Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be racing to keep up with the history of Nintendo’s Mario Kart.
What seems like the simple story of a pleasant, uncomplicated racing game has a surprisingly rich history. Racing has been popular for thousands of years, but the go-kart originated with Art Ingels in the 1950s; already an esteemed racer of sports cars, Ingels produced his first go-kart in 1956 and popularity rapidly spread across the world. Within the following decades, go-karts became popular not only as vehicles for legitimate competition, but also fixtures at amusement parks. Unlike standard cars, go-karts were small and slow enough to offer enjoyment to people of all ages.
With the advent of early electronic gaming in the 1970s, young fans had the opportunity to try their hand at virtual go-kart racing. Taito published an arcade game called Crashing Race in 1976, introducing combat to the fledgling digital racing genre – this element would go on to become a staple of kart racers in particular. Just over ten years later, Nintendo published Famicom Grand Prix: F-1 Race (1987) on the Famicom Disk System in Japan, presenting Mario as a driver for the first time. Along with his other appearances in non-platformer games like Dr. Mario (1990) and NES Open Tournament Golf (1991), the stage was set for Nintendo’s mascot to headline a new franchise.
Super Mario Kart (1992)
Originally intended as a sequel to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s popular F-Zero (1990), Super Mario Kart was an instant hit. The game’s development was overseen by Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the popular Mario character, and was intended primarily to offer an engaging multiplayer experience. It would go on to be one of the most successful implementations of the powerful Mode 7 pixel-scaling technology on the SNES. While the game was designed to appear as though it was 3D, graphics are rendered entirely as 2D sprites and are constantly scaled to provide the illusion of depth.
One of the key problems in developing a multiplayer racing game in the early 1990s was the ability of the limited hardware to scale up to two distinct sets of inputs. The speed and fluidity of F-Zero was simply not going to be possible in a multiplayer environment. At the same time, screen size was a factor – players needed to be able to see the track surrounding their character within fairly limited television dimensions. This led Miyamoto and the design team away from cars or futuristic vehicles and towards the characteristically low-speed go-karts.
Combat was introduced as a way to spice up the competition and keep things active in spite of the relatively low intensity of the races. That said, the tracks were designed in much the same way as miniature golf courses: environmental hazards are numerous, including lava, water, pits, and even marauding Mario series enemies! Thematically, the levels are heavily inspired by Super Mario World. Donut Plains, Choco Island and Ghost Valley courses, in particular, are drawn directly from the classic platformer. There are eight level types (Mario Circuit, Bowser Castle, Koopa Beach, Vanilla Lake, and Rainbow Road, in addition to the three already mentioned) and variants within those level types, totaling up to twenty total race tracks.
Of course, while the levels resemble Super Mario World’s aesthetic, it’s really the characters that connect this game to Nintendo’s flagship property. Players could choose from Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Bowser, Yoshi, Koopa Troopa, or Donkey Kong Jr. The first six of these are unsurprising, but the last two are rather odd choices. Koopa Troopa was the last chosen character, and a 2017 developer interview suggests that he was somewhat arbitrarily picked just before production wrapped up; it seems that having hands made him a better option than Mario’s other ubiquitous foe, the Goomba. Donkey Kong Jr. was evidently picked because the game’s release year marked the ten year anniversary of the Donkey Kong Jr. (1982) arcade machine. Jr. also wears a shirt, like Mario, making it easier to clearly represent the separation between his limbs and torso even in Super Mario Kart‘s compressed visual style. For more details on Donkey Kong Jr., who would rarely appear in a game again after Super Mario Kart, I strongly recommend GameXplain’s history of the character.
All characters performed differently on the track, a feature that would go on to define the series, but noteworthy elements of the first game are the rival system and the unique weapons associated with specific characters. Each racer, when chosen by the player, is assigned a consistent rival character who performs better than other opponents – Mario’s rival is always Donkey Kong Jr., Toad’s rival is always Princess Peach, and so on. Interestingly, the rivals pairings do not work in both directions; for example, if Mario is controlled by the player, his rival is Donkey Kong Jr., while if Donkey Kong Jr. is controlled by the player, his rival is Toad. This rival character will typically be vying with the player for first place. Each character also has an item that only he or she can use when controlled by the AI: Mario & Luigi use a star, Peach & Toad use poison mushrooms, Yoshi uses eggs, Bowser uses fireballs, Jr. uses banana peels, and Koopa Troopa uses green shells. Some of these weapons, but not all, are obtainable by the player from item boxes around the tracks.
One final major feature of this game is the battle mode. In addition to the twenty race tracks, four arenas are available for multiplayer battles. These arenas have no beginning or end, and are instead large squares with obstacles in which players use items to pop opponents’ balloons. Each character starts with three balloons and loses one if hit by an item. The final character still in the arena with at least one balloon is the winner.
Mario Kart 64 (1996)
Super Mario Kart presented itself as a 3D game with the use of carefully orchestrated Mode 7 pixel-scaling, but Mario Kart 64 was the real deal. It was released only four years after its predecessor, yet it looks a world apart. Levels are now entirely polygonal. Characters remain sprites, but they constantly interact with large-scale obstacles only possible with the significantly enhanced graphical horsepower of the Nintendo 64 hardware – the massive spinning egg in Yoshi Valley, the oversized real-world vehicles in Toad’s Turnpike, and the oblivious penguins in Sherbet Land spring to my mind as highlights.
As a consequence of this more impressive visual design, the course selection is actually diminished from Super Mario Kart. Only sixteen tracks are available – four assigned to each grand prix rather than five in the preceding game – but they are much more visually distinct. The most recent entry in the Mario series remains a reference point for some levels, but many are entirely unique to this game. Wario, a new character for the racing series, has his own arena modeled after monster truck raceways; Moo Moo Meadows, on the other hand, is a gentle course set on a rolling pastoral farmland (complete with a set of whimsical cows). A desert stage features a large, constantly moving train to avoid.
Surprisingly, the character roster still only features eight playable racers. Donkey Kong replaces Donkey Kong Jr., who would never reappear in the Mario Kart franchise. Wario replaces Koopa Troopa, though at least the little minion would go on to make his triumphant return in a later entry. Kamek, the named Magikoopa who battled Yoshi throughout Yoshi’s Island, was originally intended to be a playable character in this game; he was present in pre-release screenshots but was eventually replaced with Donkey Kong.
The most important improvement to the series are the controls and the expanded player capacity. In Super Mario Kart, players needed to steer using a standard directional pad. This worked well enough, but the Nintendo 64 analog stick permitted a significantly greater degree of control. With the change came the introduction of turbo boosts, which can be accomplished by jostling the stick left and right while sliding around a turn. At the same time, the game’s popularity was boosted by the ability for four people to play simultaneously without any additional peripherals. This would prove to be a major selling point, though it came at the cost of the game’s soundtrack; on the original cartridge, music is not present when more than two people are playing, since the 3D vertex and sound processing uses the same portion of the Nintendo 64’s hardware.
The minor technical drawbacks hardly made a dent in Mario Kart 64’s critical and commercial success, however. Its capacity for four-person multiplayer and low barrier to entry would go on to make it a favorite at parties throughout the following decade.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit (2001)
Mario Kart: Super Circuit was the first game in this series to appear on a handheld device when it was published on the GameBoy Advance (GBA) in 2001. The visual design is closer to Super Mario Kart than Mario Kart 64, as the GameBoy Advance was incapable of outputting 3D polygons. Happily, it does feature a much more colorful aesthetic than its SNES predecessor.
The characters are identical to those featured in Mario Kart 64. Twenty new tracks are featured, however, and these include some rather surprising new level themes unrelated to any other Mario game. Notably, Ribbon Road is a level set entirely within a child’s toy set while Cheese Land features players racing around a landscape composed of cheese and populated with Mouser enemies. In addition to the new tracks, players can unlock all of the levels that appeared in Super Mario Kart as well, though some hazards are missing. Coins made their first reappearance as a factor in boosting player speed for the first time since Super Mario Kart, but would not again appear until much later in the series.
Multiplayer remained a key element of the game, though it was impossible to duplicate the easy couch multiplayer of earlier entries. Instead, this was replaced with a system similar to that used when trading Pokemon on the original GameBoy hardware: a link cable could be connected between up to four GBA units and players could compete with one another using their own screens. Fortunately, the developers allowed multiple GBA owners to share a single copy of the game when playing multiplayer matches. Unfortunately, playing with a single cartridge split between multiple users limited access to the game’s content; players were assigned one of four distinctly colored Yoshis and could select from among only four tracks.
Given the series’ emphasis on multiplayer gameplay, it is surprising how well Mario Kart: Super Circuit was received. Critics were generally pleased with the series’ conversion to portable hardware, however, and the game went on to become a major commercial success. The balancing act of bringing a party-oriented game to the GBA had paid off, and would inform later entries on Nintendo’s handheld devices.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (2003)
The series’ 2003 debut on Nintendo’s Gamecube console was the first major shakeup in the Mario Kart franchise. Gone were sprite-based images, replaced entirely with polygonal character designs, obstacles and item pickups. Gone were players being locked into a single kart, as winning races resulted in new karts with unique stats becoming available for use. Gone were the limited character rosters of previous games – Double Dash!! added Princess Daisy, Birdo, Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr., Waluigi, King Boo, and Petey Piranha to character selection options. Toadette, the last of the new characters added to the game, debuts here for the first time in any Mario title!
One of the reasons for the significantly expanded roster is a radical reinvention of the series’ central driving mechanics. Instead of playing as a single character, players now choose teams of two racers. These are pre-defined pairs on the character select screen (so Mario is always paired with Luigi, Wario is always paired with Waluigi, and so on), but players are free to choose any two characters to make up their team. Toadette seems to have been created strictly to give Toad a pair as part of this dual racer system. In single-player mode, the player gets to swap his or her character between two roles in the kart – steering or using items. In multiplayer mode, two players can join together in using a single kart, operating as a team to either steer or use items. This reduced the already-low barrier to entry for many players, so people not used to navigating around a 3D environment could join with their friends by strictly taking on the item user role. In addition to this expansion of the multiplayer experience, the addition of LAN mode made it possible for up to sixteen people to play the game simultaneously.
Sadly, the course selection was also reduced from the immediately preceding game, Mario Kart: Super Circuit. Due to the technically demands of the game, only sixteen race tracks are included here. What a selection of tracks they are, though! Baby Park is a short, simple oval which the players need to circle an unprecedented seven laps. Dino Dino Jungle features multiple biomes, including a cave and seaside, along with oversized dinosaur obstacles. DK Mountain involves the racers being shot out of a cannon and then navigating down an active volcano. Every level is consistently engaging.
Despite the track selection narrowing from Mario Kart: Super Circuit, the options for battle mode increased significantly. Six arenas are now available, including one shaped like a Nintendo Gamecube and one in which players battle atop a pixel design of Mario’s appearance in the NES’ Super Mario Brothers. Two more modes are available to play as well – in addition to the Balloon Battle mode, Shine Thief has players trying to capture and then keep a ‘shine’ item away from opponents until a clock runs out while Bob-omb Blast involves players trying to reduce their opponents’ star counter by dropping or throwing bob-omb items.
While the series would go on to explore new mechanics, tracks and characters in later entries, Double Dash!! would remain a fan-favorite to many people who experienced it.
Mario Kart DS (2005)
After the popularity of Mario Kart: Super Circuit, it was almost inevitable that another game in the series would be published on Nintendo’s lucrative handheld devices. Only two years after the home console release of Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, that inevitability was confirmed as Mario Kart DS launched on the Nintendo DS platform. The visuals are, understandably, a downgrade from those on the Gamecube but a significant step up from its portable predecessor; all characters and most objects are rendered in (low-resolution) polygons.
The characters available are also a step down from Double Dash!!, though this was likely as the two-character kart concept was abandoned. Consequently, only twelve characters are included in this game’s roster. All had appeared in earlier games aside from Dry Bones and, bizarrely, R.O.B. the Robot; R.O.B. originally appeared as a hardware peripheral for the NES in 1985 and had not made any significant appearances in the two decades since its debut. Surprisingly, the Japanese version of Mario Kart DS presents R.O.B. in his original red Famicom appearance, while other versions of Mario Kart DS use the gray American version of the toy. As a bonus, multiple color variants of Shy Guy are available to play as when using the download play version of Mario Kart DS.
With regard to that download play functionality, this new feature replaced the link cable mechanic from Mario Kart: Super Circuit. Though multiple players could not use a single piece of hardware to compete with one another, up to four people could virtually tether their own Nintendo DS units together as long as one of them had a Mario Kart DS cartridge. No link cable was required, since the Nintendo DS could connect with other units nearby through wireless means.
That same wireless functionality allowed users from around the world to race one another online, though some concessions needed to be made in order to avoid lag: some courses are unavailable, only 100cc engine speed is accessible, items cannot be dropped onto the course, destructible obstacles cannot be altered as they can offline, and only four players can join together at one time. Interestingly, this was not the first time that online elements were included in a Mario Kart game! The Japanese version of Mario Kart: Super Circuit had allowed players to connect to the internet and exchange ghost data so they could virtually race against each other in an asymmetric context. Sadly, the servers for the Nintendo DS’ online multiplayer were shut down in 2014, though local multiplayer remains a viable option for fans of the game.
Finally, track selection was a major selling point of Mario Kart DS. Sixteen new tracks were included, as had been the case in Double Dash!! An entirely reworked set of courses from earlier games in the series was available as well, however, and this Retro Grand Prix mode would go on to become a major element of future installments in the Mario Kart franchise. The experimental Mission Mode, however, would be tied only to this portable title. Mission Mode offered an achievement-like set of occasionally impressive, occasionally zany set of objectives for the player to attempt on seven courses; goals include collecting coins, driving through numbered gates, defeating unique boss enemies, racing Chain Chomp, and even inflicting damage on Monty Mole track hazards. While it would appear in a beta version of the next game, the intriguing Mission Mode would remain implemented only in Mario Kart DS.
Mario Kart Wii (2008)
In the Wii era, Nintendo was riding the wave of popularity over motion controls. As an entry in one of the company’s most consistently successful properties, Mario Kart Wii played a key role in that trend. It was marketed first and foremost on the ability to use the small wiimote controller as a steering wheel, eliminating the need for the using either a d-pad or an analog stick. Players could even purchase a steering wheel attachment to achieve a greater degree of verisimilitude (if not precision).
With regard to its visual design, Mario Kart Wii was a slight advancement over Double Dash!! The Wii was not the massive technical upgrade from the Gamecube that the Gamecube had been from the Nintendo 64, or indeed that the Nintendo DS had been from the GameBoy Advance. With this in mind, Mario Kart Wii refined the polygonal design already being used heavily in earlier series entries.
It actually owes the greatest design influence to its direct predecessor, Mario Kart DS. Karts can be swapped within each character’s weight class (light/medium/heavy), each kart seats only one rider, the Retro Grand Prix mode returns with sixteen vintage courses, and players are able to race with friends and strangers online.
In terms of significant changes, the most immediately recognizable addition is the ability to ride bikes. For the first time in the series’ history, characters are not limited to go-karts, but instead have the opportunity to ride any number of fantastical bicycles, motorcycles, and the like. The bikes lack the karts’ ability to build two levels of drifting turbo boost, but make up for that with the new wheelie mechanic. By pressing a series of buttons or initiating the move through motion controls, players can direct his or her character of choice to pop the front half of their bike in the air and gain a quick boost on straightaways.
Several new characters were also added to the roster: Baby Daisy, Rosalina, Funky Kong and Dry Bowser make their racing debut here alongside the new cycles. Interestingly, the latter three of these are all characters in the heavy weight class. Miis also became available to race – players could import custom avatars into the game to compete against their favorite Mario franchise characters. To my own personal disappointment, Mario Kart Wii marks Birdo’s last appearance in the franchise to date.
That personal note aside, Mario Kart Wii ended up a major milestone in the franchise. On the Wii, one of Nintendo’s best-selling consoles, Mario Kart ranks second only to the console pack-in Wii Sports in terms of units sold. 36 million copies of this game were sold as of 2017. It would come to be considered one of the lesser entries in the franchise overall, but its commercial success has been unparalleled in earlier and later Mario Kart titles.
Mario Kart 7 (2011)
Mario Kart 7 is the third portable game in the Mario Kart franchise, and the closest in parity to the console versions. Its visuals are entirely polygonal, it features thirty-two race courses (16 new, 16 retro), it includes six battle courses, and it has a fully-featured online mode that remains active seven years after release. With that level of continuity in mind, it’s worth exploring just how much is unique to this 3DS entry.
Nintendo had dramatically broadened the series vehicular horizons with bikes in Mario Kart Wii, but took this a step further with hang gliders and underwater transport in Mario Kart 7. These were not new vehicles, but rather automatic add-ons to bikes and karts. Rather than leading to entire levels in the air or underwater, they instead offered level designers more latitude in the geographical features they included on tracks. Players might leap off the side of a cliff, deploy their hang glider and ride it gracefully to the next part of the track. Drivers are no longer stuck racing on beaches alongside the water; instead, they can dive right into the surf and race underneath the waves as the track themes require.
The levels are quite exciting, in keeping with these new opportunities. The futuristic, dystopic Neo Bowser City appears for the first time. Shy Guy Bazaar is one of our rare, delighted peeks behind the curtain at the whimsical Shy Guy lifestyle. Wuhu Loop even takes its cues from Wii Sports Resort! The first person camera perspective, available at the touch of a button and implemented only in this Mario Kart entry, offers players an even closer look at these increasingly detailed tracks. At the same time, coins reappear for the first time since Mario Kart: Super Circuit and likely have the impact of making players more aware of each track’s nooks and crannies.
Aside from the addition of flying and underwater sections, a handful of other changes are present. Players can now customize the various pieces of their vehicles – options include body, wheels and paraglider; new parts are unlocked by ranking highly on races. many familiar faces return, but the new characters are increasingly surprising – for the first time, players can race as Lakitu (owner of the race tracks according to the manual of the original Super Mario Kart!), Wiggler, Metal Mario, and Super Mario Galaxy‘s Honey Queen, my personal favorite.
Mario Kart 8 (2014)
Coming off of its most popular console entry in two decades, the Mario Kart franchise lacked any commercial need to evolve in the 2010s. Mario Kart 8 maintains most of what had worked in the last two titles – karts and bikes are featured as options, vehicle customization reappears with even more options, paragliding and underwater sections are prominent, and online competitions remain one of the most consistently engaging ways to play the game.
The most evident improvement was simply a level of polish. Mario Kart 8 is the first game in the series to feature HD visuals, and it looks stunning. The game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second at all times in single player, and the numerous visual effects (fire, water, space and more) are rendered with a perfect combination of fidelity and whimsy. Online multiplayer can include up to eleven players, and even permits two people on a single console to play split-screen online with others. Similar to a feature introduced in Mario Kart 7, Mario Kart 8 allows players to create ongoing tournaments that persist from month to month and let friends or like-minded communities come together to engage in exhilarating online races. Mechanically, players are now able to travel up vertical surfaces in anti-gravity segments; the most thrilling implementations of this innovation occur on new tracks, but it appears on more than a few redesigned retro courses as well.
Interestingly, one of the more unique elements that defines this entry in the franchise is the replay system. Players can create and save custom-edited replays of particularly noteworthy or wacky races. Characters’ faces are extensively animated, so they react in real-time to the events occurring around them – this spawned a very amusing online meme in which Luigi would glare angrily at characters as he passed or attacked them. In many ways, this reaction/interaction element functioned as the evolution of something included in the series’ very first iteration: in Super Mario Kart, characters would honk (or in a few cases, use unique taunts) as they passed opponents who had been slowed down.
The character roster in Mario Kart 8 is particularly massive. The base game includes many returning characters, along with Baby Rosalina, Pink Gold Peach, and all eight Koopalings; this totals thirty characters available to all owners of Mario Kart 8. With the downloadable content, the roster increases by six – new inclusions are Tanooki Mario, Cat Peach, Link (The Legend of Zelda), Villager (Animal Crossing), Isabelle (Animal Crossing), Dry Bowser, and numerous alternate color skins for Yoshi and Shy Guy. This would not be the first time that non-Mario characters appeared in a Mario Kart game – that distinction goes to R.O.B. in Mario Kart DS – but it is a significant expansion of the series’ scope. If you’ll indulge me, I encourage you to check out one of the much-beloved Gameological Society’s best articles – John Teti’s assessment of the characters in Mario Kart 8. I could never do it justice, I’m afraid.
Not all was considered an improvement, of course. The battle mode is conspicuously absent for the first time in the series’ lengthy history. Some players didn’t miss it, but others found its absence particularly galling given its popularity in multiplayer mode. A half-hearted battle/race hybrid mode is included, in which players try to reduce each others’ balloon count while traveling along standard race tracks, but this serves only to underline the omission of classic battle arenas. Additionally, the downloadable content ended up being rather controversial – some fans felt that including non-Mario content diluted the series identity, as downloadable tracks included ones influenced by Excitebike, The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero and Animal Crossing. One suspects that F-Zero and Excitebike fans were just happy to be thrown a bone for the first time in more than ten years. The Mercedez-Benz DLC came under even more criticism, as Nintendo partnered with the real-world car corporation to publish a set of free karts that resembled popular Mercedez-Benz vehicles.
In spite of these issues, Mario Kart 8 is one of the most critically lauded titles in the series’ history. Its presentation, customization, track and character rosters, along with its extensive multiplayer capabilities, felt like the ideal Mario Kart experience. Its commercial impact was limited, however, as it was originally released on the unpopular Wii U console. Luckily, an expanded re-release on the Nintendo Switch in 2017 did much to extend its popularity. New characters were added, including King Boo, Gold Mario, Dry Bones, Bowser Jr., and Splatoon‘s Inklings. The battle mode from earlier titles was added, and even included an unprecedented eight arenas and one new mode called Renegade Roundup (evidently inspired by ‘cops and robbers’ children’s games). In carrying forward the trend of improving accessibility, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is also the first game in the series to feature auto-steering – now younger and older players can join their friends without needing even a basic level of 3D navigation skills. It quickly became the fastest selling Mario Kart game and had been bought more than 7.3 million times by early 2018.
Mario Kart is such a specific set of game mechanics that one might be surprised to discover any spin-offs at all. In fact, four spin-off games were released in arcades between 2005 and 2017! All are quite similar to entries in the main series, but are made by Bandai-Namco rather than Nintendo and feature Pac-Man as a playable character. All feature unique levels that don’t appear in the console or portable games and are controlled using a steering wheel rather than a standard game controller. The ghost Blinky, popular antagonist of the Pac-Man series, even appears as a playable character in some of these games. The most recent entry in the Mario Kart GP arcade series is presented in virtual reality, but is only accessible in Japan as of this article’s publication in April 2018.
An upcoming mobile game called Mario Kart Tour is planned, but little is known about it so far. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a series so successful in transitioning from consoles to portable hardware and back again should be one of Nintendo’s first forays into mobile the mobile market.
What do you think about the Mario Kart series? Who is your favorite character? What about your favorite track? Where would you like to see the series go in the future?