Super NES Retro Review: Super Mario Kart

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Join us as we review all the games on the SNES Classic Mini Edition in chronological order!

If I live to be one thousand years old, I'll never get over how Sega's marketing team managed to make Super Mario Kart look old, slow, and crusty next to the Genesis' "Blast Processed" library.

The advertisement linked above is probably the pinnacle of Sega's marketing achievements. Any commercial that makes Ecco the Dolphin appear more fun and exciting than Super Mario Kart deserves every single accolade available to '90s ad companies.

In retrospect, however, that ad marked the beginning of the end for the Genesis' untouchable coolness. The proof's in the Mode-7 pudding: Super Mario Kart sold like crazy, and went on to spawn a series that still whips the public into a frenzy of turtle shell-hurtling. Sega's smear campaign came to naught. Like Tetris, Super Mario Kart is a game that seemingly everyone has played, including your game-avoidant Grandma and Pop-Pop.

That's not a surprise. With its imaginative courses, easy-to-grasp mechanics, competitive racing, and unspeakably addictive Battle Mode, the original Super Mario Kart quickly became a staple of sleep-over parties across the world. It's a friendly game, it's a colorful game, and it's an accessible game – but it's also an old game. What's Super Mario Kart's role in this brave new world of multiple Mario Kart sequels (not to mention endless imitators)?

Grandpa was always in last place, but at least everyone had fun.

This may sound strange, but Super Mario Kart is the SNES Classic Edition's most perfect inclusion. It's not a perfect game, but no other title on the mini-console's roster does as thorough a job projecting the SNES Classic's mission statement: "SNES games are simple, but still wildly fun."

As much as I love retro games and tend to retreat to them when I'm in need of a digital blankie, I try to avoid over-romanticizing them. The "good old days" of 16-bit gaming still had plenty of stinkers. Even classic games from the era are plagued by balancing issues, game-breaking bugs, and other gremlins that can't be fixed with a downloadable patch. There's a reason why Zophar's Domain has been a popular dispensary for ROM hacks, edits, and fixes for decades.

"Oh no, he's actually floating!" "Well of course he is. What a bellend."

That said, it's impossible to avoid being inundated with nostalgia and longing when you pick up the original Super Mario Kart. The series' latest release, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, is incredible, but there's something undeniably good, simple, and pure about Mario's first time behind the wheel. There are no blue shells to wail over, no blue sparks to fret about, no anti-gravity track portions, no distracting background elements, no endless parade of items to keep straight in your head – and no rubber-banding that keeps AI-controlled drivers sniffing at your butt when you should logically be ahead of them by miles.

Blessed be Super Mario Kart's trim driver roster, too. There are only eight racers to choose from: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, Toad, Koopa Troopa, and Donkey Kong Jr (before his Rare makeover; we'll never see his like ever again). As someone who will fight to the death for the honor of modern Mario Kart's Dry Bones, it's also nice to just sit back and relive my childhood with my main man, Koopa Troopa.

Do not lick Chocolate Island.

But is Mario Kart still fun without all its current-day bells and whistles? Heck yeah. Mario Kart didn't become a genre-spawning phenomenon simply because we were all taken with the novelty of making Mario putter around in a go-kart. Though the racetracks are flat-looking in this age where we can literally make Mario drive up into space, they're still master-works of racing design. From the classic and friendly Mario Circuit, to the perilous Vanilla Lake 2, to the glittering Thunderdome that is Rainbow Road (constructed by the filthy hands of Satan himself), Mario Kart's tracks offer challenges suitable for all comers.

And then there's Battle Mode. Good old Battle Mode. This is another instance where Mario Kart's simplicity works for it instead of against. It's just you, your friends, and a fistful of balloons against wide-open areas and the terror of red shells. Again, that's not a slight against modern Battle Modes; it's another example of how well-suited Mario Kart is for the SNES Classic Edition. If you're fortunate enough to score one of these puppies – which comes with a second controller, don't forget – you're going to have one heck of a great weekend jumping from game-to-game with your pals before finally settling down for some old-fashioned Mario Kart Battle Mode. It might only be for one afternoon, but it's going to be a whale of time when you discover hunting-and-slaying each other in Mario's Motorized Arena of Death is every bit as fun as you remember from childhood.

Mario Kart does have one flaw I've never been able to get over: The single-player split-screen. When you race the AI, the bottom half of the screen shows you where the racers rank, and it also functions as a rear-view mirror. I understand the reasons why Nintendo split the screen in twain; unlike F-Zero, Mario Kart is more about technique then speed. The inclusion of the rear-view mirror therefore makes sense, plus being able to switch from full-screen to split-screen on the fly might result in noticeable frame rate drops.

"Guuuys! Wait uuuup!"

Oh, and there's no four-player option, of course. That's one area where modern Mario Kart unquestionably dominates classic Mario Kart.

But you don't need a squad at your command to enjoy Super Mario Kart. You just need yourself, maybe one good pal, and a stack of snacks. Expert mode: Host a sleep-over, too.

Super Mario Kart is pretty bare-bones compared to its feature-laden sequels, but in many ways, its simplicity is its strength. Super Mario Kart's core concept is still a whole lot of rad fun, and that's what matters most.

4.5/5

Tagged with Nintendo, Racing, Retro, Retro Reviews, Reviews, SNES, Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition.

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