The ultimate test of mettle? Never mind Ironmans or Strongmans – just hop in a go-kart


Super Mario Kart (1992)

That Mario lad seems to get everywhere, doesn’t he? You’ve got to give him his dues, because for a portly fellow he doesn’t half play a lot of sports. I make that football, tennis, golf, basketball… when I picked up one of the NHL games for GameCube I half-expected to see Mario’s fat head pop up alongside the realistic players, come out with a reused voice sample and then score a gorgeous penalty.

But back in 1992, Mario was just a compliant chubby guy who jumped about the place. Then suddenly some nutter at Nintendo wanted to make a kart racer, and a Sensible Suit insisted that they front-end it with Mario characters. Hence, Super Mario Kart was born.

Mario was used to rough treatment by this time. After all, he had faced down Bowser a few times, ran the gauntlet with Hammer Bros, had many a brush with Boo Buddies, had his bum singed by lava… he even found himself getting chased down by the sun itself, in particularly angry form.

But what about the rest of his pals? Would they be ready for the rough stuff of karting? I ask because it would legitimately concern me; I went go-karting myself recently, an activity I always enjoy, but by God can you take a battering during it.

In the first instance, the steering is crazy heavy. You’ll climb into the kart with the express intention of hitting every apex like it owed you money, of course. But you’ll have as much luck leading a rhino in interpretive dance. No power steering here, you’ll need to pit your arms and shoulders against the wheel and see who gives in first. I love all that though, it’s part of the battle isn’t it?

Well, your kart hates you before you’ve even begun. You’ve now got to reckon yourself with the fact that you’re up against a number of other competitors who may be self-proclaimed professionals, or worse still, rank amateurs. To say the least, it is a thrilling thing to throw the kart into a corner and just hope and pray that the person in front of you whom you’re about to overtake is a) not legally blind such that they have no idea you’re there and b) in good enough control of their own vehicle that they don’t spin it sideways into your oncoming kart, giving you a guaranteed bout of whiplash and a ruddy big bonk on the nose.

Even if you do crash, the fun doesn’t stop there. You’ll probably not have any kind of reverse gear unless you’re in big boy machinery, so you’ll have to shamefully put your hands in the air and request help. A yellow flag is then thrown, warning all drivers on the track that there is an incident somewhere and people are exposed on the track, so could you please slow down and not mangle the help with your furious driving.

Well, like a bull is seemingly drawn to the colour red, you’d better believe that this yellow flag will cause the rest of the field to start charging beyond top speed. This is completely against the rules of course, and crashes at a not-insignificant speed can easily result, but the main contender is temporarily out of the race – and the rest will be damned if they’re gonna let this opportunity pass them by. And if you’re driving out there and a yellow flag is raised for some other luckless sap, slow down at your peril because if you show this terrible weakness then you’re going to be overtaken, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

But I’ll say this: deliberate crashing and willful ignorance of yellow flags is one thing. You can contend with that, and still come out on top if you’re good enough. But I’ve never seen a real-life karter activate Invincibility Stars at will, throw infinite numbers of fireballs/Poison Mushrooms/bananas after you, or just simply jump over any hazard that they decided they didn’t want to drive into at that point in time. In Super Mario Kart, you’ll have all of that in your face and with severely rubber-banded AI to boot.

The whole thing certainly looks a bit dated now, as you drive around a Monopoly board landscape with only one half of the screen to work with. But it had a rear view mirror! And multiplayer! Genuinely pretty good stuff here, since F-Zero didn’t have either. The Battle mode was just ter-rif-fic as well, where you and a pal had to track each other down around particularly well made arenas and pummel each other with whatever weapons you had to hand. After that, you and your pal could go do a co-op grand prix, or just race each other for supremacy.

Back to the single player. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe might look like an entirely different universe to the SNES original, but the fact is that all of the juice served up in the latest game on Switch was pretty much existent in Super Mario Kart as well. You’ve got a selection of characters, four cups (with FIVE tracks each!), the essential items, multiplayer options, esoteric wild music, all backed by a good sensation of speed, especially when you take Bowser to the 150CC events and run the race pretty much sideways.

There are the annoyances that were ironed out as the series progressed, however. For one thing, items are actually limited – once you grab an item box, or more accurately once you run an item strip over, that’s it used up for the race. You’ll need to change your racing line each time as a result, making it all the more likely that you’ll run into one of Yoshi’s eggs, ruining your race and leading to much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When you do get an item, it’s probably not going to benefit you very much. No Crazy Eights here – you’ll most likely get another two useless coins, a banana that you can’t fire very well and has no use defensively, or a green shell that’ll just plonk back off the wall and hit you instead. Better than that is the programming of the red shells, designed to home in on the racer in front of you. Well, what tends to happen is that the bloody thing launches from your kart and immediately veers off course into the walls. Useless. You might get a mushroom though, and that’ll help you take shortcuts through the painfully flat tracks, but might just as quickly launch you into a dancing fireball à la Bowser instead.

Finally, the difficulty. If you can take the chequered flag at Donut Plains 3 on 150CC, then I’m telling you, you can do anything. You are possibly more machine than human. A win there is worth two anywhere else. Your character of choice has a huge bearing on how you play, what kind of turns you can get away with, and it was a supreme achievement back in the day to get your chosen hero onto that top step on the podium and claim that golden Mario head trophy at the end of the 150CC Special Cup. The whole tournament comes to a thrilling climax at Rainbow Road. No walls, for heaven’s sake! One false move and you’re off, and your race is over. Now why can’t we have that sort of ruthlessness towards crafty connivers at the real life track?

23 February 2018

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