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The most successful racing video game franchise of all time started with a simple concept.
In 1992, Nintendo released Super Mario Kart on their Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) console.
The game was produced by Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and followed the release of F-Zero – a well-received debut on the console for another popular racing series – but as a single-player experience, the company wanted to take things further.
The development team set out to create a two-player racing game which displayed both players on the same game screen simultaneously. But due to the limitations of the SNES, it wouldn’t have been possible to illustrate the futuristic high speeds of F-Zero, so it needed to slow things down a bit.
As a result, they decided to go with karts. However, it wasn’t originally planned to feature Mario, Princess Peach and friends.
A few months into development, when they had a prototype of two karts featuring generic racers of guys in overalls, they decided to see how Mario would look in the game. According to Miyamoto, everyone agreed it looked better with the inclusion of their famous mascot and so, the Mario Kart series was born.
Industry analyst Serkan Toto of Kantan Games describes the title as a “system seller” for the SNES.
“Already back then, Nintendo was leveraging the Mario brand,” he tells the BBC. “So they put Mario in there to sell more copies of the game than with, for example, a new character that they would have to come up with.
“It actually made a lot of sense to put characters of the Mario universe into that racing game.”
The power-ups – which are now synonymous with the series – were there, including the ability to throw shells and bananas to hamper opponents as well as collect coins to boost speed.
It also included battle mode where players attempt to try and pop their opponent’s balloons in more open environments, which remains a popular part of the series.
Thirty years later, the fun of playing with friends and family remains a huge part of Mario Kart’s charm.
Following the initial game, Nintendo has gone on to release at least one new title for almost all of their subsequent consoles, along with various spin-off titles including a mobile game.
In total, nearly 168 million copies have been sold worldwide and it remains the most popular Mario spin-off game series.
“I think that as far as racing games go, in terms of sales, status or impact on the genre, it’s difficult to think of a more influential one than this,” says Toto.
The game’s popularity has resulted in the creation of various similar concepts by other developers such as Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Crash Team Racing to name a few.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch is the latest release in the main series, and, in February 2022, a paid “Booster Course Pass” was announced for the game. The download pack (known in the industry as downloadable content, or DLC) will eventually bring a total of 48 more courses, in six instalments. The new racetracks will include classics from series’ history, alongside various new tracks.
With the release doubling the number of circuits available, much of the gaming community felt it was good value for money and welcomed the update. However, some were left disappointed about the lack of a new entry in the main franchise, five years after the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
Furthermore, when the first batch of DLC courses dropped, not all players were happy.
Some complained that the additional circuits lacked the quality of the game’s original content, while it’s also been claimed that too many of the new courses are ported from the Mario Kart Tour mobile app, bringing that game’s art style with them.
Eurogamer’s Oliver Mackenzie said as part of his in-depth look: “The best MK8 tracks combine challenging sets of fast corners with extended anti-gravity sections, multiple viable routes, and track hazards.
“Most of the new tracks are sedate in comparison, with laid-back layouts, less interesting track features, and little in the way of vehicle transformations.
“Simply porting mobile tracks over without major modifications means they don’t match the gameplay concepts in Mario Kart 8 especially well.”
These are from the same game.
Correction: The one on the left is from 2014 and the one on the right is from 2022. pic.twitter.com/uCWEIZtRJW
— Kremling Kampaigner (@KRoolKountry) March 18, 2022
Following the recent release of the second wave, in the conclusion of his review, Ollie Reynolds from Nintendo Life said: “Ultimately, Wave 2 Of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe doesn’t quite knock it out of the park.
“We know we’ve been bashing these courses left, right, and centre, but when it comes to Mario Kart, we have pretty high standards, you know. However, none of the tracks on offer are straight-up bad; most of them just feel like ‘b-side’ filler when compared to the main tracks created specifically for Mario Kart 8.”
“We have to keep reminding ourselves of the bigger picture, too; we’ve now got 16 new courses for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and we’re not even halfway through yet. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
With new courses releasing periodically until the end of 2023, a sequel to the bestselling game in the series so far before then is unlikely.
Nintendo declined to comment on this article.
Other than Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, an augmented reality game where a radio-controlled toy car races around the player’s house while streaming video from the onboard cameras directly into the video game, there hasn’t been an original release title since 2014 – with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe essentially an enhanced Nintendo Switch update of the original Mario Kart 8 title on the Wii U.
Another highly successful game, Grand Theft Auto Five, didn’t get an official sequel throughout the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era, essentially skipping a generation and it looks as though Nintendo might do the same with the Switch and Mario Kart 8.
However, both developers will feel as though their games have received sufficient improvements to keep them fresh. Mario Kart 8’s initial upgrade to Deluxe featured various additions, including a further five playable characters and now the subsequent DLC release.
With both GTA 5 and Mario Kart 8 in the top 10 best-selling video games of all time and a GTA 5 release for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X earlier this year, they continue to generate a significant amount of revenue – so perhaps it’s no surprise that neither Rockstar nor Nintendo have been in a rush to release sequels.
What’s next for the series?
In terms of an eventual follow-up to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Toto predicts gamers may have to wait until the release of the Switch’s successor.
“It’s hard to say but if I had to, I think there would be some distance to Mario Kart 8, maybe 2024, something like that,” he says.
“But I think, if Mario Kart 9 comes out with a new Switch console, I think they will launch it as a launch title, or very close to launch.”
However, any new game in such a popular series will look to bring fresh ideas to the table – something Nintendo have been able to do so far, but Toto feels one of their biggest challenges is to keep delivering moving forward.
“Mario Kart 8 is so well made, that it might even be a victim of its own success,” he explains.
“I heard that apparently, Nintendo came up with a new idea for Mario Kart 9. I think that they need a little bit of a reboot for Mario Kart 9. I’m not saying that Nintendo is rebooting the series, but what I’m trying to say is, I think they need a new angle for the series.”
“I think that Mario Kart 9 actually has to offer something new because just a rehash of Mario Kart 8 is probably not going to cut it for Nintendo.”