It may not have been the first high-profile 16-bit racing game, but Super Mario Kart is certainly the most influential. The ingenious idea of pairing high-speed racing with popular mascot characters led the way to countless imitators, including knock-offs starring Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Angry Birds, LittleBigPlanet, WWE wrestlers and many, many more. Twenty years of history and seven sequels later, there's no question that Super Mario Kart is a seminal racer. But is it really one of the best racing games of all time?
With four cups to race through, Super Mario Kart offers a total of twenty different courses to master. All of the stages are derived from popular Super Mario World locales, such as Bowser's Castle, Vanilla Lake, Donut Plains, Koopa Beach and the always spooky Ghost Valley. These stages may be short (many laps are only 12 - 15 seconds long), but there are plenty of shortcuts to discover and obstacles to avoid.
Not only are the levels familiar, but so is the cast. Nintendo fans will recognize the full roster, which includes Mario, Luigi, Toad, Princess, Bowser and Donkey Kong. Each of these racers comes with their own stats, giving certain characters an advantage in a handful of stages. Finding your favorite character is part of the fun of Super Mario Kart.
Weapons have been dropped on the race track to make things more interesting. We get a speed boost, homing shell and banana peel to trip your opponents up. Some items are as boring as a super jump, while others will literally shrink another racer. These weapons can make all the difference when it comes to achieving first place. But beware; your opponents are thinking the same thing.
Super Mario Kart gets so much right that it's no wonder the game was so influential at the time. Never before had we seen a racing game with such variety in level design and weapons. It's easy to forget how limited 8-bit racing games were at the time; Super Mario Kart (as well as F-Zero) was a real revelation for the racing genre.
But as big a step forward as it was in 1992, Super Mario Kart has a number of fundamental problems that keep it from being one of the best racing games of all time. For starters, the handling is loose to a fault. Even the best handling vehicles feel uncontrollable at times, with so much drifting you might confuse it with Ridge Racer.
Luckily, precision driving isn't required to win most races. No matter which character you choose, it often feels like you're faster than the competition. This has a lot to do with the way the computer opponents drive. In both 50cc and 100cc, the computer all but allows players to win. There are times when it feels like the first place driver will stop and let you pass. On the flip side, the computer becomes frustratingly unfair at 150cc.
Another problem involves the level designs. While it's great to see so many Super Mario World locations represented, it's disappointing how flat everything is. Sometimes it feels like we're driving on a picture of Super Mario World. Perhaps this has something to do with the Super NES hardware, but I didn't feel nearly as disconnected from the race track in F-Zero.
All it takes is one heated two-player battle for first place to make you forget all about these limitations. That's one of the reasons Mario Kart remains a sales juggernaut for Nintendo. Each level is dripping with so much charm that it's impossible not to fall in love with the game. But after that sugar high wears off, it's clear to see that Super Mario Kart is a fairly average racing game with one hell of a paint job.