Will I ever get a tribute up on time? Probably not on this site. Still, one day late (by a short margin) is better than never, I suppose.

Today’s honor is the 20th anniversary of the release of Super Mario Kart in North America (with Japan’s coming out only a few days prior). And this seemed like a good opportunity to share some memories of the game, and perhaps the series as a whole.

Super Mario Kart was a fun game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System which would come almost out of nowhere and prove to be such a surprisingly big hit that it would go on to launch a full franchise and virtual pillar among Nintendo’s franchises. Mario characters in go-karts, racing through the Mushroom World: It’s such a simple idea, and yet, who would have ever thought of it?

The original game feels a little dated now, particularly due to its flat Mode-7 tracks and digital controls, rather than the analog we’re used to today. At the same time, it’s still a fun game to bring out now and again, thanks to features unique among the series, such as the Super Feather for jumping over barricades and dodging foes, or opponents with their own unique special items (rather than snatching from the same ? blocks you’re trying to grab, sometimes leaving you short).

Another thing I love about it is the music in the “Bowser’s Castle” course, which has not been reused in any of the future Bowser-themed tracks… not even the reuse of this one, so far as I can tell. It’s basically a remix of the theme played during the final battle of Super Mario World. Have a listen:

One other thing I love about the original is that this one has my favorite Battle Mode of all time. Just one-on-one, and tracks which were one level and easy enough to find your opponent on. These tracks should be the standard in all Mario Kart titles, in my opinion; sure, add new ones all you like, but keep this set standard.

It’s also better than some of the later versions, such as Mario Kart DS‘s requirement that you blow up your own balloons or Mario Kart Wii‘s whole respawning thing. I don’t necessarily have anything against those in themselves, but I don’t like having the original stuff replaced and not kept as an option.

One other thing I remember well is the following contest from Domino’s Pizza:

To be honest, whether I won or not, I just wanted one of those game cards for my collection. My parents weren’t big on Domino’s, though, so that never happened. Same for their other contest.

I also remember one friend being absolutely convinced that there was going to be a Super Mario Kart cartoon show, thanks to the animated portions of that ad. I didn’t think so, since it didn’t use the DiC models of the other shows. On the other hand, maybe a new company was taking the reigns? Maybe DiC decided on new models?

But no, it turns out it came from the Japanese commercial for the game:

It is funny that Domino’s would use some of the Japanese commercial footage, yet Nintendo of America’s commercial had absolutely none of that.

And in retrospect… well, one has to wonder what a Super Mario Kart animated series would be like. You know I’d watch it!

Moving on, here are some thoughts and memories of other Mario Kart releases:

Mario Kart 64: I never understood why they dropped the “Super” prefix. After all, their flagship title was still Super Mario 64, rather than “Mario 64″ or “Mario Bros. 64.” And it was originally going to be “Super Mario Kart R,” so… yeah.

Anyway, this game seemed amazing to me at the time, and I think it holds up pretty well. While I didn’t mind them for the backgrounds (which blew away their Mode-7 predecessors), I was slow to warm up to the polygon models of the day, and yes, I even considered the odd pre-rendered sprites a step up.

The best part to me was that racing through Jungle Parkway with Donkey Kong was almost sort of like getting to play a 3D version of Donkey Kong Country. Of course, we’d get the real thing a few years later, and… well, that didn’t turn out so well.

This was also the game to introduce the Blue Shell, but in this one, it wasn’t such a cheap shot; rather than ignoring everyone else on the track by flying over them, it moved along the ground, clearing a path for the person who launched it before taking out the lead kart. So much better, and I’m glad Mario Kart 7 returned to something more along those lines.

Mario Kart 64 had a contest, too, but instead of Domino’s, they went with Taco Bell:

As you can see, they apparently weren’t worried about spending money on this one. Instead of reusing cel animation, they went with some original computer-generated stuff. I’m not sure whether those are actually the official models or not, but if they aren’t, they’re darn close! And if they are, then Nintendo must have really been backing this one.

Unlike Domino’s, I did get to enter this one, but I didn’t win anything… and I’m not even sure if I still have the game pieces (the lack of art would probably have been my reason to throw it out).

Mario Kart: Super Circuit: This one came for the Game Boy Advance, and I didn’t really get to experience it much except the occasional demo kiosk and as one of the Nintendo 3DS Ambassador Program games, which I admittedly haven’t played much. Something about the backgrounds is disorienting, which largely contributes to that.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!!: This is one of my favorites; I remember receiving it for Christmas from a friend one year, and it was even the version with the demo disc of other GameCube games, which I played a lot (mostly Sonic Heroes).

This one had some great, memorable courses, as well as a wealth of characters to play as and karts to choose from. By that same token, this was also the game which introduced unlockable characters; I never did unlock them all here, and to be honest, I wasn’t especially broken up about it. However, this would be a problem which worsened for me as the series went on.

In addition to the team mechanic, which I think should at least return as an optional mode of sorts, one of my favorite things here was the inclusion of Special Items which were unique to each character. Several would return in later games as regular items anyone could use, but my favorites were the giant Bowser Shell from Bowser and Jr., the giant banana peel from DK and Diddy, and most of all, the fireballs from the Mario Bros.

Keep in mind: There had not been fireballs in Mario Kart or in 3D Mario titles by this point, with some people skeptical that such a thing would work at all. But here, you’d throw five fireballs, which would bounce off the walls and everything. It was an awesome combination of Mario’s traditional power-up, the Spread Gun from Contra, and pure chaos. What’s not to love?

Sadly, while fun, Mario Kart 7‘s Fire Flower just can’t compare.

Mario Kart Arcade GP and Mario Kart Arcade GP 2: I’ve never had the chance to play either of these two arcade games, which disappoints me. Besides the inclusion of Pac-Man characters, new courses, and unique items, I wonder if– being an arcade game– it has a more competitive spirit than the home versions.

One thing which is probably in the way of a home version– besides Nintendo’s “one per console generation” stance on so many titles– is the fact that it uses a camera to show your face in the rankings, allowing people to see your reaction when you get hit, etc. Of course, Star Fox 64 3D managed it in its multiplayer to good effect, so I don’t know.

I wonder if any of these are in Toronto, though.

Mario Kart DS: This one was a sort of back-to-basics game which led to my wife and I getting our first Nintendo DS, the Hot Rod Red pack which included the game (lucky for me, I’d get my own Nintendo DS and copy of the game for Christmas from the friend who got us Double Dash!!– and in a cool charcoal black, too!) and a charm.

Online gameplay through the Nintendo WiFi Connection, the series’ big innovation on this one, proved to be a little shaky for me. It was cool to be able to race other people I knew, but having them disappear out of the way of a carefully-aimed shell (or having it go through them) and crossing the finish line first only to discover I’d lost managed to sour the experience a bit. Playing against people in the U.S. from Canada probably didn’t help.

Again, there was a huge wealth of characters to play as in this one, but sadly for me… well, truth be told: I’m not very good at Mario Kart games, certainly not enough to unlock very many– if any– characters. So to my own shame and embarrassment, I needed someone to unlock the other characters and their karts for me.

And I might have even been able to ignore it, if not for one character: R.O.B.

The iconic accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System was just too much for me to resist, and once I discovered he was in the game, I had to play as him. The problem is, I don’t even care about his stats; I just wanted to use R.O.B. and his cool karts. Only problem is, when playing against others… if you pick R.O.B., so is everyone else, at least in my experience.

As an aside, I think the only thing left to unlock for me is mirror mode and the ability to mix any racer and kart.

Mario Kart Wii: This one started off strong for me, but the “party game” mentality behind it wore thin rather quick, not to mention having a whole host of new characters and vehicles I couldn’t unlock– often because of those very things, such as a clusterbomb of Blue Shells, Lightning Bolts, POW blocks, and whatever thwarting my efforts. Having 12 players instead of eight to contend with couldn’t have helped.

On the bright side? My Super Mario Galaxy save data made getting Rosalina a snap, thankfully. Funky Kong, Dry Bones, and Dry Bowser? Not so fortunate. And no R.O.B., either, for better or for worse. And the requirements for unlocking Miis is ridiculous; they should be right out front.

I did like some of the new ideas, such as the Wii Wheel (which I do use) and the motorcycles. My only beef with the latter was how they were only available in 100cc, and could only race against karts in 150cc.

I also loved some of the new vehicle designs, particularly the sports car-esque Wild Wing and the Mach Bike, which was inspired by the NES classic Mach Rider.

Mario Kart 7: The latest in the series, it introduces attachments for your vehicles so that they can glide through the air or drive underwater along the course. Sadly, these weren’t implemented as fully as I’d hoped; I was really hoping it might do away with the problem of falling off a course by, say, allowing you to glide to another part, or swim back into the race. The latter happens on occasion; the former, not so much. In fact, the glider is almost like a glorified super jump off a ramp, which is most obvious when used in the retro courses.

While the loss of motorcycles is disappointing, I did love the ability to customize your vehicle with different parts (especially the off-road monster truck tires), though unlocking them seems to be completely randomized, with higher level unlocks requiring a lot of play time. Similarly, other than the Mii (the only character I’ve unlocked), you have to compete at the highest difficulty to unlock any characters, including Rosalina and Wario, who’s been a standard since Mario Kart 64!

What’s more, they removed a lot of great characters– R.O.B. still isn’t back, while Funky Kong, Dry Bowser, and Dry Bones are all gone. Even Waluigi, a staple for several iterations, didn’t make it in… yet he still has a racetrack included!

One thing they brought back, which delighted me at first, is coins. I had hoped that, much like the SEGA Miles in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, these could be used to unlock things like new drivers, new parts, and new courses– perhaps among other things.

Sadly, that isn’t the case at all; instead, they offer the same slight speed boost (up to ten coins) as in Super Mario Kart. And while gaining certain amounts unlock different parts for your karts, these are at random, leaving you no choice in the matter. Meanwhile, drivers and courses are subject to their own distinct rules for unlocking.

One other thing I miss is having the ability to design custom icons for your kart. Why did you take that away from us, Nintendo?

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing: This isn’t a Mario Kart game, of course, but it was inspired by it to some degree. More importantly, and while I know I’ve said this elsewhere, I’m not sure I have here: Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (ASR) is better than Mario Kart.

I hate to sling such mud on the anniversary of the original, and it hurts me all the more because I’m such a big Mario fan to start with. But while Nintendo feels like they’re busy trying to reinvent the wheel with each new Mario Kart release, while SEGA and Sumo Digital are honing it to perfection. It may lack Mario and company, but I find it’s an overall better racing experience.

For one thing, it’s more competitive and skill-based; no Blue Shells here. When you lose, it feels like it was on you, rather than because the computer decided to dogpile you at the last moment with items. Sumo has said they developed it as a racing game first, in the vein of titles such as OutRun, with the Mario Kart-styled elements coming later.

Besides getting to use four types of vehicle– street car, off-road, motorcycle, and hovering, each with their own strengths and weaknesses during different parts of each track– all at the same time, there are simply a lot of characters to see here from throughout SEGA’s history. And the Mii/Avatar? Available at the start, just like it should be.

The unlockables are obtained by earning and spending SEGA Miles; the more you play, the more you earn, and if you play well, then you earn that many more. You can choose which characters, courses, or songs you want to unlock with the Miles that you earned, giving a real sense of empowerment. And best of all, if you just keep playing, you should be able to get everyone.

I could elaborate more about why I feel Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is better than Mario Kart (and I wish they’d included Mario in the Nintendo system versions, at that), and maybe I will someday. All the same, for better or for worse, I do love and enjoy Mario Kart, and am glad it’s lasted 20 years.

But to last another 20, I do think there are some changes that Nintendo should consider… but that’s another article.

Image courtesy of Super Mario Wiki