretty simple: take a racing game and add items to it to make the races not entirely skill-based. Despite this, the racing in Super Mario Kart certainly requires a lot more skill than future titles due to the reserved nature of most of the items you can grab. Racing over an item panel might give you a banana peel you can drop to slip up other racers, a green shell or homing red shell to fire at other racers, a mushroom to give you a speed boost, and if you’re doing poorly, the game might throw you a bone and give you a star for a temporary speed boost and invincibility or lightning where every other racer is shrunk for a period of time. These make for a pretty strong core, but there are two items that are quite lacking. One of them is the feather, an item that makes your kart jump high once. Your kart can normally do small hops that can help you go over small obstacles or get you started on a drift, but the feather is meant to help you take special shortcuts… but the feather is so rarely given and you only get about one item per lap so it’s easy to forget it even exists! The other dud item is the coin. Coins can be collected as you race along the track, their purpose being to very slightly raise your top speed as well as acting as a sort of life system. When you hit a hazard, get hit by an item, bump into another racer, or fall off the track, you lose coins. If you have 0 coins, your character will have a small freak out before being able to get back in the race. The effect on your speed is not very noticeable, so the coin system mostly serves to hamper you, and I was glad when later Mario Kart games didn’t have it and somewhat upset when it later made a return. I guess you can try and collect them so you aren’t bored when you are too far ahead, but it’s not a very exciting system in general.
The selection of racers is pretty good for a first outing, giving you eight racers with slightly different stats. Each character has hidden stats related to their speed, weight, handling, and so on that you’ll have to get a feel for by playing as them. For the most part, the racers can do pretty well as long as you know how to handle them, although the later cups demand a level of precision that might be more difficult with certain racers. Speaking of the cups, Super Mario Kart’s race tracks are sorted into four different cups which you can tackle at three different engine classes. The engine classes are basically the game’s difficulty settings, with 50cc being Easy, 100cc being Normal, and 150cc being Hard, but the challenge in the game ramps up considerably near the end of 100cc as the Special Cup is introduced. On 50cc you can only play the Mushroom, Flower, and Star Cups, but 100cc introduces the far more challenging Special Cup where they expect you to have gotten the hang of the game and can now handle some pretty tight challenges. The difficulty is where Super Mario Kart really shines, as while future games got better at handling the multiplayer, it feels like they might have regressed a bit in regards to providing a challenging single player experience by trying to mimic the feel of multiplayer.
In Super Mario Kart, the courses are flat stretches with winding turns and the occasional obstacle or hazard to mix things up. Driving off the track will slow you down in the rough or just send you falling off to be rescued by Lakitu on his cloud. All the courses are pretty short, a fact that lead to the races consisting of 5 laps each instead of the more typical 3. While their shortness and other limitations means many of the tracks are pretty basic, the game manages to keep itself interesting with some good visuals and music as well as requiring you to be incredibly good at the courses if you want to get all the gold trophies. 50cc and the early parts of 100cc are going to be easy enough for most people to get first place in, but when the game ups the intelligence of the computer players, suddenly it becomes a lot more interesting. Precision is required to get first place, and you won’t be just breezing by to victories anymore as a single mistake may take you quickly from first place to last. The computer controlled racers also have a few dirty tricks in their arsenal that make them dangerous, but not quite as dangerous as a human player. Rather than using the same item system as a human player, the game’s racers all have a character specific weapon they can pull on any time to try and impede you. Whichever computer player is closest to you will whip out items that you might not even have access to, and for the most part, all other computer players will be unaffected by each other’s items. The computer players are all quite clearly working against you, as depending on which character you pick, you can expect the other racers to always finish in essentially the same order save where you fit in. You can sabotage it a bit to take down an annoying rival, but without your input, the racers will finish exactly as they need to to stay competitive in the greater standing.
The four cups consist of five races each, with your placement in a race determining how many points you get towards the final standings. The computer players will try to rig this to be difficult for you, and the game doesn’t hide that aspect well at all. Besides just seeing the racers in the same order, the map that’s always showing on the lower half of the screen will allow you to watch them adjust their standings before crossing the finish line. As long as they aren’t too far apart, you’ll often see one racer slow down to let the other pass them up, or you might see a racer get an inexplicable burst of speed to pass up another. Since they can only use their character specific item, it’s not like they used anything to get that speed boost. These tactics may read as cheap at first, and I can’t really say a game’s AI doing things like this isn’t, but it does lend itself to making Super Mario Kart the most fulfilling single player Mario Kart I’ve played. The computer items are good but not devastating, and while messing up on a harder race can doom you quite easily, it does require you to actually master the course and your character. All of it feels like fair difficulty as computer players can’t grab items like lightning that would swing the race heavily in their favor, and if future Mario Karts upped the difficulty and restricted the items like Super Mario Kart did, I feel they could make a more robust single player as well. Having the human player the only one who can hit a stroke of random luck avoids unnecessary frustrations, and to help with the few moments where you did make a devastating mistake, there’s a lives system for each cup where you can retry a track you did poorly on a few times instead of having to restart the whole cup. There is also a Time Trials mode where you can practice a course on your own, but besides setting your own times to beat, there’s nothing more to that mode to keep it interesting.
The items and their somewhat random nature do make the multiplayer more fun though. Multiplayer comes with a few different modes to choose from. Grand Prix will let you race with a friend in the main cups, potentially helping each other to get the gold trophies or maybe competing for them instead! You can choose Match to race each other without any computer controlled racers present, but you’ll likely feel the skill gap between you and a friend here most unless you’re pretty evenly capable. The items do help bridge that gap a bit, but not nearly as much as they do in later titles so the best player will likely still win handily. The last mode is Battle Mode, where you must pop the balloons on the other player’s kart to eliminate them. While I do think this is the best form of Battle Mode rather than the point focused modes of the latest Mario Kart titles, Super Mario Kart’s battle tracks are a bit uninspired, bland, and prone to dragged out battles where neither person has to worry about getting hit if they drive around the abundance of barriers.
Level design is an issue shared with the main race tracks though. You can see everything you need to see well enough, but besides taking turns and avoiding some pretty predictable hazards, the courses are a bit too simple and the visual themes in them repeated over many courses. Were it not for the Grand Prix demanding you to perfect your racing skills, these tracks would be too easy and too basic to be enjoyable. Console limitations held back Super Mario Kart a bit in that regard as it couldn’t add anything too complex, but then you see some seemingly obvious features that later became standard in the series are missing. For example… you can’t reverse your kart. Surprisingly, I didn’t even really feel its absence until I had finished all the cups, so its not so much necessary as it would be a nice touch. The more hectic items of future Mario Karts would have made multiplayer more fun here as well, but for the most part, what Super Mario Kart has is enough to make it enjoyable.
THE VERDICT: Super Mario Kart could have definitely become a game invalidated by far superior sequels, but while multiplayer and battle mode especially would become better down the line, Super Mario Kart manages to squeak out a niche by having one of the few Grand Prix experiences that will really push players to learn the ins and outs of Mario Kart, and it did so without giving computer players overpowered abilities. Their collusion makes them challenging despite perhaps reading as unfair to some, but the 150cc Special Cup will be all the more satisfying to beat after you’ve mastered kart racing rather than just winning the random item lottery. With serviceable courses and reasonable hazards, the heavy racing focus of Super Mario Kart gets to shine.
And so, I give Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo…
A GOOD rating. Were it not for the Grand Prix getting a nice injection of difficulty in its second half, Super Mario Kart could have been a game worth skipping. After all, the race tracks in this game return in Mario Kart: Super Circuit which also had more to it than this game. However, coming back to the original will give you fun racing game that just so happens to have items rather than one where items become the central focus. Super Mario Kart is a solid start for the series, one that future titles could learn from when it comes to making a rewarding single player experience, but the multiplayer experience is certainly done better in the later titles. A few more equalizers in the two-player racing and a battle mode that didn’t reward slow and cautious play wold have been enough to make the original’s multiplayer more interesting.
For every shortcoming that worked against it, Super Mario Kart ensures it has a strength to buoy it from becoming bad. Strong gameplay and the Mario franchise’s trappings make it no surprise that this game both established a genre and served as the foundation for what would become one of Nintendo’s best-selling franchises.