What Do You Drift For?: Meeting the Fastest Mario Kart Racers in the World

What Do You Drift For?: Meeting the Fastest Mario Kart Racers in the World

All across the decades Mario Kart, there are dedicated players racing to be the fastest they can be.

By day, Netherlands-based Mike Koehoorn is just your average, everyday student studying Communications and Multimedia Design. But in the blink of an eye, you can catch him drifting around an obtusely small track. A roundabout embellished with bright colors, chipper music, and ghosts of his past selves drifting by. In this alternate world, he leads a fast life on the track. Lively, Nintendo-themed tracks that is.

Koehoorn’s part of an incredibly niche, dedicated gaming community. One that chases world records in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! for the GameCube in their spare time. Koehoorn himself has set world records regularly since 2015, when he fell into the game when on the hunt for something competitive to sink time into. He’s currently the top player in the world of Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, holding 13 world records in total (for perspective, the next best player has 7). "It's the sheer simplicity of [Mario Kart] being a party game," said Koehoorn on what drew him to the game. "And then pushing that to its limits."

Koehoorn’s first world record was for Baby Park, one of the shortest tracks in Mario Kart history; a singular loop that players zip around. "[Before starting,] I wasn’t even top 25, I think I was rank 27 at that point," said Koehoorn. "I got closer to that magical, impossible time. And so many people, who were to me at the time idols basically, were cheering me on to go for it. I was really relieved to get it because it took quite a bit of time."

To attain a world record, like the initial one that made Koehoorn screech, "Bada-boom, I’m a legend," requires intense focus and practice. To be accepted as a world record, players must adhere to the decreed guidelines of a course: that means no emulators (a game must be played on its system), no utilizing glitches, no sometimes unfair shortcuts (such as a particular ramp), and racing to the best of a player’s pure ability. They train by chasing a specific score, racing against in-game ghosts of themselves from the past, studying the nuances of kart racing and honing a new strategy for the track. To attain a world record, for most racers, it takes hours of practice and near perfection. Sometimes racers try to beat their own scores to push their personal limits, while others pine to overtake others’ times.

Super Mario Kart - SNES (1992)

Mario Kart got its start back in 1992 with Super Mario Kart for the SNES. Since then the game has jumped to nearly every Nintendo platform at fast and furious speeds that would make Vin Diesel proud. The series’ most recent release Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a repackaging of the Wii U game for the Nintendo Switch, was released last month, and already has dedicated players racing to get the fastest times around laps, not even allowing the game’s newly restricted fire boosts stoke the flames of competition. With the long-running kart racing series, communities have followed, and still bustle in even the older titles today.

I Don’t Have Friends, I Got Family

Mario Kart is a series with its communities split into dozens of microcosms all around the world: across continents, across individual games, across Time Trials (timed races around singular laps), across Grands Prix (what are typically dubbed true "speedrunning" in the Mario Kart series, as a player races through four preset tracks in a row, or even all of them in succession). Koehoorn falls squarely into the Double Dash!!-Time Trials community, garnering a reputation for his voracity in overtaking world records meticulously, and vastly improving on even the ones he sets himself.

"It’s a really nice community. I suppose it’s why I kept playing after I started," said Koehoorn. "I’ve met quite a bunch of people, and we even met up in November of 2016." Koehoorn credits the competition for why he got started chasing world records, but says the community is why he’s stuck around for so long. And he’s not alone in that sentiment.

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For Mario Kart: Super Circuit top racer Andy Lundeen of the U.S., the community is a primary mainstay that’s kept him embedded in chasing world records too. "There’s something very satisfying about watching a replay and just seeing everything go perfectly well and tight, and then you get to share that with the community," he said. "They appreciate all the work that went into it and all the small details about it."

In November 1998, Sami Cetin, a U.K.-based world record holder for a variety of Mario Kart games (but most notably Super Mario Kart), created the Time Trial World Rankings for Super Mario Kart. The site lives on among the larger Mario Kart Players site, which catalogues all world record holders for specific tracks of every game. "[I] have updated the rankings every [week] since," wrote Cetin over email. Cetin is one of the rare players that holds Mario Kart world records across multiple games. "The new Mario Karts have completely different driving mechanics. It’s a shame as different players prefer different ones, and very few play them all. It’s probably due to the time it would take to compete on all anyway, so it’s best to focus on one or two. But having more Mario Karts has brought a wider range of players to the overall community."

Mario Kart: Super Circuit - Game Boy Advance (2001)

In recent years, Cetin has stepped away from chasing world records as voraciously on a personal level, erring more on the management side of things by organizing the larger Super Mario Kart community in their world record attaining. "I think for the majority of us, there comes a time when life becomes busier," he said. "But we always try to find a time to make a comeback to do a few records again even if they are not World Records, but National Records or specific goals." Even as his Super Mario Kart gathering has shifted over to the more encompassing general Mario Kart Time Trial site, he’s remained steadfast for nearly two decades in keeping the rankings up to date.

Forget It Mario, Grands Prix Are Speedrunners Town

Grands Prix occupy an entirely different field than the meticulous, singularly-focused Time Trials for Mario Kart tracks that you’d find on Mario Kart World Records sites. Grands Prix are typically bid as traditional speedruns, even popping up in the semiannual Awesome Games Done Quick event. Speedruns of Grands Prix proposition a player to race through the entirety of a Grand Prix—four tracks in a row of a cup, such as Mushroom Cup—and in some cases, the entire game’s Grands Prix. But with it comes a risk.

"If you’re doing Grand Prix, anyone will tell you there’s a fair bit of [chance], no matter how much [you try], the CPUs will just screw you over," said Lundeen. "Like you might be doing really well and just get hit by a chained combo that’s unavoidable." Lundeen specifically referenced an Awesome Games Done Quick stream he watched of Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, where a player ended up getting hit repeatedly with a blue shell—a spiky blue koopa shell shot by a CPU or opponent that targets whoever is in first place specifically. The hit opened the player up to getting hit by other items, over and over again, live on the stream. And there was nothing the player could do about it. That random, unanticipated factor isn’t an issue in Time Trial runs.

Chasing Impossible, Almost Mythical Records

For Lundeen, he fell into world record chasing almost accidentally. Once upon a time around 2010, Lundeen was a regional leader for Mario Kart Wii for the U.S. "I was third in the world or something, but I didn’t quite get a world record there," he said. "I was putting five hours [a day into it], maybe a little bit more, and it was a bit too much for me at the time." Lundeen was finishing up high school around this time, when games became far too distracting from his studies. So he did what any responsible kid does: he sold all his games. ("Everything," he reiterated.) Except for one game: Mario Kart: Super Circuit.

"I held onto that game because I had been playing it since I was 9 years old, I had some nostalgia for it," he said. "I started playing casually in car rides and stuff and I realized that a lot of my times were comparably fairly decent. It was the only game I had, so playing that just for one hour every day in a small community of players, and I guess just having played it since I was 9, it didn’t take a whole lot of effort to start getting the other [records] for that small community."

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! - GameCube (2003)

As one of the few players who has dabbled seriously into world record chasing across wildly different Mario Kart games, Lundeen has a rare perspective on the series. From its 2D, portable imaginings to its more modern, 3D, denser state. The two games, releasing seven years apart (Super Circuit in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance, Mario Kart Wii in 2008 for the fully-3D home console Wii), couldn’t be more different in their handling. Super Circuit is 2D, with vastly shorter tracks. "Super Circuit makes the tracks very crowded," said Lundeen. "A legitimate lap around a whole map [can] be done in less than three seconds, and you don’t see that in Mario Kart Wii."

Mario Kart Wii, in general, is a more complicated racing game with more nuances than Super Circuit. The tracks are more varied and complex. There are other things to worry about—such as chaining wheelies on bikes together perfectly to get a speed boost. One mess-up can destroy an entire run. In Super Circuit, messing up potential chain wheelies isn’t a problem, because they frankly don’t exist. Super Circuit doesn’t depend on luck like Mario Kart Wii.

There are many different reasons Mario Kart world record holders have kept with their respective games for years on end even as shinier ones have released, or simply stayed within the community even after technically moving on. For Lundeen, sometimes seeing just the progression he’s made over the years is enough to keep him motivated, such as seeing his own scores overtake some of the perceived-to-be-impossible times. "I saw on Youtube one of my old comments on the old world record [for Ribbon Road on Super Circuit] by Sebastian Stellmacher, I had written a few years ago that I thought his time would be the time that would never be beaten," said Lundeen. Fast-forward to now. "Mine was faster than that."

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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