Super NES Mini Countdown: #13 | Super Mario Kart

Nintendo put their everyman behind the wheel of a go-kart and created a new genre of racing.

Nintendo's Super NES Classic Edition mini-console arrives at the end of the month, and the Retronauts writing team has voted to rank the 20 classic games on the mini. Unlike last year's Classic NES Edition, the Super NES mini doesn't have a single dud on it, so think of this as a countdown from good to great. Today, racing for the rest of us.

Previous entries:

13. Super Mario Kart

Dev.: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Racing
Release date: Aug. 1992 [JP] Sept. 1992 [U.S.] Jan. 1993 [EU]

What makes Super Mario Kart a worthy inclusion?

Minna no racing
As the medium evolved away from the bare-bones simplicity of its earliest days, racing games grew in complexity and precision. Sure, SEGA may have emphasized relaxation and mellow grooves with Out Run, but that was very much an exception to the rule; for the most part, racers veered increasingly toward realism as the ’90s dawned. Super Mario Kart went the opposite direction. It turned the act of racing into a slower, more casual affair by placing its racers on pokey go-karts rather than in high-performance cars. Its cartoonish appearance reinforced its game design, too: You could clearly see the Mario universe characters on their karts, ranging in size from the diminutive Yoshi to the hulking Bowser, and each character controlled the way they looked: Yoshi accelerated quickly and cornered well, but once you got Bowser's bulk up to speed he became a barreling projectile crushing all in his path. Simple and intuitive.

Drifting away
Mario Kart's comical appearance allowed Nintendo to build complexity into the design without it becoming intimidating. Advanced driving mechanics played a critical factor in Mario's races, but they took a goofy, fun form. Consider drifting, for example: Rather than forcing players to worry about the particulars of gear-shifting and braking to drift, Mario Kart built drift into the controls as an extension of the not-at-all-realistic jump mechanic. That made the idea of entering a drift feel a lot more like a natural extension of the game's Mario-based whimsy, while also meaning players were more likely to stumble onto it naturally.

It seems a little strange to find a mere eight-character roster in a Mario Kart title (Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has a character select screen to put a crossover fighting game to shame), but the Super NES game's lineup managed to offer ample diversity and strategy with a wide array of distinct, individual racers.

The gang's all here
The idea of a Mario universe team-up wasn't new in 1992 — America's Super Mario Bros. 2 was four years old by that point, after all — but the thought of Mario and gang getting together in a setting beyond platform action took the long-running thread of Mario cameos in alternate genres to a new level. Not only that, but Mario Kart embraced a decade of inclusive Mario history by bringing together the likes of Donkey Kong Jr. and Bowser in a single place. And, heck, for that matter, the idea that Mario villains could dabble in harmless motorsport with the heroes in good spirits helped transform the likes of Bowser and his minions into lovable mascot characters in their own right.

Combat (racing) evolved
Super Mario Kart pushed even further towards accessibility by making victory less a condition of effective racing — that is, who could drive the fastest — and putting as much or more emphasis on combat. Nintendo had already explored this territory with Rare's R.C. Pro-Am games for NES, but Super Mario Kart went a step beyond by integrating Mario tokens and iconography into combat. Collecting coins boosted your top speed. Turtle shells could be flung at foes and would rebound around the track. The feather allowed you to leap higher and make use of secret shortcuts. It all made sense, and all created a more varied experience than you would find in a traditional racer — without feeling overly complicated.

Nintendo created a split-screen view to enable multiplayer head-to-head competition, but the view was baked into the game's design. In single-player mode, the camera pulled back on the second player's screen to simulate a track overview. ’90s kids ever even realized this feature was actually a tech and design cheat.

Beyond the basics
Super Mario Kart ran on the same basic tech that powered F-Zero — tracks were flat backgrounds skewed to look three-dimension by way of the hardware's Mode 7 — but the console lacked the power to create true multiplayer split-screen Mode 7 racing. That's why F-Zero was strictly a single-player game. So, as on NES, Nintendo cheated by including a coprocessor chip in the Super Mario Kart. This game's DSP-1 chip didn't end up being as well-known as Star Fox's Super FX, but it nevertheless enabled a game feature that helped elevate Super Mario Kart above its predecessor. 

Interesting facts about Super Mario Kart

The idea of a multiplayer F-Zero wasn't outside the realm of imagination for Nintendo; in fact, Super Mario Kart began life as a prototype for precisely that. According to Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideki Konno in an interview with Retro Gamer magazine, Mario Kart evolved out of trial versions based on the idea of a competitive F-Zero. It wasn't a smooth, natural transition, though. The Mario Kart concept involved lots of fundamental changes to allow for combat mechanics, adding even greater complexity to the already difficult task of creating a multiplayer split-screen 3D racer on a 16-bit console.

Besides the standard racing mode, Super Mario Kart also offered a competitive battle mode as well as the solo practice races seen here.

Communication breakdown
Nintendo's long-running obsession with player-to-player communication inspired the expansion of Mario Kart beyond mere racing. The development team decided it was important that players could interact directly rather than strictly through the medium of a multi-lap race. Thus was the head-to-head battle mode born.

City jams
Composer Soyo Oka wrote the music for Super Mario Kart, a follow-up to her work on 1991's Super NES port of SimCity. Oka's unique approach to composition perfectly complemented the tracks, from the breezy calypso of Koopa Beach to the unsettling, out-of-tune synthesizers of Bowser Castle.

Even with the help of the DSP-1 chip, Super Mario Kart achieved its multiplayer racing ambitions by scaling down the size of its tracks. They're considerably smaller than the ones featured in F-Zero… which doesn't hurt the game at all, thanks to the comparatively slower top speeds of Super Mario Kart's toy engines. Laps in F-Zero tend to take less time to complete than in Mario Kart, so the reduced scale of the settings doesn't feel like a compromise.

The grafitti-doodle art seen throughout Super Mario Kart helped drive home the point that this was not a serious racer… and probably helped inspire the art style seen a few years later in Yoshi's Island and Kirby's Dreamland 3.

Control freak
According to programmer Masato Kimura, the most challenging part of creating Super Mario Kart came in trying to give the racers an "analogue" feel despite the Super NES's digital controls. The game's drifting mechanic ties in with that desire: To help create a more fluid connection between the player and the game, the developers pushed away from strict realism in favor of what felt "right."

Header image source: - game images courtesy of