Maybe you were partial to Toad’s speed or to Bowser’s bulk, or perhaps chucking massive eggs at other high-speed vehicles, à la Yoshi, was more your style. Whatever your Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64 preferences were, the all-around awesomeness of the franchise’s first two installments likely didn’t escape you as you whipped around Rainbow Road—some of the games’ best-kept secrets, however, just might have.
1. THE GAME’S STAR WAS FIRST IMAGINED AS “A GUY IN OVERALLS” (WHO WASN’T MARIO).
In an interview with Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideki Konno, two of Super Mario Kart’s creators, explained that their original aim for the 1992 game was to make a two-player racing game with simultaneous on-screen display for both players. During development, Konno said, the game’s prototype had “a guy in overalls sitting in the kart” as the team worked out racing mechanics. For several months, none of the developers specifically identified this blue collar driver as the company’s famous plumber.
2. BUT MARIO WAS TOO HANDSOME TO BE DENIED.
Miyamoto added, “At first, no racing was involved. It was just two karts moving around freely. Then we noticed that it looked neat if you stopped one car and looked at the other car flying by. We decided to see what it would look like with Mario in one of the karts, and everyone thought that looked even better. Who knows, maybe the designer who drew the overalls on the earlier guy intended that it be changed to Mario all along!”
3. IT WAS THE FIRST NON-PLATFORMING GAME FOR MARIO’S ENTOURAGE.
Super Mario Kart was Nintendo’s first title to let players take on characters such as Princess Peach and Yoshi outside of a platform-based game. This move turned out to be wildly popular among fans, which has led to a small galaxy of Mario Kart sequels, but also a wide variety of sports and fighting games. It also likely set the stage for Mario games to become the best-selling game franchise of all time.
4. IT SPELLED THE END OF DONKEY KONG JR. AS WE KNEW HIM.
Many video game universes have the kind of tangled character and timeline webs commonly associated with soap operas, and Mario’s realm is no exception. One particularly tortured lineage belongs to Donkey Kong and his primate brethren, which over the decades grew to include Donkey Kong Jr., Diddy Kong, and Cranky. Donkey Kong Jr. had his own arcade game in 1982 and a math game for the Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-’80s, played smaller roles in later games (including Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64), and was, for a time, said to have "grown up" into the lead character of Donkey Kong Country (a detail that was quickly revised for later versions).
After being one of eight playable characters in Super Mario Kart, however, Donkey Kong Jr.’s flashing star began to fade. In addition to being dropped from subsequent Mario Kart games, he was gradually replaced by (or, depending on who you ask, morphed into) Diddy Kong and/or Cranky when it came to filling Nintendo’s primate-shaped roles.
5. IT KICKED OFF—AND SET THE STANDARD FOR—THE KARTING GENRE.
Not long after Super Mario Kart was released, a tsunami of character-packed kart-racing games hit the market (including Sega’s Sonic Drift, the four-player game Street Racer, and even Wacky Wheels for PC). However, few series have enjoyed, even briefly, the kind of success that Mario Kart-related games have. As the site IGN put it, “The balance was perfect, the racers were perfect, and the courses were oh so perfect.”
6. SUPER MARIO KART BROUGHT CONSOLES CLOSER TO 3D GRAPHICS.
Along with its racing predecessor F-Zero, Super Mario Kart used Mode 7 graphics to give the game an almost 3D feel, paving the way for the kinds of immersive gaming graphics players came to expect in years to come. The gaming site 1UP.com described Mode 7 as “being the most impressive due to its ability to take its entire background layer and rotate or scale it freely, essentially turning the layer into a texture-mapped 3D plane.”
7. THE MANUAL ENCOURAGES PLAYERS TO CHEAT FOR THE WIN.
Specifically, the Super Mario Kart handbook advises players to look at their opponent's screen view for the advantages it offers. (Normally, to do so would be to violate an unspoken, cardinal rule of split-screen gaming.) As the Huffington Post discovered, the manual’s last piece of advice for winning in Battle Mode is, simply, to “Always keep an eye on your opponent’s screen.”
8. PEACH AND BOWSER CHUG CHAMPAGNE IN JAPAN, BUT SKIP IT IN THE U.S.
In the 1992 Japanese Super Mario Kart release, an animation shows Princess Peach and Bowser celebrating post-race with bottles of champagne (leaving Peach a bit flushed). Nintendo of America reportedly didn’t allow depictions of drinking in its games at the time, so the scene was dropped from the U.S. release.
A prototype version of the game contained even more champagne hijinks that didn’t make it stateside: After a championship game, Super Koopa and Koopa Paratroopa figures show up and hover around the second- and third-place racers, only to be knocked out of the sky by champagne corks.
9. THE ORIGINAL KART IS STILL AMONG FANS’ FAVORITES (AND GUINNESS’ #1) ...
Super Mario Kart has received a stream of accolades since its release, including being ranked the 15th-best game of all time by IGN in 2005 (they dubbed it “the original karting masterpiece”), making 1UP.com’s “Essential 50” games list, and taking the top spot on Guinness World Records’ 2009 list of the 50 best games of all time.
10. ... WHILE MARIO KART 64 KICKED RACING INTO AN EVEN HIGHER GEAR.
When Super Mario Kart’s follow-up for Nintendo 64 hit the shelves, one thrilled critic called it “the hottest thing to hit go-karting since … well, since the original Mario Kart for the Super NES,” featuring “some of the most mind-bending racetracks you’ve ever seen.” It sold over a million units within a few months of its U.S. release and was part of a new generation of racers that, according to one industry expert, had the processing power to “[afford] a realism you couldn’t have before.”
The game also ushered in a new era for the Mario gang, as it presented, alongside Super Mario 64, the new "3D" versions of Luigi, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Yoshi that would replace their previous hand-drawn selves in the Nintendo universe.
11. MARIO KART 64’S JAPANESE VERSION HAD (FAKE) SPONSORSHIPS FROM MARLBORO.
Presumably to avoid legal repercussions (and inadvertently promote teen smoking), the U.S. release of Mario Kart 64 dropped imagery from the Japanese version that spoofed such real-life brands as Marlboro, Mobil, and Goodyear.
12. THE GAME’S THWOMP CHARACTERS SOUND LIKE WARIO BUT COME FROM JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY.
The Thwomps and Whomps of the Mario universe (the latter first appeared in Super Mario 64) were inspired by Japanese nurikabe spirits that appear to block a traveler’s way. To create the Thwomp sound effect for Mario Kart 64, game developers simply slowed down Wario’s laugh.
13. IN MARIO KART 64, A RARELY-SEEN ANIMATION REVEALS DARK DAYS FOR LOSERS.
Many experienced players aren’t aware of a particularly grim animation within the game that only results from a player character coming in fourth at the end of a tournament. If this happens—an outcome best achieved by placing fourth or lower on purpose throughout a tournament’s races—the character comes into focus after the three winners have zoomed off in glory, drives away sadly while a minor key reprise of the victory theme plays, and, after scooting out of sight over a hill, is blown up by a Mini Bomb Kart.
14. BLUE SHELLS SOLVE BOTH TECHNICAL AND EXISTENTIAL PROBLEMS.
Speaking to Kotaku, Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64 director Hideki Konno explained that his team wanted the latter release to have the dynamic in which “everyone was in it until the end.” Unfortunately, he explained, “processing problems occurred that didn't allow us to do that,” and these issues made it difficult to accommodate having multiple racers all grouped together on a racetrack.
Their solution: the blue shells, which scatter the racers during moments when they’re likely to be traveling in a clump that would otherwise overwhelm a Nintendo 64 processor. Kotaku also points out in a different article that the item “handily takes care of one of Mario Kart's biggest problems: being in first place is actually really boring.”
15. MORE THAN TWO DECADES LATER, THE MARIO KART FRANCHISE IS STILL THE CHAMP.
To date, the kart-racers have sold over 100 million game units, while Guinness World Records has honored this dominance with six separate nods, including “First Console Kart Racing Game,” “Longest Running Kart Racing Franchise,” and “Best Selling Racing Game.”