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Reliving 25 years of Mario Kart

The Mario Kart series is now a quarter-century old. Now what?

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The Mario Kart series is now a quarter-century old.  It is impressive to look at the series as a hole and watch as the hardware changes enable the Nintendo EAD to accomplish over time.  Most Mario Kart titles have been handled internally by one of the many Nintendo EAD teams.  Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development was renamed from the older Research and Development 4 group which was founded in 1983.  This older team housed the likes of Gunpei Yokoi, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Koji Kondo to name a few.  These teams are tasked with a good portion of the first party Nintendo titles, the Marios, Zeldas, Pikmin and Animal Crossings.

Mario Kart (SNES – 1992) (Nintendo EAD)

Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo started it all.  This game pioneered the kart racing subgenre.  This title used the hardware accelerated Mode 7 feature of the Super Nintendo and did not require a SuperFX or Cx4 enhancement chip.  Looking at the layout of the screen, you can tell that the Nintendo EAD team had multiplayer in mind from the beginning.  During single player, the lower half of the screen is taken up by a map of the track.  Despite having the Super Tap, two player multiplayer was a limitation for this title.  On the upside, the game also targeted 60 fps (frames per second) which aided in the responsiveness of the controls.  This feature will have become a requirement in later titles.

Mario Kart 64 (N64 – 1996) (Nintendo EAD)

Nintendo’s first true 3D version of Mario Kart released early on in the Nintendo 64’s life.  This title was impressive at the time and still has a soft spot in the hearts of many players my age.  I recently played hours of Mario Kart 64 on vacation with both my brother-in-law and sister-in-law.  I really enjoyed playing, despite being beaten repeatedly by them.  Unfortunately, the Nintendo 64 must not have had the horsepower to run this title at a stable 60 fps so the developers locked it down to 30 fps.  However, this was the first time that a Mario Kart title supported four simultaneous players during multiplayer.

Mario Kart Super Circuit (GBA – 2001) (Intelligent Systems – Metroid, Fire Emblem, Tetris Attack, Paper Mario)

The next title in the series to release was the first handheld version.  Mario Kart Super Circuit was developed by Intelligent Systems for the Game Boy Advance.  This version was to the Super Nintendo title with both upgraded visuals and sounds.  I can remember picking this title up on a whim and how much I enjoyed playing it when out and about.  You can play this version multiplayer with a link cable.  Unfortunately, I still have never had an opportunity to try this.  This portable game also updates most of the visuals at 60 fps which keeps the action responsive and starts the trend.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (GameCube – 2003) (Nintendo EAD)

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is arguably the most different take on the established formula to date.  In this title, you not only pick from 21 karts but you have to pick one of the 10 pairs of drivers.  Each pair of drivers had their own unique specialty items which altered gameplay. In addition to the four-player single console multiplayer,  Double Dash!! adds 8 console LAN play which enabled 16 players to compete in a single race.  Despite all of this additional overhead, Double Dash!! was able to maintain the signature 60 fps target.  This is more evidence that the GameCube was an underrated console.

“Mario Kart is one of those franchises that you can easily lump in the “it’s the same game each time” category.”

Mario Kart DS (DS – 2005) (Nintendo EAD Group No. 1)

The second portable Mario Kart title to be released was Mario Kart DS.  Starting a trend, this title looked close to the console N64 version with better visuals.  This title was the reason that my wife and I both owned a Nintendo DS handheld.  The multiplayer was ad-hoc and only required one copy of the game as long as you were willing to play as Yoshi.  This title was the most fun that I have had playing a competitive multiplayer video game with my wife and is probably the reason that this is my favorite of all the Mario Kart titles.  It also featured online play however, this was primitive by today’s standards.  As you may already have guessed this version too ran that 60 fps.

Mario Kart Wii (Wii – 2008) (Nintendo EAD)

The Wii was once described as two GameCubes duct-taped together.  Taking this criticism in mind, it should then be no surprise to you that Mario Kart Wii was a refined version of the Double Dash!! game engine.  Don’t get me wrong, this title is good looking and very fun to play and it offered multiple control options.  I have played hours of this title with both my cousin David and my wife when it first released.  Unfortunately, despite running at 60 fps in single player, this title took a step back to 30 fps in multiplayer.

Mario Kart 7 (3DS – 2011)  (Retro Studios – The Metroid Prime Series and Donkey Kong Country Returns)

The most recent handheld version of Mario Kart was so well put together that Nintendo slapped a numbered title on it.  Following tradition, Mario Kart 7 looked like a direct port of the console Wii version with the addition of 3D features enabled.  This is also the first Mario Kart to give us the hang gliding and submersible sections of some tracks.  Multiplayer was the normal handheld fanfare and the title of course ran at 60 fps.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U – 2014)  (Nintendo EAD)

Pulling many tracks from the 3DS version, Mario Kart 8 adds anti-gravity sections to the tracks and upgrades the visuals to a 720p resolution.  Online Multiplayer functions well and I really enjoyed being the player with the Wii U Gamepad as you would retain a non-compromised view of your race.  Speaking of controllers, this title supports the most different types of controllers than any other Mario Kart to date.  This was the smoothest feeling Mario Kart title up to this point and really felt like racing in a cartoon.

“I recently played hours of Mario Kart 64 on vacation with both my brother-in-law and sister-in-law.  I really enjoyed playing, despite being beaten repeatedly by them.”

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Switch – 2017)  (Nintendo EAD)  

In docked mode, Mario Kart Deluxe offers the same experience as Mario Kart 8 but in full 1080p with slightly upgraded visuals.  In handheld mode, this title offers a single console multiplayer for the first time ever.  It is still amazing to me each time I put this cartridge in and start a quick match.  This most recent version finally combines the power of the home console version with the refinement that portable titles receive.  Looking back on the Mario Kart franchise you watch handheld technology slowly catch up with what was possible on the home systems.  You can see the merging of the two has been an eventuality.

Mario Kart is one of those franchises that you can easily lump in the “it’s the same game each time” category.  It has similar game modes each time. You can always play as Yoshi (or Bowser if you are a madman).  You can choose a new track to race on and which size engine go-kart you want to use.  All of these options are the same.  However, I would argue that Nintendo has done a good job at creating a fun base game that continues to mature and stretch to fill the potential of each new hardware platform.  And if the strong sales of the Switch continue, it looks like Nintendo will keep releasing new hardware into the future.  I look forward to seeing what is next.

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