July 25th, 2010
Developed by Intelligent Systems rather than fixed regulars EAD, Mario Kart: Super Circuit plays the Mario Kart formula pretty safe between the lines of the first 2D and 3D iterations of the series (Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, respectively). Rather than attempt to break new ground by introducing new play mechanics, Super Circuit sets its focus on being a well-executed hybrid of previous games.
For players of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, the mixed blood elements, namely the combination of the hop and power-sliding, are readily apparent. In Super Mario Kart, a push of the right trigger causes the player to hop, making it possible to leapfrog over minor obstacles, while, at other times, the hop can be exploited to displace your kart at an angle advantageous for sharp cornering. In Mario Kart 64, players could slip into a power slide allowing for long drifts around corners, closing with a speed boost if the player could sufficiently wiggle the control stick back and forth. Super Circuit kinda does both, leaning a little more towards the Super NES iteration. Hopping is still useful for bookending long turns and avoiding minor obstacles, however, if the player holds their slide down long enough a boost will automatically be granted—no wiggling required. Part of the problem with this design is that rarely is there a turn wide enough for players to earn a boost. Or putting it another way, the duration of time required to stay in a power slide is largely incongruent with the nippy curves and bends Super Circuit‘s tracks provide. Furthermore, the tipping point at which you’ll gain a boost (or not) is too difficult to judge, leaving you dependent on the safer bet of bunny-hopping each corner in a spasm of undercutting leaps and slides.
In regards these twist and turns, Super Circuit is a constant barrage of immediate, oncoming corners which leave you ill-prepared and exasperated. The flashing direction markers become a point of reliance, yet, through the brief visual disconnects created against the player’s place on the track, these signposts work to frequently hinder the player as much as aid them. Coming into a corner I found myself fraught with anxiety, thrown off by the directional aid and unsure of how to first judge the bend; at which angle to enter, and then whether or not to hold a slide, bunny hop or break-stop my kart. The split-second immediacy of the corners hampers flow and throws any form of tactical strategy out the window.
Intelligent Systems’ pragmatic, hardware-concious approach shines through well on the GBA. The use of bright colours help boost the back-light-lacking GBA screen and cups are streamlined to fit in around a portable-friendly 5-6 minute time frame. A quick run mode where you can play any track is also included for short bursts of play. The fact that the 2D character sprites are now modelled on 3D models (as opposed to the flat, textureless SNES sprites) visually make the competition easier to interpret
Intelligent Systems also display an astuteness in the track designs which draw and build upon prior games. Previous games featured shortcuts, yes, but Super Circuit almost goes overboard with hidden routes. (Such a generous number of shortcuts is quite rare in most racing games). Rainbow Road is an excellent example, ramps outline almost the entire track, peppered for all sorts of creative short cuts when teamed with a mushroom or boost pad. As this video below shows, it’s very easy to shave time off your position with a little bit of risk and initiative.
Those awesome loop-around ramps from Mario Circuit 3 return in various permutations, as do obstructions which can be avoided by hopping over, like water puddles. Overall, there’s a fine degree of creative nuance permeating each track, from shortcuts (both major and minor), to weather effects which change per lap, and course-specific obstructions.
On reaching the end of this article, I’m feeling a little uncommitted to my criticisms of the boosting system. I stand by what I say, of course, but I can’t also help but get that lingering feeling that I still haven’t grasped the way the Super Circuit is intended to be played. Having gold-medalled all of the cups (bar the SNES ones), at this point, I feel that if I’ve gotten this far without having properly understood the power sliding mechanics, then there must be something awry with the intuitiveness of this mechanic. I’m really unsure to be honest, if you have any experience with this title, then please do give a holler.