Super Mario Karts storms onto consoles and revolutionizes the industry in the process.
Name: Super Mario Kart
System: Super NES
Innovations: The kart racing concept as a whole.
Since its launch, the Super NES presented itself as being a graphically revolutionary system that would not only reinvigorate existing game genres and franchises but create new ones in the process. Players had already seen how the Mode 7 graphics system would present very fast racing games thanks to F-Zero, a game so full of personality and creativity that it would become a cult franchise for the company.
In 1992, Nintendo released a game that was born out of the need to innovate with their technology as well as present a classic franchise in a very unique manner. That game was Super Mario Kart. While Mario and the gang had starred in spin-off titles like Dr. Mario, Super Mario Kart would be the first game to truly utilize all of the franchise's assets. The game took place in famous locales previously seen in Mario's premiere Super NES title, Super Mario World, and gathered familiar faces from throughout the franchise. Everyone, from fan favorites like Mario, Luigi and Peach to lesser known friends like Koopa and Donkey Kong Jr., was there to have the time of their lives through kart racing.
It is important to note, however, why these characters are important. These characters were placed into the categories of light, medium and heavy. Knowing this was vital to the experience, as these stats affected their overall performance. Light characters would have the lowest maximum speed but would handle perfectly, while heavier characters were harder to control but had the best speed. Medium characters served as a nice balance between the two. Rarely had a racing game put so much emphasis on the drivers themselves as opposed to the vehicle they were racing, becoming in itself an innovation that would be not only present in future Mario Kart titles but other racing games in the industry.
Another innovation that Super Mario Kart brought forth was the usage of weapons. Much like the characters and the racing courses, these weapons were taken out of the Mario lore, including feathers, mushrooms, and shells. Some were defensive weapons that would keep opponents at bay or aided you in your overall performance. A very simple concept, but it was one that was done so effectively that it defined the whole experience for many. Players would come up with unique ways to use these weapons, allowing them to discover shortcuts that would otherwise be impossible to reach without them. The weapons in Super Mario Kart would inspire the concept of the battle racer, with franchises such as Sony's Twisted Metal series taking it to its violent extremes.
How the game was presented was also one of its shining innovations. The release of F-Zero the year prior to Super Mario Kart had proven a game could look great and still have a very fast perfomance, making players feel like they were partaking in a very fast and furious affair. Super Mario Kart may not have been as fast as F-Zero, but it was fast enough that it kept things thrilling and exciting for fans without any drop in performance. The screen was cut in half, with the upper portion displaying the character racing and the lower portion displaying the maps and the characters. The option to see behind your character was also included to further aid players in their strategies.
Finally, and easily one of the most defining parts of the series as a whole, was the multiplayer. The single-player mode had players completing several cups through various difficulty settings, a very standard feature for the game. But it was the multiplayer mode that sold the game to a lot of people. Alongside the standard versus racing modes, Super Mario Kart featured a balloon battle mode. The main objective behind it was to destroy your opponent's balloons using various items that are scattered throughout the battle stage. A very simplistic concept for a multiplayer mode, but one that had so much potential that it delighted nearly everyone who tried it. Unfortunately, with the system only allowing for two players, the full potential wouldn't be reached until much later.
With six additional entries in the franchise (each with their own innovations), it can be easy to forget about the one game that started it all. It wasn't the most groundbreaking game in the market, but its simple ideas, along with a rock-solid execution, made not just one of the best games ever made for the Super NES but the one example to follow when designing a multiplayer racing game. Better games have come out since, but very few will deny the staying power this one game had.