As someone who grew up in the midst of one of the later evolutionary periods in video game history, it is always difficult to view old games in the lens of how they appeared upon their release without instinctively comparing them to the refinement of the modern gen. I bring this up because this is immediately what I started doing when I revisited Super Mario Kart — comparing — as I felt the loose controls beneath my fingers and gazed at the 3D-scrolling graphics with my younger eyes; I was comparing it to what the franchise would eventually become, so do not be surprised if any of my criticisms come off as harsh (and maybe even biased) against this bygone era.
Super Mario Kart on the SNES is almost too easy to call out as aged. An 8-year-old who’s played Mario Kart: Double Dash, beyond, could tell you something is off with Super Mario Kart. They would ask why only the top four racers receive points. They would ask why the courses don’t have any names (most likely in the manual). They would ask why you only get 3 lives to spare before you get a game over. They would ask many more similar questions but the answer to all of them is simply: that’s just how the first game was.
First and foremost, the controls are…rough. This point will probably come off as the epitome of my whiny younger gen comparisons, but I truthfully could not get totally used to the controls. Every so often while maintaining a good flow, either the slippery drifting or the transition from drift to automatic (or vice versa) screwed me over. Braking or letting go of the gas helps but it’s often difficult to build up and sustain a satisfying momentum.
Part of the reason it’s also hard to build up a momentum, though, is the course design. Super Mario Kart’s 20 courses are super compact, containing tight twists and turns, plenty of obstacles, and occasionally thin pathways enclosed by off-road terrain. There are also many creative opportunities for the player to take different routes or shortcuts, conveying that Nintendo loved having fun with their courses since the beginning — before they even started tinkering with the y-axis. The courses are mostly fine. I just wish they were scaled a little larger (which honestly, thinking about it now, could have been a system limitation) to easier maneuver the karts, but I guess that’s where most of this retro game’s challenge lies, so the courses aren’t a huge problem.
Nintendo, no matter how infuriating the game (*cough* Color Splash *cough*), always, unequivocally integrates a personality into their products, and Super Mario Kart is no different. Perhaps the greatest separating factor from other racing franchises is the items and characters of the Mario universe imported from their platformers. The items and characters turn the Mario Kart franchise from a straightforward racer to a chaotic and strategic one. Each item is given a memorable and discernible use and every character is balanced but not without distinguishable traits to make each one their own.
It seems in some ways, however, that Nintendo had difficulty at the time completely letting go of the elements that defined their economically staggering platformers. The aforementioned “three lives” system is assuredly outdated, and the concept of collecting coins is frankly extraneous and oftentimes annoying because it is designed in a way to unfairly target the player. I guess Nintendo just thought everything needed coins and lives back then.
Another aspect designed to unfairly target the player is the CPUs. When the player picks any one of the eight characters to race as, that character will have a rival: a CPU character given the most skill in order to give the player a challenge. I like this idea, however, these rivals (and actually every CPU in general), are granted unique items that players can’t receive from the standard question blocks at all, and if anything, that made me envious. Also, for some reason, CPUs are allotted the ability to jump over your stationary items, which made me contemplate for a second if items even had worth. But ultimately, the CPUs come off as another facet that although roughly primal in design, function properly for the most part.
For how painfully rough on the edges Super Mario Kart is, it is still a great game and acts as a solid franchise opener for possibly the most popular household racing title. Again, I couldn’t see too many younger gen players getting a grip on its many great quibbles (especially the controls), but for the most part this is just unapologetically goofy Mario Kart with enough fast-paced action to maintain an arcade-level amount of fun.