Super Mario Kart at 30: How 16-Bit Limitations Created a Mechanic That Defined the Franchise

super mario kart
Image: Nintendo

The landscape of the Mario Kart series looks much different today than it did in 1992, when Super Mario Kart was released for the Super NES. Of course, there is a clear improvement over the visuals and we now have new characters, karts and courses all the time thanks to the releases of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Booster Course Pass and Mario Kart Tour on mobile devices. Yes, there is now an official Mario Kart game on non-Nintendo hardware – what a world we live in! At its core, though, Nintendo’s main racing franchise is the same game today as it was 30 years ago.

Across all titles in the Mario Kart series, each entry has naturally had to work within the technical limits of its respective console. As with any video game, developing new ideas is a balancing act between what new hardware can bring to the table, whether it’s two- or four-person multiplayer, full 3D character models, online multiplayer, AR racing, and the list goes on. against the realities and constraints of that hardware. This was no more the case than the franchise-opening SNES title, which managed to turn a hardware limitation into a positive by introducing a mechanic that would come to define the franchise’s style of racing: the humble drift.

The first entry in the Mario Kart series was originally intended to be a multiplayer sequel to F-Zero. “We didn’t have the concept of a Mario racing game at all, we started with experiments for a multiplayer F-Zero game,” Super Mario Kart co-director Hideki Konno stated in a SNES anniversary interview to coincide with the release. from the Super NES Classic Mini. Directed by Konno and co-director Tadashi Sugiyama, with Shigeru Miyamoto producing and tasking the directors, this two-player racing project aimed to capitalize on the success of the futuristic launch title, taking full advantage of a fast-growing culture. cooperative game from the couch.

Miyamoto was right, with its two controllers, the SNES was surely the rightful home of an F-Zero multiplayer racer; however, running the game’s trademark expansive tracks in straight lines in the required split-screen mode was too much for the 16-bit hardware. The tracks needed to be smaller and, to provide a greater sense of distance traveled, have more hairpin turns. The team emphasized the need for cornering on the track in the following exchange between Konno and Sugiyama:

By horse: In F-ZERO, you run at over 400 kilometers per hour along incredibly long straight lines, but we found that dividing the screen into top and bottom parts for two players to do the same thing was impossible.
Sugiyama: Due to hardware limitations, it was impossible to display tracks with long straight lines in two screen windows.
By horse: If you look back at the tracks in Super Mario Kart, you’ll understand. Rather than tracks with long straight lines, the track layouts are compact, with lots of twists and turns, so they fit nicely within a square.”

With the exception of a few outliers (*cough* ‘Excitebike Arena’ *cough* ‘Baby Park’), long straights are not usually a feature of most Mario Kart tracks; Courses are defined by how you handle sharp corners without ending up in grass or flying into space.

However, the hardware limitations of the SNES weren’t an obstacle for the Super Mario Kart team, at least not once the designers put on their thinking caps. Turning these tricky and necessarily sharp turns into a joyful part of the game experience was something that needed to be addressed, and thus the drift mechanic was born.

Before the addition of Drift Boost, this “slip” feature in Super Mario Kart was simply there to maintain momentum and ensure that the turns of the tracks were not to the detriment of your enjoyment. If it weren’t for the introduction of this cornering assist, the small, twisty tracks would have been nearly impossible to navigate at the karts’ top speed.

So the introduction of drifting came about out of necessity, but this method of combating hardware restrictions, as any regular Mario Kart player will tell you, has become a key element in driving a successful race. The mechanic was updated for Mario Kart 64 to add the boost feature, which actively rewards you for extending your drift, and this has since been implemented in every subsequent entry.

While later additions to the franchise would have no glitches making courses longer and straighter, and we got sublime multiplayer F-Zero way back in 1998, that initial limitation has continued to define the series’ style of play and how Mario and company. negotiate sharp turns. Super Mario Kart is referenced almost obsessively throughout its sequels, from remastered tracks to the return of the Super NES’ balloon-bursting battle mode, but the humble drift can perhaps be seen as the biggest callback. of all. Drifting, and subsequently power drifting, is an intrinsic element of what makes a Mario Kart game feel like one of the family.

And here we are 30 years later, with fans and commentators looking at the old Switch and wondering what innovations a potential (and inevitable) ‘Mario Kart 9’ might bring, while Nintendo delivers nostalgia in the form of a DLC loop. Perhaps a generational leap is needed before Mario Kart can evolve. The introduction of Super Mario Kart drift is a testament to the fact that the best designers work with system limitations, however. Ironically, the hardware issues that initially prevented the creation of an expansive multiplayer racer spawned one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises.

Ultimately, the team ran into a problem, and thankfully, they let it slide.


What are your best memories of Super Mario Kart? Scroll down to the comments and let us know!

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