Mario Kart: Super Circuit
Based on: Super Mario Kart, regressing a decade and ignoring the few good things Mario Kart 64 did right.
Konami Krazy Racers
Based on: Mario Kart, also. Bonus: Beating Nintendo to the punch, as well as at its own game.
Article by parish | Fall 2001
Once upon a time -- long, long ago -- Nintendo was looking for new and exciting ways to shill its main man, Mario. Games involving tennis, typing, golf, world history (and maybe even a new title in the company's flagship Mario Bros. series) were all in hand, and the bigwigs were stumped.
"Should we put him in an RPG?" asked Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto at an emergency staff meeting. "They've become very popular lately."
"No, no," scowled Nintendo of America president Howard Lincoln. "A Mario RPG? That would never sell in America. Don't be dumb."
A gloomy silence fell over the company's high-level executives. Sega's sleek black Genesis device was annihilating Planet Nintendo in the American marketplace by creating a whole new world of gaming for people who had played Athena, Hydlide and Deadly Towers and were perfectly aware that the Nintendo Seal of Quality was, in fact, a big ugly lie. Something had to be done to reclaim the monopolistic 90% market share afforded the company by its NES dynasty in the late '80s, or who knew what might happen. Anyone might wander in and create a popular new console, even a horrible publisher like Acclaim or (shudder) Sony Imagesoft.
A hesitant voice spoke up. "I don't suppose...," began inventor and confirmed genius Gumpei Yokoi, "...that we could, you know, not create a new Mario game, but instead work on something else? Kid Icarus was fun, and it's looking a little long in the tooth. I'd love to do a sequel to that one."
The company's Japanese Dictator-for-Life, Hiroshi Yamauchi, slammed his fists against the boardroom table. "Never," he said calmly, in the steely, quiet tones of a madman living in that placid state on the other side of mere insanity. A memory of the tremendously irritating, high-pitched music in Kid Icarus percolated through Yamauchi's mind, but as a credit to his emotional fortitude only a slightly twitching eyelid betrayed the ravages wreaked by his stroll down the hell of memory lane. "Yokoi-san, just get back to work on Virtual Boy. It's much more important to our company's future, can't you understand? And we need Mario. One more foolish remark, one more failure of any sort, and you're out on your ear." Doo-do-doot-doot-do, doot-do-dooo-doo... Oh god, make it stop... I should have had Hip Tanaka murdered sooner.
Gloomily, Yokoi returned to his notes. It was so hard to concentrate these days... Virtual Boy was OK, but since he began testing it he'd been having so many painful headaches...
After another awkward, protracted silence among the executives, a junior V.P. spoke up. "What about a racing game?" he said.
Yokoi scratched his chin thoughtfully, "A Kid Icarus racing game? Maybe costarring Samus Aran? I like the idea." He began to doodle sketches on his Virtual Boy schematics, fantasizing about wizards magically transforming the two-color portable into a large, head-mounted eggplant.
Sensing that Yokoi was intractable, Yamauchi relieved his irritation by turning a baleful gaze on the young executive instead. It was the sort of stare which gave rise to legends about basilisks and medusae. It could have blunted a diamond saw. Nervously, the vice-president hastened to add, "No, I mean, like a Mario racing game. Where Mario drives around, and, er, shoots turtle shells and stuff." He made vague, gestural motions with his hands. "In, erm, a go-kart."
"So...," Lincoln said slowly, extemporizing details for a patently absurd idea which nevertheless was oddly compelling. "What you're suggesting is to have a game where Mario, instead of, you know, jumping on enemies, sort of...runs over them?" He frowned. "In a go-kart? How will he jump over those big pits and stuff?"
Wilting under the combined intensity of the president's puzzled scrutiny and the dictator's contemptuous glare, the V.P. mentally began to calculate the quickest escape route and his chances of survival.
"N, no sir," he said, stammering slightly. "I mean... I mean the enemies would be in go-karts, too. As fellow racers. And instead of jumping on them, you'd bump them off the road, or hit them with weapons to slow them down."
"But..." The slow, languid manner in which Yamauchi spoke added a certain gravity to his voice that made even the roaches hidden in the walls sit up, listen and tremble a little. "Why, exactly, would they be racing? Did the Koopa King kidnap the princess again and say, 'Oh, by the way, Mario -- you can have her back if you can outrace me'?" He spat a mouthful of a single contemptuous word. "Ridiculous!"
The junior vice-president shrank into his seat, hoping the ashen color of his complexion helped him to blend in with the grey upholstery of the office furniture.
"Actually," interjected Howard Lincoln, "it just might be a good idea. Americans love racing, and they don't care if a game doesn't make any sense. Heck, they're dumb as a post. They'll buy anything." He glanced meaningfully at the whiteboard, where THQ's latest sales figures were displayed prominently.
"Except RPGs," he added hastily, to avoid contradicting his previous statement.
Slowly, everyone in the room began to nod assent.
"Very well," said Yamauchi. "You have a green light, so to speak." He pointed a finger at the junior exec, who regarded it with the same sort of dread one might project down the barrel of a loaded tank cannon. "Just be sure it sells well, or you'll regret it later," he lied, making a mental note to have the young V.P. executed in cold blood as soon as possible to prevent him from sharing his creative vision with competitors. You could never be too safe, these days.
The young exec discovered with pleasant surprise that, despite several moments' worth of disuse, his respiratory system still worked perfectly.
And this is where our story would end, had Yamauchi's malign intentions panned out. But thanks to a lucky break and a compassionate yakuza, our young Nintendo executive escaped to live another day, and promptly spilled the secret of kart racing to any and everyone who cared to pay attention. And the wages of his Promethean crime? The gaming market has been inundated by Mario Kart knockoffs for years now -- sloppy, cynical attempts to cash in on the germ of an idea with no evident understanding of what made the original so successful. Mega Man, Bomberman, Final Fantasy, Crash Bandicoot, Sonic the Hedgehog?...no mascot has been spared the humiliation, and few attempts have even come close to matching the game that started the trend. I'm not a big fan of cold-blooded murder, but it's a bit of a shame that Yamauchi's assassination plot didn't work out. We could have been spared so much indignity.
But no sense mulling over could-have-beens (or should-never-have-beens, as the case may be). For one thing, a sensible person need only have their fingers burned once or twice by a bad mascot kart racer to learn not to expect much from the genre; anyone expecting great things after Chocobo Racing deserves all the humiliation life can hand them. And more importantly, there are finally not one but two kart racers which don't merely stand toe-to-toe with the original Mario Kart but actually outclass it in several areas. And by some miracle (or perhaps not) they're both on the Game Boy Advance.
Of course, one of these games is Nintendo's very own follow-up to the Great Father, Mario Kart Super Circuit. Surprisingly, though, Intelligent Systems' new calf for the cash cow is given an awfully good run for its money by KCET's Krazy Racers. Heretical, perhaps, but true. Yet sometimes the unthinkable happens; Diet Dr Pepper really does taste more like the original, and here's a non-Mario kart racer that is, in the parlance of the '80s, pretty rad.
Much of Krazy Racers' appeal can be attributed to the fact that, unlike Mario Kart, the characters are new to the genre and represent a wide array of incredibly diverse titles from Konami's long and impressive history. Sadly, Harry from Silent Hill doesn't put in an appearance, but odd mismatches such as Metal Gear and Twinbee are paired up with impunity. Being able to race as a giant stone Moai head and in fact all of these characters I've liked for years in such an odd mix is compelling in a way that series-based racers like Mega Man Battle & Chase or Mickey's Speedway lack. Of course, characters are only a small fraction of a good kart game; an important small part, granted, since I puke at the very idea of a Crash Bandicoot racer. But nevertheless small compared to the importance of the gameplay.
And happily, Krazy Racers (also known as Wai Wai Racing Advance in Japan, which is why the theme song appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual game title) does in fact feature very solid gameplay. Smooth controls, a nice balance of character traits, and a decent array of weapons. It's all indubitably cut from the mold of Mario Kart, but features immensely better handling than the run-of-the-mill racer and displays an excellent amount of personality without crossing the threshold into "annoying as heck."
As for Mario Kart... Well. It's Mario Kart. You've played it, you love it; it's basically the exact same game you played a decade ago but with minor tweaks. For instance, the cast of the SNES game has been replaced with the cast of the N64 version, and the weapons and courses are much more refined than in the original. Powersliding, that overused gimmick in the N64 game, has been reduced but not completely excised, requiring a touch of expertise to use correctly. But it's OK; since the AI doesn't cheap-out miserably in MKSC like it did in MK64, it's not necessary to have so many advantages up your sleeve -- if you jump way ahead in a race, the only way your opponents will catch up is if you blow your lead. Cheating does not come into play.
Krazy Racers also seems to have solid AI -- perhaps moreso than MKSC, since the skill of computer-controlled racers seems to vary from course to course. One sometimes annoying feature of Mario Kart and most other mascot racers is that each playable character has a "rival" who always comes in as the lead AI position in every race in a given Cup, barring mishaps at the finish line. This is a fairly cheap way of building up difficulty, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Krazy Racers doesn't bother with it. While this makes the game a bit easy in the lower classes, it keeps higher-class ranking from being the stupidly tedious and monumental task it often is in other racers. This is kart racing, people. It's supposed to be fun, not a Gran Turismo-level exercise in reflex memorization.
One area in which Krazy Racers falls quite far behind MKSC is in the weapons it offers -- not that they're bad, simply uninspired. Mario Kart's are iconic and intuitive thanks to the ubiquity of the Mario games: Mushrooms, Shells, Stars, and so forth have been burned into the collective human consciousness through sheer omnipresence. Krazy Racers lacks that totemic element thanks to its more diverse and obscure source material, so you'll occasionally find yourself wondering, "Where did that Hind-D helicopter come from? And, erm, what the heck is it doing, anyway?"
Oh, and there's a two/three/four-player mode in both games. But right now I live in a scary new town and rather doubt there are even any people my age living here who aren't married with several children, so my social life is a bit crippled and I haven't had much opportunity to give the multiplayer aspects a shot. Plus MKSC is the only one that lets you compete head-to-head with a single cartridge, boo hiss on Krazy Racers.
But for the most part, both these racers work quite well, albeit on remarkably similar terms with only a few distinguishing nuances. You could probably replace the sprites in Krazy Racers with Mario's graphics and convince a passerby that any given course was Mario Kart. However, the overall gameplay scheme of Mario Kart focuses primarily on racing like mad to unlock approx. three thousand new courses, including reversed courses and nearly two dozen tracks from the original Mario Kart. This is in contrast to Krazy Racers' emphasis on accomplishing various goals like passing license tests and achieving odd tasks on different tracks (which then unlock not new courses but new racers. Woo). It's almost a semantic difference, really, and to a casual observer probably looks as niggling as the variations between Christian splinter denominations must appear to, say, a Hindu.
Basically it all boils down to how sick you are of seeing Mario's mug everywhere you turn. Krazy Racers isn't quite as well-balanced as MKSC, nor does it have as many tracks by far. But on the other hand, it's a little less predictable and formulaic than what boils down to nothing more than a second remake of a nine-year-old game. But be fair: either way, you can't really go wrong with two of the few sincerely playable kart racers ever released, so spin the bottle and get your filthy mitts on one or the other. Even if you're sick of mascot racers, you might actually enjoy these. True, they have about half the depth of Gran Turismo 3 - but they also offer about 100 times more playability, which has to count for something.
"Wait, wait!" exclaimed Shigeru Miyamoto, momentarily coming off his little cloud of creative bliss. "How about a game where someone has dropped a bucket over Mario's head and trapped him in an obstacle course, and you have to control a little faerie to protect him from being hurt?" He beamed beatifically at his peers, who stared at him as if he had suddenly sprouted buttocks where his face should be.
There was a delicate, tactful moment of silence. Someone coughed as politely as the circumstances allowed.
"A racing game it is," said Yamauchi, ignoring Miyamoto's earnest, puppy-dog-like expression of wounded betrayal. He stood, staring at the forward screen, and tugged the bottom edge of his tunic sharply downward into place.
"Make it so."
If there's someone out there who doesn't recognize the cast of Mario Kart Super Circuit, I can do nothing but pity the fool. If you haven't played games which feature these characters, you're wasting large chunks of your existence in a manner most shameful. But I can offer a little lenience if your familiarity with Konami's krazy kast of kharacters is somewhat less forthcoming to your recollection - mainly because I'm writing for an American audience, and several of the games from which these adorable maskots hail have never kome to the states. (Footnote: Konami hates you, you big-nosed gaijin freak.)
Some of them, of course, you should know. Dracula obviously hails from Castlevania. Although I think it probably would have been more interesting to be able to play as a Belmont, or maybe as Slogra, I have to admit Dracula's menacing baritone chuckle as he blows past you on the course makes for the most entertaining sound bite in the entire game.
Goemon (and hidden kharacter Ebisumaru) are from the unfairly unpopular Mystical Ninja series. Konami has put at least three of these titles out in the U.S., but based on observational evidence, fewer than 100 people have actually played them. And most of those were kids who saw Goemon's spiky hair and said, "Wow! Dragon Ball!" only to be let down when the cast spent more time trying to prevent the westernization of Japan than they did powering up at one other.
The Moai head (as well as secret kharacter Vic Viper) is the mainstay of the Gradius? series. You know, Gradius? Little ships flying from left-to-right, spewing miniature death that often fills the screen? The Moai heads are the big statues that spit glowing doughnuts at you.
Pastel is a little more obscure. You old crusty types might remember an NES shooter from long ago known as "Stinger" - the American name for Twinbee. Although the Twinbee series has continued for well more than a decade (even spawning a PlayStation RPG; but then, what hasn't been turned into a PS1 RPG?) but never made a repeat appearance in the states -- apparently cuteness and mass destruction don't make a peanut butter-and-chocolate quality combo for Americans. Unless a pissing squirrel comes into play somewhere.
Nyami, and the third hidden racer King, hail from music title Pop'n Music. PNM hasn't made it to America yet, but people seem to enjoy disgracing themselves in public with Beatmania and DDR, so it's probably a matter of time. I hate music games with a seething passion, so these two characters can bite me.
Takosuke (aka Octopus) is a cheerful little fellow from the Parodius series, a personal favorite. As with Twinbee, the lack of Giger-esque monstrosities and the abundence of surreal cuteness in the Parodius games prevented all of them from coming to the U.S., although the UK has had better luck. On the other hand, the cheesy little baseball player is from Konami's long-running line of baseball sims about which I care not a whit. If you choose to use this character instead of his equally-balanced counterpart, I will be forced to give you stern looks of admonishment.
The final hidden character, Bear Tank, was originally seen in the bizarre N64 title Rakuga Kids, a graffiti-styled fighting game which was to Treasure's Rakugaki Showtime what Tekken is to Power Stone. Shockingly!, RK never made it to America - if a fighting game wants to show up in the US, it had darned well better feature either (1) lots of blood or (2) Ryu, neither of which appeared in Konami's fighting game. But we did get the execrable Deadly Arts, which should prove once and for all that Konami hates you. Like I've been saying all along.
As a useless footnote, the Japanese title for Krazy Racers was Wai Wai Racing -- a nod to the Wai Wai World series of the Famicom days, a couple of platformers which featured scads of Konami characters in cameo roles, just like Krazy Racers. So why isn't Wai Wai World/Goonies II mainstay Konamiman a playable character here? It is to weep.