Mario Kart is a franchise often considered by fans to improve with each entry. In a sense, they aren’t necessarily wrong. The very nature of Mario Kart– the recycling of former tracks and the lateral development of core mechanics– signifies that the series understands how to logically improve itself while also catering to the attachment fans are bound to have to individual entries. Of course, this isn’t to say that each installment is inherently better than the last, but that Mario Karts gradual, game to game, improvements are ones rooted in a fundamental understanding of the core concepts at play.
Every kart need not be created equally, nor should they be; tracks should teach a player just as much as they challenge them; and controls should be tight and precise so that gameplay flows as naturally as possible at all times. These principles are as relevant today as they were in 1992 when Super Mario Kart originally released for the Super Famicom. Initially designed as a multiplayer counterpart to F-Zero’s single player focus, Super Mario Kart’s track design had to simplified in order to accommodate the Super Famicom’s hardware limitations. With two players actively playing on the same plane at once, Nintendo needed to show moderation with their level design.
Which, in itself, is quite the blessing. True creativity flourishes under limitation. While Super Mario Kart’s tracks are simpler than F-Zero’s on a surface level, they are by no means worse. The simplicity at play in any given track’s design is a massive boon in the game’s favor. Beyond simply twisting and turning or going with the flow of the race while trying to speed past other racers, Super Mario Kart placed an emphasis on a degree of dynamic gameplay that the racing genre had been lacking in 2D.
With simpler tracks comes shorter tracks which, in turn, result in a gameplay loop where players are perpetually drifting as turns come fast and frequent. Of course, the game does ease players in quite generously. Mario Circuit 1 in the Mushroom Cup effectively opens the franchise and does so with a grace. There are only five major turns per lap, allowing players the opportunity to learn the controls, understand the importance of drifting, and acclimate themselves with the use of items.
By Ghost Valley 1, the first cup’s third track, the safety net has more or less been removed as racers now have to deal with pits and tight turns with tighter curves. The early tracks showcase that although Super Mario Kart is easy to play, it is not easy to master. This is pushed even by the cc system. Split across three separate classes, the cc system determines how fast the game plays. In 50cc, karts move at their slowest possible fastest pace, allowing players quite a bit of time to think ahead and react; 100cc speeds up the pace considerably, highlighting the importance of quick reflexes; and 150cc ups the speed to its possible max, acting as a player’s final challenge.
While these are universal truths for the whole franchise, Super Mario Kart not only has its own design oddities, its brand of difficulty is quite different when compared to later entries. 150cc in particular, when compared to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s depiction of the class, is in a league of its own. There is next to no room for error in Super Mario Kart’s version of 150cc. What 200cc, a bonus mode, is for Deluxe, 150cc, the final intended tier of challenge, is for Super. Later entries in the series offer a bit of leeway when it comes to 150cc, but Super Mario Kart demands a master’s level of skill.
This is to say nothing of Super Mario Kart’s control scheme. There is a sensitivity to the kart’s movements, one that might not be noticeable on 50cc. In later classes, it becomes quite clear just how much control the player has and just how precise they need to be in order to maneuver properly. A genuine amount of skill is required to clear tracks in 100cc, let alone actually place well in 150cc. Super Mario Kart’s skill ceiling is far higher than any other game in the franchise, at least in terms of mandatory content.
Although it can be argued that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s 200cc class is the greater challenge, it is important to consider its nature as an additional mode. MK8 was not designed with 200cc in mind, only releasing after the fact in a free update. As a result, while 200cc is a greater tier of challenge, it is not a part of the core experience. Super Mario Kart, on the other hand, actively builds up to 150cc as the game’s end goal. Super Mario Kart isn’t truly over until players complete 150cc’s Special Cup. Which in itself speaks to how unique SMK’s role in the series is.
While, of course, every entry in the series is designed with a dedicated single player mode in mind, Super Mario Kart has its fair share of eccentricities to flesh out a solo player’s experience. For starters, CPU racers actually have their own, distinct items that cannot be used by the player (for the most part.) Bowser can shoot fireballs; Yoshi can shoot out eggs; and while players can also grab their own stars, Mario and Luigi both have their own unique stars to trigger when in a pinch.
This may seem like a trivial distinction, especially considering how later entries simply have the CPUs use their own set of items, but it’s a distinction that gives Super Mario Kart a very specific identity. CPU racers are not homogeneous and are, more often than not, actively antagonistic towards the players. They target racers with their own unique abilities meaning players can strategize around which CPUs are racing well. If Peach or Toad are doing particularly well, players know to look out for their poison mushroom, as touching it will shrink them and cause them to lose speed.
It may seem simple, and it is, but that simplicity is exactly what makes Super Mario Kart such an engaging racer. It doesn’t have the depth of its successors (both in terms of physical space and mechanics,) but it isn’t lacking in depth either. Rather, Super Mario Kart’s depth comes from what could be done with the Super Famicom’s 2D space. In fact, SMK is almost arcade-like in its design when compared to later entries, Mario Kart 64 especially.
The shift from 2D to 3D for Mario Kart was an important one as it marked a definitive end to Super Mario Kart’s very specific formula of gameplay. While the series would briefly return to 2D with Mario Kart: Super Circuit, the franchise would never quite again center itself the way it once did during the Super Famicom era. This is not to say that later entries stray away from some gold standard that the original game set, but that Super Mario Kart’s arcade-like structure— the emphasis on progressing difficulty, CPUs using set abilities that can be planned around, and reflex based gameplay that depends an understanding of each track— was never quite revisited with the same fervor.
In changing so little between console generations, Mario Kart changed so much. It goes to show just how different 2D and 3D game design can be. Mario Kart 64 is more or less a perfect interpretation of Super Mario Kart in a 3D space. All the core concepts translate well, creating a racing game that lives up to the spirit of the original while taking advantage of a 3D plane. At the same time, the shift to 3D meant that certain 2D sensibilities wouldn’t necessarily work. Or at the very least, were no longer necessary in any sense.
A 3D plane allows players to interact with the space with more freedom. As a result, turns, while certainly tight, are inherently less demanding. There is more room for error just on a geometric level. This doesn’t make either style worse or better, but it does create quite a difference. It’s also worth noting that Mario Kart 64 is difficult in its own right, and compares better in challenge to SMK than other entries in the series. At the same time, is isn’t as difficult nor is it difficult in the same ways. Super Mario Kart’s challenge relies staunchly on just how much Nintendo expected its audience to master the mechanics at play.
Mario Kart as a whole tends not to carry a skill heavy label, but the franchise is rooted in a need for skill. It’s important to consider not just how a title’s core mechanics work, but how a game is structured. 50cc may as well be a borderline tutorial given just how much 100cc ups the difficulty in Super Mario Kart. 150cc isn’t even playable until players conquer 100cc, meaning that it genuinely is the final challenge. One that needs to be earned; built up to. It’s an incredibly simple structure, but one unique to Super Mario Kart in all respects. Later entries offer 150cc from the get-go (rightfully,) and aren’t inherently designed with players tackling each cup in each class one at a time to better themselves.
In that sense, Super Mario Kart is designed as a more traditional single player experience despite the fact that it was specifically designed with multiplayer in mind. But that, in itself, speaks to the changing of generations, the shift from 2D to 3D design sensibilities, and the very nature of progression within the medium. Why shouldn’t a modern, competitive racing game allow players access to every mode right from the offset? Logically, fans of Mario Kart want the full Mario Kart experience right away as expected from the eighth entry in a decades long franchise. That’s the thing, though, Super Mario Kart was its own, new beast entirely, unburdened by fan expectations.
Without anything other than F-Zero to look back on for inspiration, Super Mario Kart was essentially creating the modern kart racer, a genre still alive to this day— albeit primarily through Mario Kart itself. Naturally, no first step is going to be completely refined and will often feature its fair share of oddities. Along with the aforementioned qualities more or less exclusive to the original, Super Mario Kart was also home to: perpetual split screen due to a mini-map that took up half the screen even when playing alone; item blocks that would only respawn after every single block on the track was triggered; and five tracks split into five laps each for the available cups.
Since item boxes wouldn’t just respawn at the end of a lap like in later titles, players either had to use their items strategically or alter their course to seek boxes once they started dwindling. What seems like a design oversight on Nintendo’s part actually lends itself to a more dynamic style of racing. Items aren’t a given, they’re a legitimate luxury the longer a race lasts. As races are five laps long, it can be nerve wracking to miss that one remaining box all while knowing that CPUs have their own unique items they can call upon at any given moment. It’s quite the stressor and it makes sense why Nintendo would fine-tune item boxes (technically item panels in Super Mario Kart,) but it nonetheless makes for gameplay loop unique to SMK.
The mere fact that laps and tracks are both longer than average when compared to the successor games is also worth noting. Cups in Super Mario Kart feel like endurance matches where the tides can and will turn from lap to lap. Of course, five laps and five tracks are done mainly to mask just how short some tracks are, but even Mario Circuit 1 is long enough where a genuine back and forth is bound to happen. Once players hit 150cc, chaos naturally erupt and each race turns into a battle to not just reach first place, but stay in it. Carelessness is relentlessly punished at every literal turn.
Which, frankly, is what makes Super Mario Kart so engaging twenty-odd years after the fact. Super Mario Kart is a game so clearly limited by its hardware and by its genre’s infancy where it might make mistakes that seem obvious at a first glance. At the same time, these “mistakes” more often than not lead to creative solutions and outcomes which allow SMK to flourish in a way completely specific to itself in the context of the greater Mario Kart franchise. There have been decades of Mario Kart games since, but Super Mario Kart remains in a class of its own.