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Tech Evolution: 25 years of Super Mario Kart

Can you believe it? This week marks the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Kart – the original, pioneering Super Nintendo release. Many imitators have come and gone, but that 1992 release set the template for seven sequels – eight if you count the excellent Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Switch – and we felt that was worthy of celebration. But beyond the anniversary itself, the importance of Mario Kart’s evolution across the years is significant – each series entry defines the strengths and weaknesses of its host platform, and demonstrates the values, practises and philosophy that set Nintendo apart from its competition.

Just one example of this is its target performance level. With just one or two exceptions, every Mario Kart game ever released hit a full 60 frames per second. Of all the platform holders, Nintendo is by far the most wedded to the silky smooth, full frame-rate experience. It’s almost essential for a driving game of course, but Zelda aside, it’s the standard Nintendo sets for all of its major franchises.

It was much easier to achieve back in the day, before the advent of polygonal 3D, and that’s where the Super Mario Kart story begins. Released in Japan on the 27th August 1992, nobody could have predicted the success the title would go on to have, or the legacy it’d create. Technically, we’re looking at a humble beginning in some respects, with the Super Nintendo relying on its 256×224 output mode to CRT screens of the day. It’s most famous though, alongside F-Zero, for its revolutionary use of Mode 7 graphics. A lot has already been said of the technique, but this was a landmark title for showing what it could do – and it’s hard to miss; Mode 7 created a psuedo-3D look in SNES titles by rotating and scaling a background layer on top of 2D sprites.

These visuals may look primitive today, but it gave Super Nintendo a huge advantage over the competition at the time. Rotate and scale operations were handled natively on the Super Nintendo console – meaning no extra chip on the cartridges (though Super Mario Kart itself used the DSP1 processor on the cart to handle additional computations). Two picture processing units worked in tandem, taking a large 256×256 texture-mapped tile, and shifting the perspective from the conventional top-down view, to a more dynamic side angle. It creates the floor to Mario Kart’s maps, and once 2D sprites are planted on top (with 22 variations to accommodate character rotation and three sets for distance), it gives a convincing illusion of 3D space using flat surfaces.