When it comes to racing games, there's nearly always at least one track that separates the wheat from the chaff. Though free-for-all arenas such as Double Dash's Baby Park provide frenetic, item-led affairs that see racers switch and swap every second, there are always courses that require concentration and focus, knowing that one slip-up can result in karter and chariot careering helplessly into a sparkling ether.
In the Mario Kart series, that course has always been Rainbow Road.
The original SNES incarnation (so often the case with Nintendo's SNES originals) provided the steepest challenge. High pace, right-angle turns, and a complete lack of rails made for tense races . Humps and coins on the yellow tiles injected some variation, Star Thwomps threatened racers with touch and crush, but it was your fellow track users who were always the main threat here. As has always been the case with this particular series of tracks, one little banana slip can lead to a knock-on freefall of failure if you're not careful.
Mario Kart 64 perhaps offered up the easiest introduction to Rainbow Rod, but the sequel also transformed what had been a rather brief track in the SNES game into a test of enduring focus. Starry railings adorned the sides of the track, but it was still possible to slide helplessly into space - especially at 150cc - or have your races halted by earnest Chomps. The steep drop at the start could prove hazardous if you gave it a little hop at the summit and messed up your aim, but adventurous souls could skip a good third of the track either landing directly on the track below, or confusing Lakitu, and leading the floating fisherman to plonk cheeky risk-takers far further down the course than they deserve. Mind you, it was a dangerous move, and often resulted in hilarious failure.
Double Dash! was really all about one thing: boost panels. The helix and air-lift were interesting interesting additions to the formula, but once again it was all about the things that could lead you to fly overboard. Getting a good start down the first bumpy part of the track was worthless if you hit the speed boosts and missed the rails.
Of course, the handheld versions played their part too. Super Circuit gave us more shortcut opportunities, as well as marauding environmental hazards: falling stars that could lead to players spinning wildly out of control, and thunder clouds that could zap and shrink. Mario Kart DS also brought new elements to the party, including a corkscrew and the series' first loop. There was also a nice nod to ages past with R.O.B. as the staff ghost.
The Wii title brought back the massive drop at the start, giving players the opportunity to barge lighter fellows from the track, and falling off meant burning up in the atmosphere rather than being fished from cold expanse of space by Lakitu. Mario Kart 7, meanwhile, saw players racing on the rings of Saturn, and the surface of the Moon; it proved so long, in fact, that there's only one lap, divided up into stages.
Rainbow Road has been a constant across the Mario Kart games, and it's always a true test of awareness and endurance. It's brutal, occasionally psychedelic, teeth-gnashingly competitive, and if you make an error or get left behind early on there's often no way back to the top, but the series wouldn't be the same without it.
My personal favourite is almost certainly the N64 version. I enjoyed the fact that after a host of frantic, shorter circuits, Rainbow Road was more of a distance event. You got to bask in the glorious music as flickering neon nods to Nintendo's past lit the route forward. Even towards the end you needed to be vigilant: a loss of focus and control, or failing to defend against a last-ditch shell from the rear could mean the difference between smiles or controller-shattering rage. True, the CPU cheated outrageously, but nothing could beat the satisfaction of pulling off that shortcut - swerving to the left, hopping the starry barrier, and praying that you'd gotten the angle and the distance right, before punching the air and hoping against hope that you didn't bounce.