A lot of game franchises start off slowly and gradually build up a following. But Mario Kart burst into the gaming world and has never stood for anything less than brilliance.
Since its birth in 1992, there have been seven mainstream Mario Karts across numerous consoles: from the SNES to the GameCube, and onto handheld devices like the DS; millions worldwide associate the series with quality, fun and multi-player madness.
Start Your Engines
It’s a simple idea: partner Nintendo’s most iconic character with a much-loved gaming convention. But early versions of Mario Kart didn’t feature Mario at all.
(Learn more about the history of Mario with our guide.)
1990’s F-Zero was the forerunner, a racing game which let backgrounds rotate around the car, giving a truly 3D feel. Nintendo looked to continue the trend. Three months into development, designers, Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata shoved Mario into a little cart and realised that he fitted perfectly.
It wasn’t his first venture onto the track. He appeared spasmodically to wave the flag at the end of 1984’s Famicon F1 Race for the NES, alongside various other Nintendo staples like Donkey Kong. He first participated in 1987’s Famicon Grand Prix for the Family Computer Disc System, available only in Japan, and then in 3D Hot Rally.
Stepping outside his platform genre has opened up Mario’s world considerably: he now indulges in golf tours, tennis matches, takes part in the Olympics with Sonic, and battles Pikachu, Link and Kirby in Smash Bros. Take a look at what he gets up to in his spare time.
It all led him to make his full racing debut in the early 1990s.
Super Mario Kart (1992)
This was the foundation for everything.
Eight racers: Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Bowser, Princess Peach, Toad, Koopa Troopa, and Donkey Kong Jr. 20 tracks. Four cups. And Battle Mode – because sometimes, the only way to relieve anger is to pop some balloons.
Start off with the easier tracks of each cup. Mario Circuit 1; Choco Island 1; Koopa Beach; and Donus Plains 3. If you played it how it was meant to be played – addictively – then you’ll soon reach the hard tracks: three Mario Circuits and, of course, Rainbow Road.
That wasn’t it though: the power-ups were so cool. We’re all familiar with the shells, the mushrooms and the bananas but whatever happened to the Feather? It was amazing, allowing you an extra-high jump to aid shortcuts.
Just thinking about its Mode 7 marvels brings a tear to the eye. You can relive the joy through the Wii’s Virtual Console.
Mario Kart 64 (1996- 97)
This was the game of the late 1990s.
There was a huge leap in graphics, but what really set this apart from everything else was that 4 players could race simultaneously. This was a game for friends who wanted to throw shells at each other.
However awesome it looked, the Nintendo team, spearheaded by producers, Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideki Konno, thought up a brilliant way of saving memory space: billboarding, a method that involves creating 2D –rendered images on flatboards that look 3D. Everyone was fooled.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit (2001)
Who can believe the first handheld Mario Kart came out this long ago – and yet remains the largest to date with 40 tracks in total?!
Super Circuit was why so many had that Link Up cable.
The game went a bit power-crazy, giving us 7 Bowser-themed tracks, but offset this doom and gloom with lovely little quirks like individual horns for each character (just press Select). Oh, and the bizarre Cheese Land.
It also introduced weather in Luigi Circuit. Heavy rain and puddles would make your car spin, possibly into an errant green shell, exactly like in real life.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (2003)
Let’s slow things down. That’s what Double Dash!! did. It was a controversial release, pairing players up in one kart.
The Gamecube release added in loads more racers, including Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, Birdo, King Boo, and my favourite, Waluigi (just look at his knees sticking out!). And it went mental when it comes to multiplayer, allowing up to eight machines to take part, each with two players per kart.
It was beautiful. Just look at Wario Colosseum, Sherbet Land, Mushroom Bridge, and of course, Rainbow Road.
Mario Kart DS (2005)
Talk about controversial: this is the only Mario Kart game to feature no Lakitu! Fans were won over by this handheld game because it was everything Mario Kart should be. For its sheer quirkiness, go into Battle Mode and play on your DS.
You could get a cheap thrill from the drawbridge opening in Delfino Square, and if you knew the shortcuts and had considerable skill, Tick-Tock Clock was a game-changer.
It also introduced the first non-Mario character to race: R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy from Nintendo’s Entertainment System, alongside the much-loved Dry Bones and Shy Guy.
Mario Kart Wii (2008)
This was designed with total beginners in mind and indulged in everything the Wii offered up. The wheel attachment is testament to that, a result of over 30 prototypes.
You could play with the normal remote, add a nunchuk, use a Gamecube or Classic controller, or try out the wheel. It was as fun and accessible as you could get, even offering up a new mode of transport in the form of motorbikes, while allowing you to do stunts (and the taboo ‘snaking’ technique).
It even picked out some Miis to throw into the crowd occasionally.
It worked: over 28 million copies were sold worldwide.
Mario Kart 7 (2011)
How do you top such a success? With gliders, of course!
The gliders defied physics, letting heavyweights like Bowser and Donkey Kong fly through the air with ease. They’re especially well utilised in Alpine Pass, Shy Guy Bazaar and Daisy Hills. Taking to the skies remains a pleasure.
It didn’t skimp on the new racers either, adding Lakitu (relative of the flag-waver), Wiggler and Honey Queen. And Metal Mario, last seen in the Gamecube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. He’s horrifying.
The Rainbow Road
It’s something special, isn’t it? Back in its original form, it was the only course not based on a Mario world, but has now become synonymous with the game and the character.
The Rainbow Road concludes each game in as difficult a manner as you can get: with little or no barriers, you can fall off the track without even realising it. It’s simple but so devious. And it’s incredibly fun.
The idea was there straight away at the end of the 1992 game, and it soon received an upgrade in Mario Kart 64. It was like Nintendo had discovered 1960s technicolour. Double Dash!! added a cannon into the mix, Mario Kart DS a loop-the-loop, and Mario Kart Wii concave roads. Its most recent outing, Mario Kart 7, is a long single lap that winds its way around a solar system, taking on moons and planetary rings.
Mario Kart 8 is released late this month and is getting very positive reviews. It might even tempt people to buy a Wii U, a vastly underrated console which becomes addictive exceedingly quickly.
Expect 30 racers, half of whom are unlockable, including Toadette, Pink Gold Peach, and Ludwig; at least 32 tracks (16 new and 16 retro, picking the best from the previous releases); four new items, like Super Horn and Crazy 8; and improved online play.
Most notably, however, is anti-gravity, allowing you not just to glide through the air, but also drive on whatever surface you want to!
The Chequered Flag
After 22 years, Mario Kart is still as popular as ever. It always raises a smile, no matter how competitive you are. Watching a friend slip on a banana peel is one of the greatest thrills you can have. Happy days…