I had a bad feeling about this one before I even began. See, Mario Kart as a franchise was always one of those slightly dodgy series in my mind, not innately bad but with a few gaping flaws in the formula, like a waterslide which nobody remembered to add water to. I mean, even if you like these games you must be able to see it? Like the fact that dealing with the blue shell is obviously bullshit because there’s no way to defend against it, the way that item distribution means that races become more boring the better you’re doing, and the fact that every installment usually has about two or three fun tracks and the rest are just not worth the effort.
Which isn’t to say they can’t have their charms, only that even the best Mario Kart games come with a string of asterisks so long they look like a constellation map, and some of them have more caveats than they can bear. So yeah, bad feeling overall when coming to the first of the line. I hope to proven wrong.
There is no story in Super Mario Kart – or any Mario Kart, that I know of – but screw it, I’m going to invent my own. Wealthy, vacuous, airheaded dilettante that she is, Princess Peach decides that she’s grown bored with her rule of the Mushroom Kingdom (and why wouldn’t she be bored, she never does anything but bake cakes) and in a decision born of years of consequence-free living and too much rosé wine, she decides that she’s going to gift the royal crown to whoever can win a series of bloody death races in weaponised vehicles, a la Mad Max via Wacky Races. Meanwhile, Peach herself will retreat in obscene luxury to live in a series of beachside villas and holiday mansions, spending the rest of her life being serviced by moustached gigolos and dead-eyed servants.
Side note, who the hell actually are Princess Peach’s parents? There must’ve been a King and Queen Peach at some point (not including those being Mario’s nicknames for her buttocks), and either they’re still alive and ruling, in which case I feel we should hear about them more often, or they’re dead/abdicated/kept in a living state of torturous hell in one of Bowser’s dungeons, in which case Peach should be an actual Queen, not just a Princess, right?
Oh, whatever. Her challenge is accepted by over half a dozen lunatics each with their eyes on the nation-spanning prize, and each with their own different motivations. Princess Peach is racing herself, of course, because she needs something to do between her 11.00 AM manicure and 2.00 PM appointment for vacantly staring out of the window, but a series of allies and enemies have also appeared on the starting line. Mario is in the pocket of Big Plumbing and also wants to instigate prima noctae, Luigi hopes to have his brother executed, the lowly Toad wishes to make a communist utopia and massacre the bourgeoisie, Bowser wants a totalitarian state through which he can carefully begin his extermination plan of the Toads themselves (spoiler alert: it’s a frying pan), Yoshi and Donkey Kong Jr. each want to dissolve the governmental system in preparation for a primal, survival-of-the-fittest world where the advantage goes to those with the ability to swallow objects larger than themselves or the ability to throw barrels respectively, and that one measly Koopa Trooper who showed up just wants to create a fair, just state where personal freedoms are balanced equally against sensible legislation to protect the disadvantaged, which may go some way to explaining why he never, ever wins. No, seriously – NEVER.
Now the race is on to see who can claim several thousand square miles of fungus farmland for themselves, as they battle to the death on weaving race tracks covered in more death traps than an Indiana Jones temple, slinging scavenged munitions, old fruit and whatever else they can find at each other until everyone is dead or until the final flag flutters across the burnt, bloody battlefield and somebody can stagger onto the victor’s podium.
Well, then, let the games begin. Ave Imperator Peach, qui nos ad lapsum ariera salutant! (Which I think translates as “Hail Peach, we who are about to slip on banana skins salute you.” I’m sure the Latin Nazis will leap down my throat if there’s any of it wrong, and I’d like to retort by reminding them they bothered to learn Latin.)
Oh boy howdy, I’d forgotten about the visual horror of that period in time where 3D polygons weren’t around yet, but everybody was still trying to do 3D anyway, using 2D sprites arranged on various planes to awkwardly move around each other like the world’s most complicated line dancing routine.
Which is not to say early 3D polygons necessarily looked better (they were usually just as bad, giving the appearance that you were being attacked by origami horrors from the land of the geometry people, see Ocarina of Time for a prime example) but two-and-half-D, as it’s often referred to, comes with its own batch of problems, namely the perspective. Playing 2.5D games makes me feel like somebody stole my glasses and one of my eyeballs to boot, so judging relative distances with any kind of precision is an exercise in futility and optician bills. Judging when to fire your green shell is so inaccurate that you might as well just shoot it into the lava pit straight away and save yourself the bother, and none of the character models feel like they any kind of depth, looking like cutouts wobbling around the track on tiny little Roombas.
None of this would be as bad if the actual visual design looked any good, which it doesn’t. Nintendo, what the hell happened to the gorgeous, arresting, and above all else clean style of Super Mario World from the previous year? All the character models look too small for their own good, meaning there aren’t enough pixels for any elegant design, and the landscape is a garish, swirling, weaving vortex of primary colours, like pouring several tons of food colouring into a whirlpool and trying to sail across it without drowning or getting seasick. And though the music’s actually quite good in a chipper sort of way, it’s hard to hear when there’s a sound effect triggered every other second, not to mention the constant hairdryer whine of everybody’s go-kart beetling around the track.
Like I said, I went into Super Mario Kart with a notable sense of unease, but after playing half a dozen matches with a close friend and coming out the other side with a smile on my face, I realised I was having fun! Yes, finally! Maybe I’ll get lucky and have it happen more than three times this year! I already saw that hedgehog get run over on my way back from the cinema, so there’s been two solidly enjoyable days in 2017 already.
Unfortunately a thought occurred and I tried playing Super Mario Kart on my own, and within ten minutes my smile had frozen and warped into a stiff-lipped expression of startled disappointment. Because hanging out with friends is fun all on its own, and Super Mario Kart… well, not so much. After all, it’s basically impossible to review any game objectively when you’ve got the bonds of companionship elevating the overall experience. Having somebody on hand to share the trauma of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties might’ve lessened the horror considerably, but that doesn’t make it good. Likewise, I used to think that Grand Theft Auto V was fairly solid, up until the point where I played it on my own and realised it was basically a string of loosely-connected rich-kid’s toys strung weakly together by witless humour and low intentions.
But Super Mario Kart isn’t bad in the same way, it’s just kind of dull, with relatively stale track design and items that don’t really have any punch to them. I’m not really angry about this because I know I’m looking at a very old game that’s had years of upgrades and sequels since it came out, but here’s the thing: Nintendo are still charging money right now to play it, so yeah, it has to be judged on how it holds up against other, current games. After all, it’s operating in the same market as those sequels at time of writing, and anybody who’s browsed the retro games section on the Nintendo market has almost certainly felt that sharp intake of breath when they see the slightly outrageous pricing on games from over twenty years ago.
I think the word that best describes Super Mario Kart gameplay is “drunkenly.” Everything feels a bit unwieldy and tends to slide around more than you want it to, probably partly due to the aforementioned perspective problem caused by the graphics tech of the time. I never feel like I’m actually up against the other kart racers, because their AI is so simplistic it could be out-strategised by a patch of dry rot. What you’re actually battling is the controls and simple physics, and that’s not quite the same thing, nor is it necessarily as enjoyable. It feels like I’ve been sabotaged before the race began, having my tires replaced with icy cylinders with all the gripping power of an arthritic seal. As a result, all the items and little shortcuts exist for me not to battle equally with my enemies, but to hamper the other racers long enough to let me catch up, like adding a fat guy to the Olympic 100 metre dash and claiming it’s fair because he’s got a stun gun.
The long and short of it was that once I got a handle on how to compensate for all the sliding around, the game became so insultingly easy that no difficulty increase could compensate. I know that’s like saying “once I became the world’s greatest marksman, all those archery contests were a doddle,” but I’m rubbish at driving games, and the gap between being an inexperienced crap-out and becoming the apparent reincarnation of Schumacher took less than an hour, which coincidentally marked the point at which I found my patience beginning to seriously wane with Super Mario Kart. Because if all the items are boring, and the courses don’t feel meaningfully different, and the challenge was quickly evaporating, and there was nothing else to build up towards because everything’s unlocked from the start, then what was I playing for? When the answer didn’t really provide itself, I realised it was time to stop playing.
I still struggle to say Super Mario Kart is bad, because I’m not sure that it is, I just think it’s suffered quite a lot over the passage of time and been surpassed more often than is really good for it. I’d probably be recommending this back in 1992 (you know, if I’d been born), but standards of what to expect from racing games has changed in the quarter-century since then and some things just don’t apply anymore. I’ll give Super Mario Kart this, the more reasonable items and low-tier attacks make it feel like there’s more focus on racing than just pulling the right weapon from random crates, but it’s lacking a certain panache that would definitely come from the later games like Double Dash.