Mario Kart holds a very special place in my heart, and I’m very excited to write about this series. Since its humble beginnings on the Super Nintendo way back in 1992, the blockbuster franchise has easily maintained its “Best in Show” crown for the genre that it essentially created. In Super Mario Kart, everything started off flat – literally. The graphics were superior for its time, but there were no hills and no jumps (except those little hops you could do with the Feather item, or when driving over the yellow bumpers), and all the coins and Question boxes were affixed to the tracks themselves.
The caterpillar metamorphosed into a butterfly when Mario Kart 64 was released just four years later in 1996. Following the smash hit of Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64 pushed the envelope of its previous entry by giving us true 3D tracks with hills and valleys and awesome jumps (Royal Raceway and Rainbow Road come to mind), sweet voice acting for our favorite characters, and a slew of new items to use against our opponents, including the introduction of the now infamous Spiny Shell or Blue Shell.
From there, Mario Kart gradually evolved with every iteration. Mario Kart: Super Circuit was the first to incorporate tracks from older games in its line up. Double Dash brought back character specific items, introduced a short lived two-person kart mechanic, and it gave us the first set of unlockable characters. Mario Kart DS introduced the first (limited) online multiplayer experience. Mario Kart Wii used the tilt controls for the Wiimote and added the showy tricks that could be performed when going over jumps (reminding me of Snowboard Kids). Mario Kart 7 incorporated the 3D graphics of the 3DS and the first ever kart customization options.
But then came Mario Kart 8, the new gold standard of the series, and in my humble opinion, THE ultimate version of Mario Kart that fans of the franchise have always wanted. It has the largest cast of selectable characters yet, including cross-franchise inclusions like Link and the Animal Crossing Villager, along with matching tracks. It has more courses than any other previous entry, thanks to it being the first Mario Kart to feature paid DLC, something fans have been talking about for years. The online mode is better than ever, albeit still a bit limited because of the lack of voice chat support during races and minimal options for contacting friends within the game itself (something I hope Nintendo looks to refine in the coming years). However, it’s still a tremendous step forward and the riveting challenge of online matches can keep me occupied for hours and hours. Previous games without online capability tended to get dull if you had no one to play with locally.
The course selections are gorgeous and challenging, with many new stages mixed in with revamped versions of classic favorites like Royal Raceway, Yoshi Circuit, and various Rainbow Roads. There’s everything from beaches and crowded highways, to candy and clouds. All the great ideas from past games have come together in one glorious collection, and I don’t find myself missing any of the past courses. Plus, some of the best of those have been brought in as remakes. I mean honestly, who would want to go back and play the old SNES Rainbow Road after playing the stunning re-imagining in Mario Kart 8? The new anti-gravity feature adds an exciting (if only graphical) twist to the standard game play, which actually seems to have given the designers nearly unlimited freedom to create anything in their imaginations, like the dizzying twists and turns of the F-Zero crossovers. None of the previous games could deliver heart pounding, gravity-defying courses like those, even up through the very recent Mario Kart 7.
The latest DLC also brought another exciting and novel feature to the franchise that you will not find in any other Mario Kart game – a frenetic 200cc mode that breaks the speed limit of all games past. I tried a few races on this new mode, and – for the first time in my long history of playing Mario Kart – I found myself having to carefully use the brakes when flying around the tighter turns to prevent myself from rocketing off the course. It was a refreshing and genuinely difficult challenge, a breath of fresh air from which the venerable franchise benefited, but didn’t necessarily need.
Mario Kart has gone through a drastic evolution over the years, though Mario Kart 8 has probably taken the biggest leap forward yet. While previous entries have shined, I personally see no reason to go back and play any of them now that we have this sparkling gem in our hands. While we’ve lost some of the more innovative additions like two-man karts and character specific items, the core game play mechanics that make Mario Kart the best of the best are still intact, refined to a tee, and executed perfectly like never before.
Now that Nintendo has basically given us everything we want, from cross-franchise DLC characters to a larger than ever selection of courses, it makes me wonder what they could possibly do to impress us with “Mario Kart 9′ (or whatever they choose to call it). Besides improved capabilities to contact and start up games with my mutual friends online, a true battle mode with dedicated arenas would alleviate the complaints about Mario Kart 8’s halfhearted attempt – probably the singular (and not game breaking) gripe that I have. I’d also like to see character specific items make a return, possibly as an option that can be turned on and off, depending on your preferences, especially in online matches. This would give us even more reason to select certain characters, at least beyond their weight class and personal appeal.
An idea I’ve been throwing around in my head for some time involves transforming karts. Wait, just hear me out. Remember how Diddy Kong Racing had stages with planes and hovercraft? I think it would be cooler than a fair number of cucumbers to have portions of tracks where the kart you’re driving transforms into a different vehicle to navigate the geography of that area, just like the anti-gravity sections. But rather than just being an aesthetic change, the mechanics of the vehicle would change as well. It’s not entirely far fetched, and if properly implemented, could really change up the types of courses we see in the next Mario Kart. Of course, both the standard karts and the bikes would have to be able to make these transformations, but wouldn’t it be cool to sail over the water in a motorboat, dive down under it in a sub, take to the skies in a plane, or even soar through space in a rocket? There really are an endless number of possibilities.
All in all, I’m ecstatic that Mario Kart 8 has been such a smash success, and I have a hard time imagining what could possibly be done to make the next game better. But, as you all probably know, we’re almost guaranteed a “Mario Kart 9” or “Mario Kart NX”. I can’t wait to see what the Big N brings to the Mario Kart series for many, many years to come.