Driving; it sucks. There are few things more frustrating than driving to work in the morning, being stuck in bumper-to-bumper in traffic, moving a couple of feet a minute. After a long day of work and facing that horrific drive twice, the thought of relaxing with a game that involves driving something is enough to make you want to throw down your controller forever.
Isn’t there some kind of fictional driving that can be fun? You bet there is. Praise Odin for the kart racing genre! The cartoony physics and fun of throwing items is enough to have you trying to throw banana peels at the jerk talking on the phone who just cut you off. We all love our kart racing games, but how much do we really know about them? I now present The Beginning of Kart Racers: Starring Super Mario Kart!
The start of the kart racing genre as we know it is largely credited to the 1992 release of Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo. This game burst onto the scene to sell 8 million copies, inspire copycats everywhere and become the third best-selling game on the system, losing only to Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. This game laid much of the groundwork that is still used in kart racers today. You could collect coins that make your kart go faster, collect items to either help you or attack your opponents, hop and drift around corners. Not to mention introducing the battle mode.
Apart from just gameplay ideas, this game made a few advances on the technical level as well. The most notable being the use of the Super Nintendo’s “Mode 7” graphics to create a sort of fake 3D look and the addition of multiplayer. For those who don’t know, it is the Mode 7 graphics that allows for things to be scaled and rotated freely, which helped add depth and make the game look different than other racers out at the time (except for F-Zero which had already used Mode 7).
Although Mode 7 looked cool, the real thing that propelled Super Mario Kart to greatness was the multiplayer. The single player Grand Prix and Time Trial modes could keep a person entertained for a while, but bringing a friend along for a Grand Prix, Match Race or a round of the new Battle mode was what kept people coming back. We take multiplayer for granted now, but that wasn’t always the case. The only other racing game on the console to use Mode 7 graphics at the time was F-Zero, but that didn’t have multiplayer. So the addition of you and your friend being able to race at the same time was understandably huge.
We also can’t forget how well the Mario universe was incorporated into the game and how popular Mario was at the time thanks to Super Mario World. You could choose from 8 different characters, a big number at the time. All your favorites were present, from Mario to Yoshi and even bad guys like Bowser and Koopa Troopa. The tracks were even colorful, looked like Super Mario World, and went as far as to add many little touches like Lakitu floating above you with traffic lights to signal the beginning of the race and warp pipes in the middle of the road.
Rainbow Road, because it is my favorite.
Of course, with the massive success of Super Mario Kart, other kart racers were bound to pop up. Many became just as good as the Mario Kart series down the road, but the early competing kart racers just couldn’t compare.
One of the earliest kart racers to follow in the footsteps of Super Mario Kart was Sonic Drift two years later. Since the console war at the time was Sega vs. Nintendo, it was no surprise that Sega threw its flagship character onto the kart racing bandwagon. Although the interesting choice was made to release it on the Sega Game Gear instead of the Genesis and it was only released in Japan. So instead of being in direct competition with Super Mario Kart, Sega made the first kart racer on a handheld. The only real positives about the game were that it modeled courses from the Sonic The Hedgehog games and was the first game to feature Amy as a playable character.
Otherwise the game was a borderline disaster. It did feature Sonic, Tails, Amy and Doctor Eggman as characters, but that was 4 compared to the 8-character precedent set by Super Mario Kart. Also there was no Mode 7 so it didn’t look or feel as advanced as Super Mario Kart, and the audio just hurts.
Here is some gameplay if you’re curious what it looked like in action.
That all being said, new Sonic racing games are being made to this day, so they obviously had something there.
Later that same year a kart racer came to the PC as well with the release of Wacky Wheels. It can actually still be downloaded today if you happen to have a whole 40MB of free space just lying around on your computer.
Overall this game wasn’t bad. The developers openly admitted they were trying to make a PC experience that was similar to Super Mario Kart and it shows. The game looked good and controlled well, even incorporating items like Super Mario Kart did. You were even give eight characters to choose from. Instead of being licensed characters from an established franchise, the game took place in a zoo so you picked from animals. It worked great, because kids love animals. After all, what kid wouldn’t want to race as a shark right around the time Street Sharks started airing?
The game even added modes other than the standard races. One of these was a version of the battle mode we all knew and loved, but also a mode where you drove around hunting chickens. So if you didn’t have a Super Nintendo around but had a computer in 1994, this was a valid option.
Here is the mode where you hunt down chickens, because I know you were curious.
Later that same year Street Racer brought a unique combination of kart racing and a beat ’em up to the Super Nintendo. This was actually a pretty fun game and ended up getting ported to everything from the Gameboy to the PlayStation. What made this game special was that characters actually attacked each other with their fists instead of just using cute items. Gor any guy gamers who didn’t want to admit they liked Super Mario Kart to their friends, this became a great multiplayer option.
Apart from physical violence, this game also brought a couple new modes to the equation. The first of these previously unseen modes was a rumble mode where the objective was to knock other racers off the course and the second was a soccer mode where the goal was to get a ball into the net.
Here is what a round of the rumble mode looked like.
The soccer mode has been used in racing games since (Monster Truck Madness 64 comes to mind) but to my knowledge nothing like the rumble mode has been done since.
That about does it for part 1 of my history of kart racers. What are your favorite memories of kart racers from this time frame? Did I miss any of your favorite early kart racers? Feel free to comment below.
Also stay tuned for part 2, where we will delve into the N64/PlayStation era kart racers.