I often think that you should never go backwards through a series. Whilst you may have fond memories of a supposed classic, a creep of features and evolving controls can often make you wonder whether the prescription on your rose tinted glasses needs updating. Never was that more evident than last week as I took my Super Nintendo into work and hooked up the original Mario Kart for an office competition.
The theory behind our choice of game was that even though there were pockets of 3DS Mario racers and still some hardcore Wii Karters, the original entry in the series had not been seen on the premises in nearly a decade. Hopefully this extended absence would mean there were no hard-core fanatics ready to bust out a well-practiced hot lap. More so than that, the name alone promotes an accessible and familiar series that we hoped would coax as wider a range of people in as possible.
The theory was sound, but as I wired up the system, plugged in the cartridge, and sat on the starting grid for the first time in years, my fond memories were on the cusp of disappearing in a belch of exhaust fumes.
Our modern expectations of the number one racing series for plumbers is characterised by elaborate backgrounds, wide circuits and easy to control karts. There’s a lushness to each stop on the grand prix circuit that has grown over time, yet Mario Circuit 1 is anything but. As neat as the Mode 7 graphics are, that initial track is strangely bland. The mind’s eye paints in a lot but the misshapen doughnut road sits upon a dull dirt plateau, the only thing tying it into the Mario series being the iconic green hills sliding by in the distance.
Of course when you’re racing you barely notice anything but the pipes dotted about the track; you focus on the race and your character so the lack of franchise padding is of little interest. What is noticeable however is the incredibly unforgiving handling.
There was a time that I mocked my younger sister for her uncanny ability to fish tail all the way down a straight. She seemed unable to point the cart in a straight line, always overcompensating, turning out to the other side of the track, forcing another correction and the cycle to begin again.
I now take everything back. A combination of sensitive digital controls and a large amount of over-steer saw me lurch back and forth, fighting to keep Luigi in his kart and out of the dirt. I daren’t even attempt power-slide as it was a sure fire recipe for ending up with Lakita flagging me down and kindly informing me that I was pointing in the wrong direction. It was a desperate return to a classic I had played for hours and hours as a teenager.
As I staggered over the line, my driver green in more ways than one, my high scores of 16 years past flashed up on screen. My younger self had somehow managed a 1:07.86, an embarrassing amount quicker than my stumbling return. My only thought was that over the years I had gotten soft with analogue controls and countless driver assists turned on. A culture of rubber banding and a need for instant success has caused me to forget how you had to work at games in generations gone by. And just before I popped my flat cap on and started moaning about the youth of today I vowed there and then that by the end of the week I would get back to at least the standard I had set to myself when I was 16.
If this were a film this would be the point where some enthusiastic 80s music would kick in and you’d see a montage of me honing my skills. A furrowed brow of concentration, the wringing of the pad at a misjudged turn, and a few choicely bleeped phrases, I can see it now.
Over the next week early starters would come into the office and find me already tucked in front of the SNES, stealing some solid time on the track before the masses arrived and took their turn. And I needed a continual block as the odd lap here and there did nothing for me. From the narrow window for boost starts to judging the slide round a corner, I was slowly relearning the basics and only a series of consecutive races could help me settle back into the flow.
Second by second my lap time eked down but with that came all the memories of the subtle magic that Nintendo crafted into this very first Mario Kart. On a basic level you can easily pick a racer like Mario or Toad and zoom round the course, posting a respectable time and progressing in any Grand Prix you may be in, but there are glorious layers. The powerslide for one, which not only allows you to keep speed round bends but can be as tight as required, falls into the classic category of being easy to pull off but incredibly hard to master. Seeing some of our top racers hug the corners so tight there was a danger of asphyxiation whilst travelling sideways in a controlled skid was incredible.
Very rarely do you step back into the past and find that it still is as good as you remember but Mario Kart still stands up remarkably well. Though there is an initial learning curve as your privileged hands have to relearn digital controls, it is a welcoming and warming experience. If anything the stripping away of the presentation frills benefits the focus on racing and means the giant cheep-cheep that floats over you on the podium means so much more.
What meant the most to me however was my time at the end of the week: 1:07.66. I’m a whole fifth of a second better than my teenage self. Take that, young James!