Warm-up lap: Mario Kart's inspirations and development secrets...

The story of the most popular console racing series ever

Next year it celebrates its 20th anniversary, but the story of Super Mario Kart actually began in the year 2560. No, really. Heartened by the success of futuristic racer F-Zero, which launched alongside the SNES, Nintendo decided to follow its blisteringly fast solo offering with a two-player driving game.

This feature is taken from Games Master Presents Mario Kart. You can purchase the full magazine in stores or order it online and have it delivered straight to your door. It's also available digitally through Apple Newsstand as well as Zinio. Also read CVG's Mario Kart 7 review.

Part of the reason for F-Zero's warm critical and commercial reception was down to the console's famous Mode 7 technology, which allowed developers to scale and rotate a game's backgrounds to give a then-unparalleled illusion of 3D perspective. It all looks rather quaint now, but two decades ago many were dazzled by the sensation of speed that this ahead-of-its-time tech had created.


Even so, such high-velocity thrills would have been impossible to recreate on a split screen, and so the development team (headed up by producer Shigeru Miyamoto and director Hideki Konno) opted for a fresh approach. Sensible idea: cramming Captain Falcon into a tiny go-kart would have made it impossible for the spandex-loving speedster to show us his moves.

The hero of the game's first prototype was a man in overalls, though not the man in overalls you might be thinking of. In fact, it wasn't until over three months into development that Nintendo tested it with Mario behind the wheel, and found that the plumber felt equally at home on the track as running, jumping and stomping Goombas.

Evidently his cameo appearance waving the chequered flag in the Game Boy version of HAL Laboratory's F1 Race (worked on by one Satoru Iwata) had given him a taste for burning rubber - or petrol fumes, one of the two. The plumber's arrival meant the oil cans players could lob at rivals to make them spin out were thrown out, and in came banana peels that had a similarly slippy effect.

It wasn't all about the races, of course. Nintendo also wanted a mode where players could compete off the track, and once one bright spark on the design team suggested the idea of popping each others' balloons, the hour-stealingly compulsive Battle Mode was conceived. Further power-ups, familiar from Mario's platform adventures, were tossed into the mix, as well as recognisable characters from the Mushroom Kingdom. An iconic series was born.

Super Mario Kart launched in Japan in August 1992 and in the US a month later to instant critical acclaim and commercial success, selling over 8 million copies in total. Those numbers may have been dwarfed by the likes of Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart Wii, but the legacy of the older game is much more significant.


This was the first time since Super Mario Bros. that Nintendo's mascot had headlined a game in a new genre (sorry, Wrecking Crew doesn't count) and by doing so, the company set a precedent that many have since followed. Twenty years on, the Mario series is the most successful and lucrative videogame-based media franchise in the world - and it's undeniable that Super Mario Kart has been a significant factor in that success.

It is also credited with the slightly more dubious honour of giving birth to the kart racing genre - now there is a baby only a mother could love - and these days no console is complete without a Mario Kart rip-off. From Crash Team Racing to ModNation Racers, everyone has tried to refine the formula, but despite some valiant attempts, no one has quite mastered it like Nintendo did on its first lap. Two decades since Lakitu swooped down to start the first race of the Mushroom Cup, Mario remains champion of the track.

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