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Why ‘Mario Kart’ Mattered (And Still Does)

Last week, Nintendo released the a new iteration of its classic video game racer Mario Kart for the new Switch handheld console. The game sold nearly 500,000 copies the first day, making it the most successful Mario Kart game to date–and that’s a high bar. Mario Kart is the Muppet Show of video games, timeless and popular across demographics. Not only that, it feels more relevant and even more exceptional now than ever before. In the age of online match-ups, massive tournaments, eSports and true competition, the Mario’s races stands out because they are simple, fun, and best played in a room with other humans. If Overwatch and League of Legends are modern pugilism, Mario Kart is basically Wiffle Ball, which is why it’s one of the most significant gaming franchises–and maybe entertainment properties–of all time.

In 1992, Nintendo released Super Mario Kart as a Super Mario spin-off. The game abandoned the traditional side-scrolling platform style in favor of a third person view of go-karts steered by franchise characters. The game took place in Mario’s world so, of course, there were the usual features: players Koopa shells, mushroom, ghosts, and blocks. It felt, initially, like another racing game, but the game dynamics were such that players struggling to keep up were given weaponry that allowed them to challenge frontrunners. This ensure nail-biting, last second victories and allowed for terrible players to mount a real challenge.

Naturally, it was a smash hit with kids. And that would have been that if the game wasn’t so sticky, but those kids never moved on. They just moved on to different versions of the game.

If the OG version of the game created loyalists, the Nintendo64 update created diehards. The game became ubiquitous–as did the catchphrases and character quirks. Shout “Immagonnawin!” and the better part of a generation will get the reference.

Part of the reason Mario Kart worked and works so well is that the multiplayer visuals make it easy to see your opponent suffering through setbacks or accelerating. Because the game is generally played on couches, this leads to trash talk. Nintendo understood the value of that interactivity from the get go, which is presumably why they created a battle mode, morphing a race into a ludicrous confrontation. Competition is not a symptom of Mario Kart. It is the entire point of Mario Kart. It’s what makes a cartoony game intensely human.

mario kart 64 split screen

Playing Mario Kart drunk is fun. Playing Mario Kart high is fun. But playing Mario Kart with a loved one or close friend is the most fun. And that’s what makes the game truly unique: It makes personal relationships the central part of the game. Credit that phenomenon to innocuous Nintendo’s IP or gameplay or timing, the original evolved because it had the opportunity to do so, but the conversation will inevitably circle back to the ineffable fun-ness of the thing. And then it will come around to this one time when your kid or buddy or wife did something memorable. Winning is never the memorable thing.

Nintendo knows that Mario Kart is a special and social property, which is why the game is the entire backbone the two-controller Switch. The new console is fully portable and strongly encourages co-op gameplay at home or in cars or at cocktail parties. That means that it also encourages karting. Still, it’s worth noting that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is not an entirely new game. It’s a revamped version of Nintendo Wii’s Mario Kart 8, which came out in 2014. Is that insulting to consumers and purists? Not really. The levels matter far less than the competition.

All that said, the game looks great. It’s got great graphics, more story, and plenty of opportunity to explore. None of that really matters when you’re playing with your daughter or son or fellow PTA member, but it’s a bonus, an extra star on top of three green shells.

 

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