It feels as though we are only ever going in circles or hurtling off cliffs.
For most of the Super Nintendo originals so far we have seen series that originated on the NES, and then found more refined forms in the 16-bit era. Super Mario, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Contra, and Zelda all had fantastic games on the Super Nintendo that were either the equal of their NES forebearers or their better.
Here we have something new; a franchise that begins on the Super Nintendo. These days Mario Kart is one of the tentpole releases for a Nintendo platform; just as they all must have a Zelda and a Smash Bros. Here it exists in its primal form, as much a piece of history as Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda.
Time has done it no favors. Almost everything there is to hate about later Mario Kart games is here, along with flaws idiosyncratic to this version, while little of what makes some of the later games classics had been honed here. The rubberbanded AI is at its most cloying, adding a sense of futility to the player’s actions. The race is as capricious as ever, not just in the way that small mistakes are amplified brutally, but in the same infuriating “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” way that makes every game in the series such a hazard to controllers. Here it’s aggravated by the way in which AI opponents can simply spam you with infinite projectiles, often leaping over yours in ways you can’t do to theirs, an asymmetry that gnaws constantly, as opposed to things like the last lap blue shell, which is at least a rare occurrence.
Unique to Super Mario Kart, the increase in difficulty from 50cc and 100cc is completely out of whack. at 50cc the race is tolerant of numerous small mistakes like clipping a wall, and often even of a big one like falling off the course. At 100cc, even small mistakes are likely to cost you victory. Meanwhile, the handling is sloppy; the drifting mechanic that would define every subsequent iteration of the game did not exist yet. Played today, it has a frustrating roughness that is not so much difficulty as alienation. It’s just not much fun.
In 1992, it was a very different kettle of fish. For one thing, not only was it not yet the progenitor of a classic line of games, it was a sequel in all but name. Like F-Zero before it, it is a racing game based on using Mode 7 for the track, creating a pseudo-3D effect that was quite striking for the time. But F-Zero was something of an empty suit of a game; a tech demo without content that became a classic almost in spite of itself, much as Anna described.
Super Mario Kart, then, is the refined attempt - the same gameplay mechanic, only fine-tuned so as to entrance the player far more deeply in it’s spell. The use of Mario characters was certainly part of this. F-Zero fit into the same generically metallic future that the “Lazer Blazer” suite in Super Scope 6 did; this, meanwhile, was a party in the Mushroom Kingdom, a strange truce that brought Donkey Kong and Bowser together, and had them in a free-for-all go-kart race with Mario and Peach. It was insane and wonderful.
The biggest failure of F-Zero, beyond its generic aesthetic and slightly dull races, was that it lacked any two-player mode. You would race against the placid AI or not at all. Super Mario Kart, on other hand, is designed for two; indeed, the single-player mode maintains the split-screen design of the two-player mode despite its utter pointlessness to single-player racing.
There are three two-player modes in total. The first inherits the flaws of the single-player; an eight-racer free for all with all the capricious difficulty, though at least it’s somewhat easier to unlock the Special Cup this way, since the effect of a second human player is to depress the scores of the AI racers. The second, however, is a delight; a head to head race that maintains the madcap thrills, but refines them into a strategic items dual. The resulting game has all the fairness the GP lacks, although it requires players of comparable skill levels; otherwise, it’s easy to lap an opponent humiliatingly.
And then there’s the third, Battle Mode, which provides one of the most exquisite pleasures of the entire sixteen-bit era. Instead of racing, you and your presumable friend drove around Pac-Man style labyrinths, collecting items and firing them at each other, with the first to cause three spin-outs in their opponent the winner. It’s a beautifully well balanced thing; the “ahhhhh stay on the road” dynamic of the main game is present, but without the same sense of immediate penalty. Instead the game is a pleasantly manic process of scrambling around trying to find a still-active question mark block (and moreover one with a useful item), then of trying to find your opponent and get into a position to fire something effectively. The labyrinth and constant motion mean that the two players quickly move in and out of line of sight, and the mutual pursuit a structure with engaging empathy. It is a simple but well-designed game, not enough to justify a full release, at least not without more thought about level design and a robust AI, but a treat.
The fact that its pleasures were largely in multiplayer, however, meant that I was never among the nine million owners of this game. I rented it occasionally. But this meant that I was almost always playing it single-player, a fact that, like the passage of twenty years, did it no favors. But that was the way of my childhood. I was an only child for the NES era, and indeed for a decent chunk of the SNES era: this came out a month before my sister did. And it was not as though she was a suitable video game opponent as an infant; the first game we really shared was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and that required ludicrous handicapping to be even slightly fair.
But I want to be clear, for all that I think the game has aged poorly, I have fond memories of it. It’s a minor but indelible footnote in my creation myth. This, however, is mostly due to the experience of playing friends’ copies, their presence meaning I could access the superior two-player mode. Super Mario Kart was hardly the only game to fall into this category, and we’ll talk about others in good time. But it is, for me, an odd category. Video games were, for my childhood, a solitary pursuit. Most things were; I was an introvert as well as an only child, a chicken and egg situation that I do not imagine can be easily untangled. But video games, with their strangely sacred bodily submission to external authority, were a powerful temple for solitary worship. They were, in their own way, my first magickal rituals.
But it exists in a strange twilight realm; my experiences of it, in a very real sense, are not quite my own, but shared with others. Tellingly, however, I hardly remember who I might have played it with. I know a couple people with whom I played the Super Nintendo - generally family members and family friends - who form a pool of likely suspects. But I cannot, within that pool, identify But I don’t know who I played this game with. In that regard, I suppose I made it single player by something like fiat.
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