Team Sonic Racing is making a 2019 debut and folks are pretty excited. This makes sense because its predecessor, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, was an excellent title that has aged well despite being seven years old at this point. Others are excited about the Crash Team Racing rerelease, which also makes sense because those games were also great. But typically, when we think of kart racers, we defer to Mario Kart. Why is that? There are likely many reasons for this.
The first idea that comes to mind is the fact that Mario Kart is a Nintendo game featuring, well, Nintendo characters. Even if you stand on the periphery of gaming, you likely know these faces and names and could hazard a very safe guess that these characters are very popular. For a long time, my mom referred to all video game consoles as “the Nintendo.” Nintendo excels at multiplayer, and it is easy to talk people into playing a game that is absolutely full of familiarity.
Mario Kart also has the advantage of having been around for a very long time. The first entry in the series, Super Mario Kart, came out on the Super Nintendo and was revolutionary at the time. In fact, it basically pioneered what we could expect from kart racing games. You know, things like power-ups and clever tracks. This means that the franchise has both familiarity and loyalty working to its advantage. I have my suspicions, however, that a huge portion of the franchises’ fans came on board with the Nintendo 64 entry, Mario Kart 64.
Mario Kart 64 was a game that exuded polish. It felt fast, it felt precise, and it felt competitive. It was also on one of the most popular multiplayer consoles of its time and, as far as party games go, it was one of the first and one of the best. It was very easy for gamers to plug in four controllers for some split screen action; they didn’t need any extra accessories like Sony’s multitap device. And, as competitive as it could be, it was also highly accessible from more than just a hardware standpoint. It is very easy to understand and newcomers aren’t likely to feel frustrated.
In fact, this accessibility is likely one of the biggest contributing factors to the series’ success and it is something that is a bit lacking in its competitors. The infamous “blue turtle shell,” is an example of what I mean. This is a powerful item that seeks out the player who is in first place and absolutely obliterates them, giving players behind them a chance to catch up. Powerful items like this are far more likely to appear if you are playing poorly which means that there are systems in play to equalize skill and keep everyone engaged as though they have a shot. Skill will often overtake luck and the system isn’t perfect but, at its best, it means the be better players have some competition and the worst players have a chance.
Also, being a Nintendo title, Mario Kart is subject to incredible amounts of innovation that doesn’t compromise on its core gameplay. This keeps the series fresh. A particularly notable entry is Mario Kart: Double Dash!! For the Nintendo GameCube. This game turns the franchise’s conventions on its head by allowing the option for two players to occupy a single kart. This means that one player drives and the other player can play the role of gunner. It’s possible for them to switch positions midrace and the items they can get are specific to their character choices so there is a degree of strategy to be executed on the character selection screen. It is also possible for one player to play the game in a mostly traditional manner by taking control of both characters. It’s a bit of a shame that we haven’t seen another iteration of this title, to be honest.
But Double Dash!! did build a foundation for future titles. Nowadays, players have a lot of customization over their karts which can now fly and dive under water. This is even true of the portable entries like the nearly perfect title, Mario Kart DS which I had on my person almost constantly from 2005 through 2007.
When you get down to it, it makes the most sense in the world that Mario Kart is popular. It is widely available on most of Nintendo’s platforms and it is a flagship title that they push heavily. It is referenced in pop culture, ends up in songs, and is highly meme-able. The series is just so full of advantages that it would be hard for another title to dethrone it as the reigning champion of kart racers, no matter how good that game may end up being. I’m just glad Nintendo doesn’t see that as an excuse to coast on its own momentum because I enjoy living in a world where there’s always at least one decent kart racer available per console generation.