With Mario Kart 8 arriving this Friday, Nintendo is ready to usher in a whole new era of arcade style racing, with beautiful high-definition visuals, online social features and dynamic anti-gravity that will literally have you racing up walls and ceilings.
Of course, the series came a long way since its humble beginnings on the Super Nintendo. That said, join us as we take a break from playing Mario Kart 8 and step into the time machine to see how Nintendo’s series changed racing games for the better.
It was approachable for all ages and skill levels
Most racing games are divided into two categories – simulation and arcade. Mario Kart, on the other hand, appeals to all sorts of players, whether it’s a die-hard Gran Turismo fan or a five-year old kid who can’t wait to explore Rainbow Road.
The game’s controls are easy to learn yet tough to master, and with the random power-ups and speed boosts scattered across each track, no one is out of a race for long. It’s competitive, but to the point that anyone can take a first place victory – and that’s something that can’t be said for more hardcore efforts like the GRiD series.
It introduced a drift system with benefits
In several racing games, drifting merely exists for the sake of drifting, showing off in front of your buddies while maintaining a proper speed to stay in the race. With Mario Kart, Nintendo turned drifting into an art form by adding a subtle reward system that pays off as you master it.
Consider this – in later Mario Kart games, the drift system can actually work three-fold. Drift long enough around the first corner and you’ll earn a small boost. Continue drifting and the flames go from blue to orange and you’ll get a longer drift. Manage to hold it throughout the entire turn for several seconds and you’ll achieve a super boost that’ll give you a chance to take the lead.
In other racing games…well, you drift and then get back on the road.
Power-ups made all the difference
Ever since the original Mario Kart on the SNES, power-ups prove extremely useful, whether it’s beaning someone with a turtle shell or making them slip on a banana peel.
Over the years, power-ups have become more innovative in the series, including triple mushroom boosts, a raccoon tail that can swat away turtle shells and most importantly, the game-changing spiny shell. Up until this point, it was the most unstoppable power-up in the race, since it’ll track you down and ruin your first place finish.
In Mario Kart 8, however, Nintendo threw in some real game-changers. The Piranha Plant is fantastic for grabbing enemies, and the Super Horn not only delivers a thunderous blast to whoever’s around, but can also stop a spiny shell dead in its tracks. No, we’re not kidding.
These power-ups add a huge element to each race, although it likely resulted in a few “COME ON!” moments from racers who thought they had it made for the checkered flag. That’ll show you guys.
The greatness of multiplayer
Racing games are fun solo, but it’s great to get friends involved. The original Super Mario Kart for SNES introduced a great two-player split-screen mode that made for many fun hours of karting for all ages. Mario Kart 64 made the series even better by introducing four-player split-screen, a feature that remained with the series for years to come – including Mario Kart 8.
However, it’s when the series took a step online that things really changed. With the ability to get matched up with friends and strangers around the world – without waiting too long – players found a new sense of competitiveness that few games could deliver. Mario Kart 8 will continue that trend Friday, with up to 16 people taking part in a race at once.
It produced some mighty fine clones
Finally, while Mario Kart innovated in its own right, it was such a good game that competitors did everything they could to produce clones. As a result, two emerged from the pack to become classics.
The first, Crash Team Racing, helped make Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot an overnight success on the original PlayStation, with neat track designs, power-ups that stayed true to the nature of the series and of course, split-screen multiplayer, so you could take part in the fun with friends.
As for the second, Sega hit the ground running with Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing, featuring an all-star cast and a number of thematic courses. However, it really nailed the formula in 2012 with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, featuring an even bigger foray of racing characters, bigger tracks and the ability to transform between aerial, sea and land vehicles. It continues to be the best Mario Kart experience for those who don’t own a Nintendo console.
As you can see, Mario Kart left its mark on driving games. You can bet that with Mario Kart 8, the series will keep moving forward.
Mario Kart 8 is available this Friday for Wii U, as both a physical release and digital download.