We celebrated the Mario Kart series' twentieth birthday in Europe this week, and marked it with the first in what will hopefully become a semi-regular series of gaming showdowns - pitting the SNES original against its N64 successor. Of course, when it comes to picking a best Mario Kart game (let's face it, the portable ones rock the hardest), the GameCube's instalment - Double Dash - tends to be left out in the cold, having attempted to stuff the franchise with a number of seemingly-superfluous additions, and suffered some rather disappointing lapses when it comes to inventive design.
It says much about the game when the most enjoyable track in the whole thing turned out to be a simple oval. After the excellent driving mechanics exhibited in Super Mario Kart, and the superb track layouts in MK64 afforded by the 3D engine, Double Dash's recourse was to feed more items into the mix, have two characters per kart, and throw as many colourful things into the ideas blender as possible, whilst nixing the hop so favoured by time trial aficionados.
There's an argument to be made that Mario Kart: Double Dash was, to borrow a fellow writer's description, a complete and utter mess.
But mess can be fun. Food fights, mud wrestling, that scene in Zombieland where the protagonists go into that abandoned store and smash everything to pieces. There's a reason why Double Dash was stuck in our Gamecube at uni for years, and that reason was named 'Baby Park'.
Seven laps, a simple oval, and all of the items you could possibly want. After one lap, the track is littered with bananas great and small, and karts are spinning out of control everywhere. By the end of the second, there's an enormous spiked present from Bowser marauding back and forth across the central partition, two Chain Chomps have abandoned their drivers and are merrily romping down the straights. Green and red shells abound, and if they miss their targets the first time, they simply rebound and ricochet back into the rest of the field. A blue shell knocks out the first few racers and the back of the field becomes the front, changing hands once again within the next couple of laps.
But oh how we loved it! With the lack of decent Battle modes, Baby Park became our Thunderdome. It didn't matter whether you were young or old, or indeed how well you knew the game. There was still room for skill, though it now came in the form of chaining powerslides where ever possible and deft manoeuvring. If you could steer, and knew how and when to use your items, you had a chance. Hell, even if you didn't you still had a chance. You could find yourself a lap behind everyone else at the halfway mark, and still find a way to win.
For better or for worse, Baby Park proved a great leveller - not just for skill, but for enjoyment. Hardcore gamers, young children, smiling grandparents, drunk pals who could barely see the screen, anyone could play, anyone could enjoy themselves. All stood a chance of snatching victory. Our gripes went out of the window, all of our complaints were forgotten in the frenzied scramble to the finish line. In many ways you could point towards this particular level in this particular game as the perfect example of how Mario Kart lost its way, but as soon as you picked up the controller, you'd be lost in the fun.
The over-reliance on items throughout the game, and the lack of inspiring levels would be an issue that saw many returning to previous Mario Kart titles, but when Double Dash truly embraced its anarchic tendencies, it proved utterly enthralling. One track, three cases of beer, seven hours, Dominos on speed dial. Job done.