It’s easy to take Super Mario Kart for granted considering just how far the franchise has come since its inception in 1992. Mario Kart is a series that improves on itself logically and linearly with each iteration, more so than any other Nintendo property. Of course, each entry is designed to stand on its own with a unique identity, but even a game like Double Dash— which is built around one core concept that was never revisited— has clear mechanical and design similarities with its 3D predecessor, Mario Kart 64, and each of its successors. There’s a uniform quality to how Mario Kart presents its mechanics and track design, linking all the way back to the original game on the SNES. Where Super Mario Kart is the foundation on which every subsequent game has built itself upon, however, it also remains the most uniquely designed entry in the franchise.
Starting with Mario Kart 64, Nintendo began designing the series with 3D sensibilities in mind. Even Super Circuit, the franchise’s only other 2D entry alongside the original, has arguably more in common with 64 than it does SMK. Tracks have more spatial depth, characters control with considerably more leeway, and the overall difficulty curve in order to be more accessible to general audiences. This is a trend that can be noted in every game after the original, but one that cannot be applied to the original. Super Mario Kart is 2D through and through which means it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles 3D offers. Not that it needs it, though.
In no way whatsoever is Super Mario Kart a lesser game because it isn’t designed in the same way as its successors (or because it’s 2D for that matter.) To this day, Super Mario Kart features some of the tightest track design and controls in the franchise, if not the downright tightest. Arguably to a fault. The biggest roadblock fans of Mario Kart might find when revisiting the original is just how difficult it is in comparison to the rest of the series. 50cc is simple enough, but 100cc immediately demands a level of mechanical understand that’s more or less reserved for 150cc nowadays.
Super Mario Kart is a rather simple game when broken down to its core mechanics, but only deceptively so. One wrong move can spell disaster and cost a race, a blow that hurts all the more considering tracks are 5 laps long. Someone playing through Super Mario Kart for the first time might find the game discouraging as a result. Even back in the day, the humble racer offered quite a level of challenge. Like F-Zero before it, Super Mario Kart demanded players get good or stop playing before. Thankfully Nintendo wasn’t so tactless as to just toss new racers into the deep end.
Whether it be played through 50cc or 100cc, the Mushroom Cup makes for one of the best “tutorials” on the SNES. While not a tutorial in a conventional or traditional sense, each of the Mushroom Cup’s five tracks work to gradually reveal the importance of the core mechanics at play while also introducing track types and track hazards. By the end of the fifth and final track, an attentive player should have a well-rounded understanding of what Super Mario Kart expects from them.
Mario Circuit 1 is, understandably, the easiest track in the game. Although its main purpose is to simply allows racers to acclimate to the controls, there are multiple ways in which the track allows for deeper mechanical understanding while offering a safe space to experiment. As a track, Mario Circuit 1 doesn’t even require drifting. A player can simply hold down B to accelerate and turn on the D-pad when necessary. At the same time, Mario Circuit 1 is one of the best courses to try drifting in as its road is spacious enough where players won’t necessarily go off-road should they chance a drift with a particularly wide arc.
For those struggling with drifting, but nonetheless practicing the maneuver, Mario Circuit 1 offers a space where hopping thrives. Since drifting can go wrong in unsteady hands, sometimes hopping is a better alternative for new players. By simply pressing L or R, players can trigger a brief bounce. Said bounce can be used to jump over small gaps (or in rare cases even items) in later tracks, but it also serves as a means of readjusting one’s position. With a well-timed hop, a kart can change its trajectory without committing to a full-on drift.
It is worth noting, however, that drifting is a faster alternative to hopping at all times. A well-timed drift can lead into a mini-turbo. While nowhere near as useful as in later entries, mini-turbos are brief bursts of speed that save quite a lot of time when pulled off properly. Super Mario Kart perhaps has the hardest mini-turbos to pull off in the series, but Mario Circuit 1 offers a reasonable track to practice turning a drift into a full-on speed boost. Of course, Super Mario Kart doesn’t always make it so easy to pull off its mechanics as evidenced by its second track.
While not remotely difficult in the slightest, Donut Plains 1 does up the ante considerably coming hot off the trails of Mario Circuit 1. Where off-roading is relatively forgiving in MC1 (going so far as to featuring an off-road shortcut that actually doesn’t waste any time should a player take it without a mushroom or star,) Donut Plains 1 has grass that slows racers down considerably, walled off areas to keep players on the road, open water to sink anyone still driving without abandon, and a large chunk of mud right before the finish line to punish players hugging the edge of the track.
Where Mario Circuit 1 presents a safe space to introduce the mechanics, Donut Plains 1 ditches that safety in favor of refinement. The physically tighter, curvier paths punish poor drifts far more than before. Racers need to be mindful of how they’re drifting so not to veer off course. Coming back to the track in MC1 was generally quite easy and didn’t eat up too much time, but DP1 can be quite punishing in this regard thanks to the walls.
Walls themselves likewise encourage players to really nail down their drifts. Where off-roading at least keeps the player actively moving off course, hitting a wall stops a kart dead in its tracks. Of course, walls in Donut Plains 1 are spread out far enough where players are rarely in danger of this happening (save for a lap on 150cc gone horribly wrong,) but their presence still serves to highlight just how early Super Mario Kart introduces a major concept. Hazards aren’t too damning during the Mushroom Cup, but they very quickly start to pose a threat.
The water in Donut Plains 1 is a nice warning of this. It’s very unlikely a player will drift so poorly they’ll land themselves in the water, but the pool is still a presence, one that gets immediately fleshed out in the next track: Ghost Valley 1. Essentially Donut Plains 1 taken to an extreme, Ghost Valley 1 demands stability above all else. Where the water in the previous track simply submerged players for a few seconds, Ghost Valley 1 features a course that outright allows racers to fall off. Worse yet, any walls on the track are only there temporarily and fall off once hit. A player falling into the pattern of colliding off walls will soon find themselves pummeling into the abyss below.
To its credit, Ghost Valley 1 is not so cruel as to expect the world from players right away. Due to the sharper turns and bottomless pits, the course is wider as a whole, much more in line with what Mario Circuit 1 offered. Keeping complete control of the kart is crucial here as drifting to the point of spinning out or simply veering at a bad time can land a player straight off the road. It isn’t a particularly difficult course when mastered— it’s realistically the easiest track in the Mushroom Cup other than Mario Circuit 1— but it serves as a good training spot for other tracks, especially one of the Ghost Valley variant. Perhaps most importantly, GV1 places shortcuts front and center.
While shortcuts existed in Mario Circuit 1 and Donut Plains 1, they were both off-road cuts that could only be pulled off with a mushroom or star. Even then, the former’s shortcut offers no time penalties should a player take it anyways. Ghost Valley 1’s shortcut, on the other hand, is downright impossible to pull off without a feather. By using the feather, players can jump onto a strip of land right in front of the finish line. Said shortcut isn’t so over and done with, however, as landing requires players to veer towards the finish line lest they immediately drive off course.
By this point in the cup, players should intrinsically know how to: hop, drift, pull off a mini-turbo, look for shortcuts, and keep their karts stable. Each track adds in new obstacles to look out for, but there’s a clear progression in how tracks play off each other and compromises are often made so not to make one track considerably harder than the others. That said, this design mentality gets thrown out the window when it comes to Bowser Castle 1, a track that very well could have served as the cup’s final course.
Bowser Castle 1 introduces four major concepts: lava which more or less serves as a brighter version of Ghost Valley 1’s bottomless pits; zippers which give players a burst of speed; Thwomps which serve as moving hazards, potentially crushing players as they dink under them or blocking them in their path; and bumpers that cause a player to bounce when run over. Combined, these elements make for a hectic track with danger at every turn.
The track itself has its own learning curve of sorts, dedicating the first lap to simply allowing players a chance to feel the layout. As Thwomps stay stationary in the air during the first lap, there’s no real danger to a player other than themselves. By this point, drifts should at the very least be maneuvered carefully so giving racers a clear view of the Thwomps before they activate is a fair way of warning them that “something” is coming. Of course, a visual tell can only do so much.
With Thwomps rising and falling, it’s more important than ever to drift well. Being crushed by a Thwomp flattens a kart while hitting a Thwomp usually cuts a few seconds off each lap since players need to wait for it to rise. Good drifting, on the other hand, will see the player cutting through the field of Thwomps, landing themselves right on the bumpers, veering right back into another set of bumpers, and drifting towards the finish line. Super Mario Kart doesn’t just teach its player base through punishment; skilled players are rewarded.
The zippers themselves are an interesting concept, albeit one that might not necessarily benefit the game. While racing, CPUs have specific patterns. They will always turn a certain way, drive a certain way, and stick to a certain path. This can actually be used to one’s advantage since they’ll know where to plant items, but it also results in CPUs missing out on taking advantage of the track. CPU racers will never hit the zippers, not even on 150cc. Because of this, players get a clear advantage when hitting a zipper, one the computer controlled characters don’t have. (Though that’s perhaps for the best considering Super Mario Kart CPUs love to cheat.)
While Bowser Castle 1 is epic enough in scope and scale to serve as a suitable finale, that honor belongs to none other than Mario Circuit 2. A bookend of sorts, Mario Circuit 2 brings players back to a familiar setting, trims down the hazards, and features plenty of room to practice techniques in a skilled manner. Where Mario Circuit 1 encourages basic understanding, Mario Circuit 2 promotes basic mastery. Good drifting here is just as rewarding as in Bowser Castle 2, and the zippers near the end of the track can be used to curve the player into a drift towards the finish line.
Walls make a return appearance (the nonbreaking kind,) and oil slicks are introduced as a hazard that makes racers spin out, but there’s nothing particularly threatening about Mario Circuit 2. Most of the damage that can be inflicted will either be from CPUs or from poor playing. MC2 is designed to be a straight up race first and foremost, keeping gimmicks to the sideline and giving racers a track where they can put their skills to the test. On 150cc, a dexterous hand is more or less necessary to get through Mario Circuit 2 in the top four.
By the time players are (hopefully) taking center stage on the podium, the Mushroom Cup’s infinite wisdom will have brushed off. Or at the very least, players will understand what Super Mario Kart expects out of them as a game. Without needing to put a single piece of text to screen, SMK teachers exclusively through its visuals and design. Such a feat is downright rare to run into nowadays, but it’s a trend that Mario Kart continues for the most part. Super Mario Kart may not be as clearly polished as later entries, but it doesn’t particularly need to be. It has its own charm, its own style, and plenty to love. The Mushroom Cup shows that off in spades.