The complete history of Mario Kart

The arrival of a new Mario Kart is always a big event in the gaming community.

For nearly 25 years Nintendo’s racing series has been considered one of the best local multiplayer experiences gaming can offer, and new titles regularly sell in the tens of millions.

Today is a little different, because it marks the first Mario Kart release which is an enhanced version of a previous game rather than a brand new entry.

The reason for this is clear: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe gives Switch owners a taste of console-quality Mario Kart in handheld form less than two months into the system’s life, while also giving those who skipped the Wii U a chance to finally play it.

This is only the latest chapter in the saga, of course. This series has been going for even longer than Arsene Wenger’s been at Arsenal, so what better time to look back at the history of Mario Kart?

Well, I mean, the 25th anniversary in August would be a better time. But fuck it, we’re doing it now.


Prologue: The making of Mario Kart

When Nintendo launched its Super Famicom console in Japan (known here as the SNES) on 21 November 1990 it did so alongside a new IP, a racing game called F-Zero.

F-Zero was designed to show off Mode 7, the SNES’s nifty new 3D-esque feature. Mode 7 let developers create a single background layer, slap a texture on it and rotate and scale it to give the impression it was a 3D image.

F-Zero, in all its Mode 7 goodness

In the case of F-Zero, this layer was ‘laid down’ to look like the ground, and the texture of a track was placed on it. By keeping the player’s car in place and rotating and scaling the track underneath them, it made the player feel like they were driving on a 3D plane.

F-Zero was an enormous success and played a huge part in getting across the SNES’s power, so Nintendo quickly got to work on another Mode 7 racing game.

This time the goal was to make a game that could be played by two players (F-Zero was single-player only). As impressive as Mode 7 was, the SNES wouldn’t have been able to handle two-player racing at F-Zero’s speed, so the decision was made to use slower vehicles instead.

A prototype game was made with two players racing karts. The characters were generic chaps wearing overalls, though oddly at this point nobody put two and two together.

It wasn’t until the developers noticed that it was fun to stop one kart and watch the other driving past, that they decided to replace one of the characters with Mario.

GUESS WHAT HAPPENED NEXT. THAT’S RIGHT, MOTHER FUCKING PILOTWINGS.

YEEEEAAAAAH PRIIIIIICKS

Nah, not really. It became Super Mario Kart.

“So that’s how it started Chris,” you ask, “but how did it end?” Well, with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, obviously. That’s the point of this.

“Oh. So how did it… um, the middle bit.”

Read on and find out, dear friend.

Note: This article includes ‘how to play it’ sections giving advice on how to play these games today. They’re mainly aimed at people who want to buy the game legit. Take it as a given that emulation is an obvious alternative, before you get all smart-arsey in the comments.


Super Mario Kart

Original release – 27 August 1992
Format – SNES
Players – 2
Characters – 8
Tracks – 20 race, 4 battle

Character debuts – Mario, Luigi, ‘Princess’, Yoshi, Bowser, Donkey Kong Jr, Koopa Troopa, Toad

Gimmick – The very concept of Mario and his pals fannying around in go-karts

When you look back to the very first Mario Kart, it’s telling that many of its core elements remain in the series nearly two and a half decades later.

The GPs consisting of series of races with points being given out. The 50, 100 and 150cc speed and difficulty settings.

The fact that a red shell homes in, a green shell goes straight (though it still homes a little in this one), a Star makes you invincible and speeds you up, and a Mushroom gives you a boost.

And, of course, the fact that smacking your pal in the dick with a shell in Battle Mode and causing them to lose their last balloon is hugely satisfying.

That Nintendo got so much right in its first attempt maybe explains why Super Mario Kart ended up becoming such a well-loved game that spawned one of the industry’s most important series, rather than being resigned to the past along with other Mario spin-offs like Yoshi’s Safari and Wario’s Woods.

Fun fact – Note that one of the playable characters was Donkey Kong Jr, not his old man. This is because (hard as it is to believe now) Donkey Kong hadn’t starred in a game for nearly a decade: this was still a couple of years before Donkey Kong Country resurrected the character.

How to play it – As well as the original SNES cartridge, Super Mario Kart is currently available on all three Virtual Console services: Wii, Wii U and 3DS (but only the New 3DS models can play SNES games, because reasons).


Mario Kart 64

Original release – 14 December 1996
Format – Nintendo 64
Players – 4
Characters – 8
Tracks – 16 race, 4 battle

Character debuts – Donkey Kong, Wario

Gimmicks – Four-player multiplayer, blue shell, mini-boost while drifting

When Nintendo first publicly showed off the Nintendo 64 at the Shoshinkai Software Exhibition show in Japan in 1995, it also revealed a bunch of games planned for launch.

One was Mario Kart R, a sequel to Super Mario Kart which replaced the SNES’s Mode 7 courses with fully polygonal ones.

Ultimately, that game became Mario Kart 64 and while it wasn’t ready in time for the N64’s launch it proved to be more than worth the wait.

Completely replacing the SNES engine, Mario Kart 64 used a trick that was common in early 3D games: while the environments were rendered in polygons, the characters were just sprites which changed depending on which direction you viewed them from. This saved on processing power, you see.

It also introduced a number of new ideas that quickly became series mainstays. For example, by waggling the stick while drifting you could build up a speed boost, a concept that remains to this day (minus the waggle, thankfully).

Most notable though was the introduction of the notorious blue shell, the most dreaded weapon in Mario Kart history and the ‘great leveller’ which ensured nobody could ever get too good at the game.

Fun fact – Spare a thought for poor Kamek the Magikoopa. He appeared in the early Mario Kart R footage but was ultimately ditched in favour of Donkey Kong (who was now out of retirement and replaced his son).

How to play it – If you somehow have a Nintendo 64 but don’t have Mario Kart on it there’s still time to save face and buy the cart second-hand. Otherwise, it’s also available on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Consoles.


Mario Kart: Super Circuit

Original release – 21 July 2001
Format – Game Boy Advance
Players – 4
Characters – 8
Tracks – 40 race, 4 battle

Character debuts – None

Gimmicks – First handheld Mario Kart, retro courses

Originally announced as Mario Kart Advance, this was Nintendo’s attempt to show off the power of its new Game Boy Advance handheld.

It bloody worked, too. While most assumed the GBA was essentially a handheld SNES (and launching with a visually similar F-Zero sequel didn’t do much to suggest otherwise), Mario Kart: Super Circuit showed it actually had more power.

Instead of a straight SNES port, Super Circuit looked more like a halfway point between Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, with the Mode 7 trickery of the SNES game but the character models and features of the N64 one (four-player multiplayer, blue shells and the like).

Most impressive though was the ability to unlock every single Super Mario Kart track as a secret extra, doubling the number of courses from 20 to 40. It was a proper “what in the realm of fuckery” moment, and the unlocking of retro tracks has become a Mario Kart tradition ever since.

Fun fact – Not counting the arcade games, this was the only Mario Kart that wasn’t mainly developed by Nintendo’s EAD studio. Instead, it was handled by Intelligent Systems, better known for the Fire Emblem, Paper Mario and WarioWare games.

How to play it – The only way to currently buy Super Circuit (other than the original GBA cart) is on the Wii U Virtual Console.


Mario Kart: Double Dash!!

Original release – 7 November 2003
Format – GameCube
Players – 4 (16 over LAN)
Characters – 20
Tracks – 16 race, 6 battle

Character debuts – Daisy, Birdo, Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, Koopa Paratroopa, Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr, Waluigi, Toadette, Petey Piranha, King Boo

Gimmick – Two characters per kart, selectable vehicles, LAN multiplayer

In a way, Double Dash!! was the only time the series got a major kick up the arse and offered something vastly different to what had been seen before.

The idea of riding solo was ditched entirely: all karts were driven by two characters at a time (one behind the wheel, one using weapons).

Because of this new mechanic, Nintendo also had to drastically increase the number of playable characters, which up until this point had been a constant 8 in every game.

As a result, more than half of Double Dash’s roster was made up of debut characters appearing in a Mario Kart game for the first time. Not only that, but one of them – Toadette – was making her first appearance in any Mario game.

What’s that you say? She was just shat out of someone’s brain so Toad could have a logical partner? Ssshhh, you cynic.

Double Dash!! introduced a new feature that hasn’t been seen since: special items. Each character had their own unique weapon that only they could use.

Mario and Luigi had fireballs. Peach and Daisy could spawn hearts to protect their kart. Donkey and Diddy had a massive banana they could throw. That sort of thing.

One other new idea that did stick around, though, was the addition of different karts you could choose between, rather than generic karts for everyone. This increased the possibilities when it came to choosing a set-up that best suited your racing style.

Finally, the game introduced LAN play, allowing players to connect up to eight GameCubes locally so that up to 16 players could race.

Fun fact – When Nintendo showed off an early trailer for the game at E3 2001, it was simply called ‘Mario Kart for Nintendo GameCube’ and had Mario and Luigi riding separate single-driver karts.

How to play it – At the time of writing, Double Dash!! has only been made available to buy as a physical GameCube disc. You can play it on a Wii, mind, but you’ll need a GameCube controller.


Mario Kart DS

Original release – 14 November 2005
Format – Nintendo DS
Players – 8 (4 online)
Characters – 12
Tracks – 32 race, 6 battle

Character debuts – Dry Bones, R.O.B., Shy Guy

Gimmicks – Online multiplayer, Mission mode

After the ‘two racers’ concept split Mario Kart fans, Nintendo decided to dial the crazy back a wee bit and go back to normal single-character karts for its DS effort.

A couple of things did remain though, including the ability to select your kart and – more importantly – the general game engine, which actually continues in a modified form to this day.

Mario Kart DS wasn’t without its own innovations, mind you. For starters, it added a couple of new items – the Blooper and the Bullet Bill – which were annoying and shit hot respectively.

It also introduced a brilliant Mission mode, which gave the player 63 different challenges to play through, from collecting all the coins in one lap, to driving a section backwards within a set time limit, to even taking part in boss battles.

Sadly, this mode never caught on, and was never seen again.

It also had R.O.B., who is ace

What was, though, was online multiplayer, which made its debut in Mario Kart DS and quickly became popular, even though the DS’s Wi-Fi connection was about as efficient as shooting a zombie with a spud gun.

Fun fact – This is the only Mario Kart game where Lakitu doesn’t appear at the start to do the ‘3-2-1’ count. Seriously, go back and check.

How to play it – If you want to play Mario Kart DS on the move like it’s supposed to be played, you’ll need to buy the original cartridge (it also works on the 3DS). Otherwise, if you don’t mind playing it at home instead, you can also buy it on the Wii U Virtual Console.


Mario Kart Arcade GP

Original release – 19 November 2005
Format – Arcade
Players – 4
Characters – 11
Tracks – 12 (race only)

Character debuts – Pac-Man, Ms Pac-Man, Blinky

Gimmicks – The first arcade Mario Kart, Pac-Man crossover

In the early 2000s, a momentous deal was struck in which Nintendo, Sega and Namco teamed up to create a new arcade system board called Triforce.

Despite the sales pitch, Triforce was really just a slightly modified version of the GameCube hardware, but the main interesting thing about the deal was that Nintendo allowed its racing franchises to be handled by someone else for the first time, giving the nod to its new friends.

Sega got to work on F-Zero AX, an arcade companion to F-Zero GX (which it also developed). Namco, meanwhile, was handed the keys to the hallowed Mario Kart licence. This was the result.

Mario Kart Arcade GP was similar to other Mario Kart games in a number of ways, but very different in others. It offered an insane 93 different types of item, as well as boss races against a giant Bowser and, oddly, a ‘Robo Mario’ created by Professor E Gadd from Luigi’s Mansion.

It also took your photo before you raced and added a comedy Mario hat and moustache so other players could see your icon as they overtook you, and printed out a little ticket with your progress on it when you finished so you could insert it to continue the next time you played.

It was best known, of course, for introducing Pac-Man characters as playable drivers, but it was also unique for another reason: because of the two-character karts in Double Dash!!, this was the first GameCube quality Mario Kart with solo kart racing, and therefore the best-looking ‘normal’ Mario Kart game at the time.

Fun fact – People complained that Arcade GP was a wee bit of a rip. If you finished a race in a GP you had to pay more money to play the next one, even if you finished first. Fuck sake, Namco.

How to play it – You can’t. Well, not unless you find an arcade that still has it. Come on Nintendo, chuck us a bone and release it on Virtual Console.


Mario Kart Arcade GP 2

Original release – 14 March 2007
Format – Arcade
Players – 4
Characters – 13
Tracks – 16 (race only)

Character debut – Mametchi

Gimmick – Tamagotchi crossover

The first Mario Kart Arcade GP was so successful that Namco (now known as Namco Bandai) decided to release a sequel.

Arcade GP 2 wasn’t a proper ‘sequel’ in the true sense of the word, it was more of an enhanced version of the original that added more of everything.

Four more tracks were added: two Yoshi-themed ones and two stadium-themed ones. It also added extra comedy frames for your photo so you could choose to make yourself look like a pirate or a bear.

Most notably though, it added two more characters: Waluigi and Mametchi. “WHO THE FUCK” I hear you say. Don’t swear, it’s impolite.

You see, Namco’s merger with toy company Bandai meant it got to use all its licences too. Hence the addition of Mametchi, a character from Tamagotchi. Yes, the virtual pet thing.

Good job you could only race as it and didn’t have to clean up its shite or anything.

Fun fact – Each character could race either a standard kart or a special vehicle unique to them. Ms Pac-Man’s was a giant slice of cake with wheels on it. You’re skating on thin ice, Namco Bandai.

How to play it – Again, you can’t, since it was arcade-only. I mean, you could technically buy it, but you’re talking nearly seven and a half grand.


Mario Kart Wii

Original release – 10 April 2008
Format – Wii
Players – 4 (12 online)
Characters – 25
Tracks – 32 race, 10 battle

Character debuts – Baby Peach, Baby Daisy, Rosalina, Dry Bowser, Funky Kong, Mii

Gimmicks – Bikes, jump tricks, motion control, plastic steering wheel gizmo

It had been nearly five years since Double-Dash, so home console gamers were well and truly jonesing for a new helping of Mario Kart goodness.

Imagine the dancing on the street, then, when Mario Kart Wii smashed an enormous bucket of glory into everyone’s bastard faces.

It offered more characters than in any Mario game so far. It threw in 10 battle arenas, a number that still hasn’t been beaten to date.

It included online multiplayer: not just for four players like the DS version did, but a ridiculous 12 players.

And it had fucking Funky Kong in it, which instantly qualifies it as one of the best video games ever created.

Mario Kart Wii was also important for another reason: it was the first in the series which really could be played by anyone.

Although the series’ relatively simplistic gameplay meant previous entries could be played by most, those who’d never touched a controller in their lives could still be a bit intimidated by the learning curve.

With the introduction of motion controls and the plastic Wii Wheel accessory that came with the game, Mario Kart was suddenly far more approachable for complete beginners.

The result of this was obvious: with 36.83 million copies sold, it not only became the best-selling Mario Kart game, but the best-selling racing game ever and the sixth best-selling video game in history.

Fun fact – It wasn’t all good news. Mario Kart Wii also introduced two items – the Thunder Cloud and the POW Block – which were both objectively shite.

How to play it – The only way to play Mario Kart Wii is to buy the disc version. The online multiplayer has been discontinued now but the single-player and local multiplayer are still great fun, and it works on the Wii U (you need Wii Remotes to play it though).


Mario Kart 7

Original release – 1 December 2011
Format – Nintendo 3DS
Players – 8 (8 online)
Characters – 17
Tracks – 32 race, 6 battle

Character debuts – Metal Mario, Honey Queen, Wiggler, Lakitu

Gimmicks – Kart customisation, underwater racing, gliding

Nintendo knew it was onto a winner with Mario Kart Wii, so its next handheld offering was essentially more of the same, only better.

The big new addition this time was the ability to fully customise your kart: instead of choosing from a bunch of pre-existing vehicles you could now build your own by combining different body, wheel and glider types to suit your needs.

Glider types, you say? That’s right, young buck: Mario Kart 7 added flying sections that kicked in any time you went off a special blue ramp.

As well as taking to the skies you could also take to the seas, as underwater racing was added too to further enhance the game’s ‘cool as fuck’ rating.

Mario Kart 7 also added a few new items. The Fire Flower introduced some mild carnage to proceedings by letting you chuck a bunch of fireballs across the tracks, while the Super Leaf gave you a raccoon tail you could use to hit enemies or – if you timed it right – deflect missiles.

The Lucky Seven, though, was the most ridiculous item of the lot. It granted the player with a Mushroom, a Banana, a Red Shell, a Green Shell, a Blooper, a Bob-om and a Starman and let them go fucking wild with it.

Mario Kart 7 was a bit silly.

Fun fact – Mario Kart 7 was the first game in the series to feature point-to-point tracks. Instead of forming three laps, these were single long routes with a start and end point. They were ace.

How to play it – You can only get Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS, either by buying the physical cart or downloading it digitally from the 3DS eShop.


Mario Kart Arcade GP DX

Original release – 25 July 2013
Format – Arcade
Players – 4
Characters – 16
Tracks – 12 (race only)

Character debut – Don-chan

Gimmick – Fusion Kart, Taiko no Tatsujin crossover

Not content with having two Mario Kart arcade games, Namco Bandai released a third in 2013.

Mario Kart Arcade GP DX once again offered similar gameplay to its predecessors, but it did add a couple of new bits and pieces, including one particularly interesting concept.

A new co-op mode let two players race together, helping each other out. If one player picked up a special Fusion item, they could trigger it to activate the Fusion Kart.

This teleported their partner over to them and fused both their karts together to form a massive tank thing. One player then drove it while the other used the wheel to aim its turret and fire missiles.

Think Halo when one of you is driving the Warthog and the other is manning the gun, and you’ve got the general idea.

The other additions were more straightforward. Don-chan, the hero from Namco’s Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Drum Master) games, made his Mario Kart debut while even more items were added to bring the total up to a frankly daft 100.

Meanwhile, players could choose the ‘alter-egos’ of some characters, meaning the likes of Tanooki Mario, Ice Luigi and Dry Bowser could be brought into the fray.

Fun fact – Did you know Tim Allen was jailed for two years in the 70s for possessing a pound and a half of cocaine? I mean, it’s fuck all to do with Mario Kart but that blew my mind. You think you know someone, eh?

How to play it – Once again, you can’t, because it’s arcade-only. Unless you’re rich, then it’s yours for the princely sum of ten grand. Imagine a Mario Kart Arcade GP Trilogy release on Switch that let you play all three of them.


Mario Kart 8

Original release – 29 May 2014
Format – Wii U
Players – 4 (12 online)
Characters – 30 (36 with DLC)
Tracks – 32 (48 with DLC)

Character debuts – Iggy, Roy, Lemmy, Larry, Wendy, Ludwig, Morton, Baby Rosalina, Pink Gold Peach, Tanooki Mario, Cat Peach, Link, Villager, Isabelle

Gimmicks – Anti-gravity racing, ATVs, amiibo costumes, downloadable content

The Wii U may not have been the success Nintendo had been hoping for – far from it, in fact – but if there’s one thing you could give it credit for, it’s for getting arguably the best Mario Kart ever.

Mario Kart 8 wasn’t revolutionary in any way, it just took everything that worked well in the entries before it and crammed it all into one hefty package.

It wasn’t completely without new ideas. The addition of anti-gravity racing was a surprisingly subtle but entertaining new trick that made for mind-bending track layouts.

The gliding and underwater racing from Mario Kart 7 returned, making their home console debuts, while the bikes from Mario Kart Wii also came back (joined this time by ATVs).

It was just the best of all its previous worlds, and things got even better when it became the first Mario Kart game to offer downloadable content.

Suddenly, with the DLC included, it went from being one of the best Mario Karts ever to the best without question. More characters than in any game before it. More tracks than in any game before it.

The DLC also threw in crossovers with other Nintendo franchises, bringing the likes of Zelda, Animal Crossing, F-Zero and Excitebike to Mario Kart for the first time.

The only thing missing was a good Battle Mode: this one was shite. And maybe it would have been better if it was on a more popular system, so more people could play it.

Hmmmm.

Fun fact – A bizarre marketing promotion with Mercedes-Benz meant players got three free karts shaped like mini versions of Mercedes cars for free. Um, thanks?

How to play it – Mario Kart 8 is available on Wii U as both a physical disc and a digital download on the eShop. However, there’s now another way to play it…


Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Original release – 28 April 2017
Format – Nintendo Switch
Players – 4 (12 online)
Characters – 42
Tracks – 48 race, 8 battle

Character debuts – Inkling Girl, Inkling Boy

Gimmicks – Playable on both TV and handheld, Splatoon crossover

Here it is, the latest and arguably greatest Mario Kart game ever made.

Technically it’s not a new game: this is the first time a Mario Kart release is essentially a ‘special edition’ of the one that came before it.

However, given that Mario Kart 8 didn’t get to reach its full potential because of the system it launched on, and given that it’s a perfect fit for the Switch this early in its life, most people (typically cynical internet arseholes aside) are giving Nintendo the thumbs up for this one.

It’s not a direct port, though. There have been improvements across the board. The rendering resolution is now 1080p instead of 720p (when playing on TV), and six more characters have been added to the roster (including two from Splatoon for the first time).

Even better, a proper Battle Mode has been added to make up for the shambles on the Wii U version, with eight arenas (five of which are brand new) and five different battle modes.

It’s fair to say it’s the definitive version of the game, and – in my opinion at least – the best Mario Kart ever made.

Want to know more? Here’s my full review.

Fun fact – Baby Daisy is a prick.

How to play it – It’s out now on Switch. That’s why I wrote this. Come on, work with me here.


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7 thoughts on “The complete history of Mario Kart

  1. Great Read!
    The arcade opposite where I live has Mario Kart Arcade GP DX and although I have MK8 and now MK8D I always give this a whirl whenever I pass through!

    Great Tracks and the commentating really adds another layer to the game, as well as the items.
    It really is a shame some of the items and the commentary isn’t on the home releases.

    Like

  2. Mario Kart 7’s Rainbow Road track needs to appear on MK8D, if only for the music track that accompanies it – which almost brought a tear to my eye when the N64 Rainbow Road theme pops up in it 🙂 ALSO TRACK EDITOR KTHX NINTY

    Like

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