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Tracking 23 Years of the Mario Kart Franchise

David Craddock | 10 Nov 2014 07:00
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New Dimensions

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Mario Kart Wii, released in 2008, gave players more ways to play than ever before. Catering to the smorgasbord of peripherals on the market, Nintendo supported the GameCube Controller, the Classic Controller, a combination of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and the Wii Remote by itself, held sideways and tilted like a steering wheel to maneuver. So many control options appealed to a wide demographic of players, many of whom gravitated to the Wii for its casual-oriented appeal.

Online play stole the show in Mario Kart Wii. A max of 12 players could meet online, with players voting on which track to contest between each race. Karts were only one method of transportation. Players could select motorbikes and pop wheelies for a burst of speed, although rocketing along on one wheel left them more vulnerable if other races decided to play chicken. Tapping a button or waggling a Wii Remote while in mid-jump performed a trick, which sent them shooting forward upon landing.

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Mario Kart 7, which followed in 2011, was a much-needed shot in the arm for the ailing 3DS handheld, whose lackluster library had translated to low sales. Besides layering eye-popping stereoscopic graphics over the formerly-flat polygons, Mario Kart 7 changed up the gameplay by flooding certain regions of maps and affixing hang gliders to vehicles. Gliders proved the more interesting mechanic. Once airborne, players had to choose between staying aloft and collecting coins to increase their speed--a mechanic imported from the original Super Mario Kart -- or landing quickly to take advantage of shortcuts and speed pads on the ground. To immerse themselves even deeper in the stereoscopic graphics, players could trigger first-person view by tapping up on the directional pad.

More importantly, Mario Kart 7 stressed player skill and tight handling. In previous games, races were often decided by players who lucked out and got a powerful item like the infamous blue shell. Now, players had to balance stats such as acceleration, speed, handling, and traction, as each vehicle handle differently depending on the weight of the character and the parts chosen.

Gliders, flooded passageways, and a continued focus on skill returned in Mario Kart 8 for Wii U earlier this year. On the surface, Mario Kart 8's most impressive addition was high-def graphics and smooth-as-butter, 60 frames-per-second action (in one- or two-player modes). Konno, still captaining the franchise, guided designers as they stirred in new elements such as anti-gravity pads that let players race on walls and ceilings, and the super horn, an item that sent out sound that wiped out other players and shattered the blue shell, a previously unblockable item.

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Like the 3DS entry, Mario Kart 8 was still an accessible game, but one that forced players to master their handling of vehicles if they wanted to compete. Nintendo lowered the pervasiveness of "cheese" items, forcing players to become adept at using common items such as banana peels and green shells. The result was a game that maintained Mario Kart's concentration on fun for the whole family while giving veteran racers ample reason to hone their skills and a feeling of satisfaction that skill bore fruit.

Next Lap

The release of DLC containing more racers, vehicles, and courses for Mario Kart 8, due later this month, marks another big first for the series. Poring over the scant information available about the DLC packs--the second of which will be available in May 2015 -- got us thinking about changes we hope to see in Mario Kart 8, and in the inevitable sequels as the series marches on.

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Battle Mode was reduced to a shell of its former self in Mario Kart 8, which saw skirmishes unfold on the game's race tracks rather than arenas designed for combat. Nintendo needs to return the fan-favorite mode to its former glory. Perhaps we'll get a few Battle Mode arenas in the DLC due out next May, or even the one that drops in November.

Both DLC packs will add characters from other Nintendo franchises. Most notably, Link of Legend of Zelda fame will rev up alongside Mario, Bowser, and the others in November. Why not go even further? Like Smash Bros., Mario Kart should welcome characters from every Nintendo IP, especially the heavy-hitters such as Metroid and Pokémon. It would be more visually interesting to play as Samus, Pikachu, or Little Mac than derivative characters like all eight Koopa kids and Metal Mario.

Embracing DLC shows that the company wants and needs to support their games past release. We think Nintendo should stick to their guns and limit Mario Kart mania to one game per system, but releasing one or two DLC packs a year for each new game would keep long-time fans invested while giving new players reason to jump on the bandwagon.

Whatever direction Nintendo decides to steer Mario Kart, the rich history of the series and the tacit promise that a new version will grace every system is a guarantee that fans, and Mario, will rev their engines for years to come.

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