Super Mario Kart (SNES) is out now for the Wii U Virtual Console for £5.49.
Reviews are not objective. So let's get this out of the way. This is a personal opinion, but I do not think 'Super Mario Kart' is one of the best video games ever made.
I think it is the best game ever made.
Now, there are lots of great video games and for lots of different reasons. Some games are classics because they contain a single genius idea which pops out of nowhere and hooks in your brain like a virus. (Tetris, for instance.) Other games achieve greatness through generating atmosphere (Doom) or emotional resonance (The Last Of Us), or by making you rethink how the world inside and outside your computer fits together (SimCity, or Minecraft).
Super Mario Kart doesn't rely on any of those. At its heart, it is a simplistic racing game, with cute characters, and weapons, and a relatively shallow difficulty curve which punishes mistakes with the cruelty of an irrational deity, and rarely rewards genuine skill except in multiplayer. That's it. On paper, it shouldn't have worked.
But it did. Because Super Mario Kart had a Red Shell of its own: tuning.
Super Mario Kart is tuned like a Stradivarius before opening night at the Albert Hall.
You can feel the nuance, and balance, and thought, in every nanosecond of gameplay. This video game was made by a genius.
It's in the way your acceleration builds, quickly at first, then slowly, slowly, all through the race, to a crescendo of momentum, and how each touch on the brakes feels like a failure. It is contained in how the powerslides provide just enough give to stay on course even on the harshest corners, and in the perfect balance of the weapon and items, the sudden shock of the speed arrows and the juddering thump of a mistimed slam into the walls. It's in the game's famed ability to keep you in the race even when you're in eight place on the final lap, and the almost coma-inducingly perfect way the camera spins around 180 degrees the instant you pass the finishing line.
Everything about the experience of hurtling around the 20 tracks (and three battle arenas) in Super Mario Kart is tuned to within a pixel of perfection. The algorithm underneath it all, whatever it looks like on paper, is a work of art comparable to the Special Theory of Relativity or Google PageRank. It is beautiful.
As a result, playing the latest Wii U eShop re-release of the game is not just an exercise in nostalgia. (Is is that, of course, no matter how much Nintendo tries to tell you the addition of Restore Points and Miiverse integration count as new features.) It's also a reminder of just how fun and pure and perfectly tuned console games have been, and can be.
All that said, you can't ignore too that 'Super Mario Kart' is now 22 years old, and looks its age. Once upon a console generation this fast-paced, sort-of-3D Mode7 racer was the height of high-tech home gaming. But while it still has a low-res pixelated charm, the cracks in the shell are obvious. The cart sprites float on the screen, are barely animated at times and often seem to jostle about for no very good reason. And some of the tracks - the ice and chocolate-themed worlds in particular - are now almost blinding to play thanks to the strobing side-effects of the Mode 7 graphics.
None of that matters, though. Not really. All of Nintendo's Hall of Famers have their merits, but Super Mario Kart is by far the most playable and enjoyable on its own terms. It is every bit as fun as it ever was, and in some ways the modern version of the series still sit in its shadow.
Which is where I get a bit weepy. Because in my mind, people will play this game, in this form, forever. Hundreds of years from now, our ancestors will sit in their bomb shelters, or their glass spires, and load up this game on their brain emulators, and they will Press B. They will fire their precious red shell, and pass their spinning mates at the last corner and laugh. They will just miss that awkward drop in Ghost Valley 1 and feel the glory of the wind at their back as they race on by, or fall into it and curse as they're lifted back onto the track -- and shunted immediately into the drop once again. They will career around Rainbow Road, and see the face of God in the shimmering colours, and Mario will win, and Peach will win, and the music will ripple on the home screen.
Super Mario Kart will live forever. And if I could live forever, I would play it once a day until the end of time.
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