Why is Mario Kart the best casual racing game?
For over 25 years, Mario Kart has been the go-to casual racing game. But what makes it so great?
If you ask a racing game fan what the best racing game is, you’ll probably get a multitude of answers. Colin McRae games, Gran Turismo, Forza, iRacing - multiple answers and all of them great. However, if you ask a non-racing game fan what the best racing game is, you’ll probably only get one answer - Mario Kart.
I love the SEGA arcade games like OutRun. But when it comes to that casual, arcade multiplayer racing, Mario Kart will always be front and centre of popular discussion. Why is that? This isn’t just a single game but multiple ones that transcend generations of gamers across the world. What exactly is it that makes it such a special series of games?
I personally believe the current game, the Nintendo Switch port of Mario Kart 8, is the best of the bunch but I still have a lot of love for the original Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. Two games, 25 years apart and still both equally enjoyable. There will be many that love other Mario Kart games over those two but that’s the joy isn’t it? That we all have our own memories?
Nostalgia plays a huge part in everything we love on Drivetribe. It’s why we swoon at a racing livery with cigarette branding. It’s why we all talk about the cars we fantasised about growing up. It’s also why pretty much everyone loves a Mario Kart game.
Consider my own love for the original Super Mario Kart. I was a SEGA kid (hence the love of OutRun and Super Monaco GP and the collection of Sonic the Hedgehog socks), so I never had a Nintendo. Sure I played on friends systems after school but I never had the same connection to all things Mario or Nintendo as I did with the super speed of SEGA's racers. If I'm completely honest, I still don’t.
Super Mario Kart however allowed me and my friends to play against each other, on the same screen in the most simple and pleasing way. There were no gear changes or special appreciation of cars needed, no special compound of tyres, no setups or racing lines. You simply selected your characters and went about your racing on the Donut Plains or Rainbow Road.
It’s something that survived even now. A few years back I was in a nice pub in London with a friend who I hadn’t had these formative gaming experiences with during childhood. That pub randomly had a SNES set up with Super Mario Kart and over some pints we played for a good few hours, despite never having played the game together before. The appeal and simplicity transcends it and that has remained in every single version of the game since.
This is a weird one because one of the key points of Mario Kart’s enduring appeal is the fact that it hasn’t massively evolved, outside of the progression of gaming technology. The premise and simplicity has remained the same. You could make the argument that Nintendo got it right from the outset. The game has, however, continuously found ways to push the limits of fun to new heights.
The move in to 3D and the release of Mario Kart 64 saw the addition of the race crushing Blue Shell. New and reimagined tracks appear throughout all the games in the series, very much never resting on its laurels but confident of its gameplay style. The Wii version gave us motion controls. Mario Kart 7 gave us the 3DS stereoscopic 3D. The franchise is still evolving even now as the formula moves into Virtual Reality with the new arcade game version that’s in Japan and now the Hollywood Bowl at the O2 in London.
The series has continued to push its everlasting appeal and it has meant that multiple generations of players have their own entry points to the series. Some are falling in love for the first time now. Others fell in love playing on the Gamecube. Old codgers like me will always be married to the first game. That makes one thing abundantly clear though, it’s not just the game itself but who we play it with.
We have a phrase in video games and gaming in general. It’s called emergent gameplay and it’s the concept that the stories and occurrences that are made by people playing the game are facilitated from the game itself. Grand Theft Auto Online is a great example but racing games, and other sports games, have always had this style of gameplay.
A few weekends back I was playing with a colleague and while following close behind he threw a banana and I still haven’t forgiven him. We all have these gaming stories and Mario Kart always seems to be one of those games that creates them.
A part of this is because the game has been so good at capturing enjoyment with multiple players able to play in the same room at the same time. It creates chaos, it creates fun and it creates memories. Mario Kart 8’s online play has shown this isn’t just stuck on the same TV with Online Play between friends also bringing the same level of enjoyable and deliberately banter.
It’s a very simple premise. Three (or 5 in the original game) laps around a course with pick ups to enable you to battle as you race around. These power ups can make you go faster, shoot flames, fire a shell to knock someone out of position or drop a banana to create an obstacle for those behind you.
It’s quick, it’s fast and it’s rewarding. You can leap between games, courses and players very easily, you have a large variety of courses and visually interesting arenas. You have the nostalgia of older games reimagined and long loved characters to choose from.
I would love other games to be as simple as this. Arguably games like Ridge Racer and Outrun were, which is why they have also endured in the hearts and minds of many. But if I was to do a gaming night with friends and I wanted to race, then I can be sure that the steering wheel wouldn’t see a second of action and Mario Kart would be the first thing on.
To me, and I don’t say this lightly, Mario Kart in any iteration is probably the best casual racing game and the most accessible to everyone, young or old, racing officando or complete stranger. It will bond people, create stories and has an everlasting appeal because it’s simple, it’s short and it’s exciting. And with the Nintendo Switch, its flagship version is now portable. It doesn’t get any better, really.