This week marked the 20th anniversary of Super Mario Kart's release in Europe - a game that would fuel an entire genre for years to come and birth a franchise that would see a new instalment across each subsequent Nintendo platform, both home console and portable. Many would come to try to claim Mario Kart's throne, many mascots and their chums would strive to prove that they could do kart racing better, but there really is nothing quite so appealling or so addictive as hooning around a gloriously designed set of tracks plucked from Nintendo's archives of excellence.
On SNES, N64, Gamecube, and Wii we punched the air in victory, often our friends in defeat; we prayed that the smiling gods would bless us with the right colour of shell or adverse weather conditions; we learnt how to make blue sparks fly from our wheels, and how to time a feather or a mushroom perfectly for maximum advantage. We learned to hate Lakitu's smug face as he fished us out of the ether for the tenth time on Rainbow Road. There was always time for just one more race, and never a good enough excuse to put the controller down. Across four generations of Nintendo consoles, it's been the standard-setter for pick-up-and-play multiplayer goodness, for ghost-busting time trials, and vehicle-based battling shenanigans.
But naturally, reminiscing about the series led to a spot of verbal handbags. Which was better: Super Mario Kart or Mario Kart 64?And so, in the first of what we hope might prove to be a series of semi-regular features, we bring you the premier instalment of...The Showdown. Forget the Clash of the Titans, forget the Rumble in the Jungle, here stand two games and two champions - two arguments for two causes. But only one can be crowned victorious. We'll stake our claims, and then we'll let you decide the winner...
Matt Gardner - Super Mario Kart (SNES - 1992/3)
What happens if you squish the finesse of F-Zero together with the family appeal of Mario and his colourful chums? Well, back in the early Nineties, a few people at Nintendo clearly mulled this question over, then stuck the two things in a blender and created Super Mario Kart.
When it comes to picking a favourite, generally people will default to the game with which they grew up. So it is that the argument between the SNES and PS2 (which happens every time we try to pick a greatest console of all time) often comes down to when you were born. Which game were you rushing home to play after school? Which instalment was permanently in your Ninty console for beer and pizza nights at uni?
The first Mario Kart game I owned, was MK64, I never owned a SNES as a kid (Mega Drive fanboy right here!), and I loved it. But if you're looking for the definitive Mario Kart experience, there's only one of the games that's really going to cut the mustard...
There are two words which will essentially render this argument completely null and void: rubber banding. The fact is that Super Mario Kart wasn't just the definitive karter of its day, but to this day it provides the only Mario Kart experience that provides an excellent racing experience. The handling was tight, the items perfectly balanced, and it was tough. Really tough. But the game rewarded you for excellent driving and superior, tactical use of your items. The AI was superlative for the time, it would push you hard, make it extremely difficult to overtake and then, if you managed to get out in front, it would pursue you relentlessly, desperately trying to force you into a mistake. It taught you to rely first and foremost on your driving skills, not hope against hope that the luck of the item carousel would swing a race in your favour. As such, it kind of removed the element of luck from proceedings. If you drove well, you'd win, if you lost, you'd usually only have yourself to blame. It made every race matter, every victory satisfying in a way that other racers, let alone karting games, could only dream of.
The coins (sadly dropped for MK64 and its home console sequels) and the speed mechanics combined to present a challenge never successfully replicated in other karters. MK64's karts top out very quickly, even the fat bastard ones; but SMK was all about steadily accumulating pace, driving carefully to maintain it, watching out for projectiles from behind, and maintaining a healthy supply of coins to avoid being barged into and spinning out of control. The abandoning of these mechanics would greatly lower the bar for competitive karting, making successors more friendly, but the thrills would forever after come the quirky randomness of events rather than the full knowledge that you'd won because you were awesome. Although all Mario Kart games would contain time trial runs, they were never quite so fun, nor as nuanced, as they were here.
The soundtrack was brilliant (just you try getting the original theme to Mario Circuit out of your head after the runthrough), with each of the eight characters on offer rocking their own unique themes alongside their idiosyncratic special weapons. Rosters would increase in size as the series progressed, weapons more numerous and varied, but none would feel as special as this. We'd grow to curse DK Jr.'s constant banana squits, and part of that had to do with the taut level design. Everything was designed to test and challenge you, whilst still maintaining fast, frenetic, fun-filled racing action. From the disappearing barricades of Ghost Valley to the perilous twists of Rainbow Road, SMK gave us a number of tracks that have simply never been bettered, including the best Battle Mode venue of all time: Battle Mode Course 4.
As for not providing a low enough barrier to entry for beginners, I first played SMK at the tender age of seven over at a friend's house. It made me grumpy when I lost. It made me jump about like a loon when I won. I started having Mario Kart dreams. It gave me my first taste of competitive gaming (Worms aside)...I never looked back.
The Short Version: Super Mario Kart not only provided the template for an entire genre, and proved with its bastard children that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but it provided a karting experience grounded in sublime mechanics that delivered varied play. Instead of relying on the randomness of an increasing item roster, SMK empowered players to excel, whilst still creating an attractive proposition for newcomers. For better or worse (definitely worse) subsequent Mario Kart games could see The World's Worst Mario Kart Player claim first place through sheer luck. Where do you go from there? Back to the nuanced, perfectly formed, hugely competitive, absurdly fast tracks of SMK, that's where.
Chris Hyde - Mario Kart 64 (N64 - 1996/7)
It’s got Wario in it – nuff said, NEXT!
But in all seriousness when I think about why Mario Kart 64 is the best Mario Kart iteration of the series, all I need to do is think back to my schooldays of playing it with friends. The first obvious point to mention is that now there appears to be 2 more people hugged round the console, and not just those weird people who just “want to watch”. Nope, there are 4 of us taking part simultaneously; it is local multiplayer at its very best.
So we start at the Character Selection screen, and there’s a race on to pick our favourite character. But we’re not picking them for their acceleration or speed (although I was convinced Toad was fastest) but more that we wanted to be our favourite characters because of their personalities. Whether it was camp Toad with his “Yahoo” or DK with the worst monkey impression I have ever heard, we all had favourites. Characters we actually cared about. In a racing game.
We then pick our track to race on, and there are more arguments. Do we go on Yoshi Valley with its multiple routes? Do we race Toad’s Turnpike with its oncoming traffic chaos? Or is it even time for the seminal Rainbow Road? Or do I go bolder? I know I’ve spent weeks trying to perfect the “unofficial” shortcuts on Mario Raceway and Wario Stadium on Time Trial. I could look awesome in front of my friends, or I could mess it up and look like a fool and get a last place for my troubles too. I go for it and select Wario Stadium.
So we get to racing, and I nail the shortcut from the line, and BOOM I’m in front. Things are going good. My joy is tarnished when I hear that sound that every karter fears – the sound of the Blue Shell. But it’s not enough, my lead is a heck of a way, and by the last lap it’s looking fairly safe. The newly-introduced triple green shells and banana bunches I’ve been getting are doing their job of protecting me. I’m getting confident, but for some reason one of my friends is smirking. He’s got no reason to be happy – I’m whooping his ass. And then I see his item, but it’s too late. I get struck with his Lightning just before the jump, and go plummeting down below – back half a lap. From first to last in a second and the race ends with me at the back of the pack. And the mocking banter ensues.
What this little anecdote does is present a wealth of reasons why this game is brilliant. The characters themselves were packed full of personality and variety, thanks to great voice acting and design. The sublime mix of tracks which were real environments rather than just racecourses – coupled with improvements to the design of the Battle Mode arenas made all modes in Mario Kart much more enjoyable. Then what Nintendo did was take a staple item list, and overhaul it and for a much more balanced experience. Shells come in trios for offensive and defensive options, as do mushrooms for shortcut potential. The introduction of the Blue Shell, Fake Box and Turbo Mushroom all added different dimensions to the racing and added more tactics than ever before. It all came together to build on what Super Mario Kart had created on the SNES and improve it into a game that provided me with the most fun I have ever had with a kart racing game.
And for me these are the reasons why this is the greatest Mario Kart of all time,
PS Feathers are for cheats!
The Short Version: When I think about why Mario Kart 64 is the best Mario Kart iteration, for me it’s a simple culmination of having a solid base from its predecessor, and making notable improvements in track design and variety, items, soundtrack and character personality. Sure some of this is down to the fact it launched later, where these improvements were possible. But the truly great games make the most of the hand they were dealt at the time, and for me Mario Kart 64 is the closest in the series we have to perfection in that respect.
It's audience participation time! We've made our pitches and staked our claims, now it's time for you to vote for a victor. Which is better: Super Mario Kart or Mario Kart 64?
If you've got a couple of video games you'd like to see pitted together in a future Showdown, let us know here. If there's interest we'll make it a regular thing, fuelled by community suggestions, and possibly get some of you to champion your choices onsite yourselves should you wish.