Released a few years after Super Nintendo, Super Mario Kart was an odd proposition: Nintendo mascot Mario, his brother, friends and enemies get in go-carts, racing around flat, pseudo-3D tracks based on some very familiar Mario worlds.
The weapons included turtle shells, fire flowers and, er, bananas. They’re all linchpins of the Mario Kart experience now, but at the time, compared to the more buttoned-up racing games of the 1990s, it all seemed so silly. And fun. Super Mario Kart was a critical and commercial hit, with multiplayer races and battles further bolstered by the N64 version, which had four controller ports from the outset.
Nintendo has continued to evolve the series across three decades and 14 games, offering different vehicles, copilots, handheld versions and just… so… many... tracks. The company’s official celebration of this milestone (pun intended) appears to be the addition of eight new tracks to the latest iteration of the game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but the racer’s influence goes beyond the console.
It’s spawned remote-controlled cars, theme park rides, mobile spin-offs, and an army of pretenders trying (and failing) to replicate the magic of the Mushroom Kingdom racer. Here, on the eve of the franchise's 30th birthday, a few of Engadget’s most avid Nintendo gamers reminisce about their favorite Mario Kart moments.
Throwing turtle shells in Tokyo arcade
I wish I was writing about the Super Nintendo Land Mario Kart ride, but COVID-19 derailed my plans to visit (in the name of journalism, of course). So I’ll talk about my favorite version of Mario Kart: the arcade version. Settle behind a cute cartoon steering wheel, adjust the seat because it was nearly always set up for a child, and play Mario Kart as if it’s a hyper-real driving experience.
Mario Kart Arcade GP DX is actually the third arcade edition of Mario Kart, made in collaboration with Bandai Namco, which meant including the likes of Pac-Man and other third-party characters. I played it while living in Tokyo, which meant that the race announcements were voiced by Rika Matsumoto, who I later learned also voiced Ash Ketchum in the Pokémon anime. (Yes, it was a peak Japan experience!)
These machines also had a little camera that would take a picture of the racer in the share, and superimpose a Mario hat and other items on them. It was cute, but dumb. You could save your progress on a card system, the kind of thing you’d see on many arcade machines – especially in Japan, but that seemed a little too serious for me. I was there, I was sometimes a little drunk, and I wanted to beat my friends at Mario Kart, from behind a steering wheel. When I wasn’t hanging out at home with my Nintendo console (tragically, at this point, the Wii U), this was my Mario Kart home away from home. But I still haven’t played Mario Kart VR. I’m sure I can fit in a quick race when I revisit Japan to tour Nintendo’s theme park. – Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief
Battle Mode with an elder millennial
It’s a little painful to admit that my introduction to Mario Kart came via the original Super Mario Kart. Yes, I am a geriatric millennial. I didn’t get it on launch day, but I’m pretty sure that it was mine by Christmas. I’ve played nearly every installment since then, with some particularly fond memories of the ridiculous battles I had with my post-college friends on Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash. But the original will always hold a special place in my heart because of one very delightful feature: Battle Mode.
My best friend and I played a positively startling number of Battle Mode matches over the years. Sure, we’d dabble with the Grand Prix mode too, but there was something intensely satisfying about going head to head, trying to pop each other’s balloons with red shells and banana peels. It was the great equalizer; in race mode, there’s at least some skill that comes into play.
But Battle Mode is more about getting as many weapons as you can as quickly as possible in hopes you luck into a red shell. You don’t need to be a skilled racer, though it can certainly help escape doom. The near-total randomness of Battle Mode was a big part of its appeal, though — it’s hard to get too mad at your friend when you’re just as likely to take them down on the next round.
Don’t get me wrong, I played the traditional Mario Kart Grand Prix levels incessantly, as well — I still love those ghost house worlds, not to mention the sheer terror that Rainbow Road still evokes after all these years. But Battle Mode was a great little experience when you just wanted to focus on throwing shells and nothing else. Given that Nintendo has dabbled in battle royale-style games with Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35, it seems like a great time to bring Battle Mode back in the next Mario Kart. – Nathan Ingraham, Deputy Editor
Let’s talk about Rainbow Road
There have been a ton of epic tracks throughout Mario Kart’s 30-year history, but to me, there’s one course that rose above its place on the circuit and left a lasting impression unlike any other: Rainbow Road. Now, I’ll fully admit that when it comes to pure gameplay, there are plenty of raceways like Wario Stadium, Baby Park or Koopa Troopa Beach that are more fun and engaging. And if the only version of Rainbow Road we got was the one from the original Mario Kart on SNES – which was a somewhat crude and spartan affair – I probably wouldn’t have written this snippet at all.
But when Nintendo recreated Rainbow Road for Mario Kart 64, the track became more than a race; it was a celebration. The added elevation and reduced gravity make it seem like you're floating down a rollercoaster, while the insertion of familiar faces from previous Mario games styled like neon lights brings warmth to the cold black void. And then there’s the soundtrack (please check out this version, which really does the song justice): It features playful woodwinds mixed with synth guitar that seamlessly transition from being soothing to energetic to almost melancholy at points. Rainbow Road in Mario Kart 64 is one part technicolor dream drive, one part Nintendo hall of fame and one part victory lap. – Sam Rutherford, Senior Writer