5 Times Kart Racers went Toe-to-Toe with Mario Kart, and Lived to Talk About It
Mario Kart is not only the franchise that started “kart racing” as a game genre, it also manages to maintain the number one spot in sales and fans, hovering over it like a titan for every year since the inception of Super Mario Kart. But where there’s a Goliath in video games, there are many, many Davids making the attempt to slay the giant and reap the rewards. In this case, there are a lot of talented Davids. In this excursion, we’re gonna look at five of the best kart racers that have challenged Mario’s mantle, and in some cases, even won outright against the closest competing Mario Kart of their generation.
#5–Mario Kart 7 and 8
Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing Transformed
This head-to-head is a bit of an odd one, in that there isn’t one game that faces off on equal footing with Sonic’s fare. Mario Kart Wii came out in 2008, Sonic in 2012, and Mario Kart 8 in 2014, so the only one that really truly competes with it is Mario Kart 7, released the year before Sonic, and they only share one platform, the 3DS, which Transformed was so gimped on that it’s almost comical thanks to countless technical issues…with that said, though, it doesn’t matter, because when Transformed is firing on all cylinders, it wins all three matchups in a landslide.
Wii, 7 and 8 often go from weakness to strength back to weakness. Wii, while a decent game of its own, often felt overcrowded with 16 racers and silly gimmicks, like the motion controls forcing real improvements to take a backseat. 7 was more of a slow slog, to me at least, with the major additions (gliding and underwater) doing more to kill the speed more than increase it, and 8…well, nobody played 8 because it was on the Wii U. It did have a neat anti-gravity mechanic, and was showing some real strength in the track design at least, although you get the feeling that this might have been because Transformed had stolen its thunder two years earlier…
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Transformed is honestly on a different level compared to those three. The sense of speed thoroughly outstrips Wii, 7 and even 8. The ‘transform’ mechanic was a revolution; the instantaneous switching was satisfying to do, the individual modes all handled great, and being supplemented by the track itself changing every single lap, to the point where most tracks visibly fell apart, was ridiculously cool and gave each track way more longevity than any in the Mario-based competition. Combined with campaign versus your regular grand prix and tons of different franchises from Sega’s library for intense variety, and availability on everything – every console, PC, even a fantastic Vita version for on the go – meant that Transformed did a neat overtake on every Mario Kart game up to 8 Deluxe, and even then they’re still trading blows.
The only downside is that the followup to Transformed, Team Sonic Racing, was just nowhere near as good, and the modern generation hasn’t seen a port of Transformed (although the 360 version is backwards compatible with the One). If Sega is listening, a properly marketed Transformed 2 has a fantastic chance of putting Mario Kart on the back heel again.
#4–Mario Kart Super Circuit
Konami Krazy Racers
Our first direct competition on a Nintendo platform sees Konami hit the ground running, releasing their salvo before the Mario option was even available! Krazy Racers got the head start by releasing about two months in each region before Mario Kart Super Circuit.
Both follow the same general pattern – four courses in a grand prix, several characters, wired connectivity for multiplayer in a few different modes, all the basics. Where Super Circuit falls down is something that is honestly incredibly important in the world of kart racing, and that’s being able to pick up and play. After having picked it up for the first time, Super Circuit is honestly harder to get a handle on than almost any MK game I’ve played. Steering is off, effective drifting feels almost impossible. Speed is a bit much, even in the 100cc grades, which isn’t helped out by the game’s surprisingly iffy use of Mode 7 effects. It can be really hard to see turns or walls off in the distance, aim a shell, etc. It also seems like a fair few tracks have built in gimmicks, like oil slicks, pits, moving ground or what have you, that add nothing but frustration. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but it is absolutely one that’ll kick your butt seven ways from Sunday if you aren’t really willing to get into it.
So after booting Konami Krazy Racers, also for the first time, it was surprising how easy it was to just…settle in. All the characters handle differently (not to mention how strange it is to have Dracula, Grey Fox, Power-Pro kun and Goemon in a kart racer), but don’t slide all over the place. Tracks are about as varied as Super Circuit, while also being way more sight-readable (and not needing a giant TURN THIS WAY indicator smack-bang in the middle of the screen). There’s even a bit of campaign variety – you might roll your eyes at the “license tests,” but they’re more akin to challenges (head-to-head races and time trials) that help keep it fresh (even though Super Circuit does win in the end in overall track count).
Popular opinion often jumps back and forth between these two, and while Super Circuit isn’t without its charm, I have to give Krazy Racers the win for just being easier to start playing and enjoy. There was a sequel on iOS, but good luck playing it today.
#3–Mario Kart Double Dash
Kirby Air Ride
The unique gimmick in Mario Kart Double Dash is two mascots, one kart. You get more weapons at a time, they can put in more characters, and it just is more fun in the process. Well done tracks, great multiplayer capabilities (sixteen people on LAN, on the GameCube!) and smooth overall handling make it the most well-rounded Mario Kart on this list, no major downsides. Any competition is gonna have to get weird in order to stand out.
Kirby Air Ride is definitely weird. How do you turn a weird pink blob that rides stars into a kart racer? By making it thoroughly different than most kart racers. The most contrasting mechanic is the control scheme – no accelerate or brake. You use one button to charge speed boosts, brake and sharply turn at the same time. You use the same button to swallow enemies Kirby-style, and then the same button to fire off your new powers, and even hit boost pads on the ground. Keeping the star on the straight and narrow, even with such a simple control scheme, is very complex when you first start, but it’s so clean that even with the intense racing, it’s remarkably easy to pick up, and even though I was being consistently walloped at the beginning I was getting better every race I played against the AI.
Combine with tracks that resemble an SSX mountain with their multiple paths, high-speed grind rails, and numerous opportunities to get air for bonus speed, a silly amount of different ‘carts’ (stars) that change how the game plays to the point of absurdity, and the game’s nine thoroughly different tracks that thoroughly help the variety of the racing. The game has one of the highest skill ceilings I’ve ever seen in a racer like this, which just gives it that much more replay value.
It doesn’t end there, though; that’s just one mode of three. A neat top-down mode that’s great for a five minute break, and a head-to-head coliseum mode in which you swap stars and power up as much as you can for five minutes before being stuck in a free-for-all competition. It’s helped with over 300 challenges from time trials to weird things to do, evenly split across all three modes, and a set of special event challenges. While it might not win out for everybody against Double Dash, mainly thanks to its high difficulty curve, its thoroughly unique, highly enjoyable, and should be part of any GameCube library.
#2–Mario Kart 64
Diddy Kong Racing
No-one can deny that Rare was at the top of their game in the Nintendo 64 era. Any list of ‘must haves’ for the 64 will have half the spots taken by Rare games, easily. They often came to blows with Nintendo in both the business room and the game library, and often outclassed them in multiple genres. While Diddy Kong Racing definitely isn’t the biggest of their 64 titles, it absolutely rocks Mario Kart 64.
I’m not saying Mario Kart 64 is a bad game, far from it! Its tracks are varied, handling is heavier than you might expect, but still serviceable, and its battle mode is one of the better remembered ones for good reason. But looking back at it, it’s easy to tell that Nintendo were a little restricted when making it, whether it be time, manpower, or budget. Many little things stand out – a pretty noticeable lack of environmental detail, the players not being 3D models but 2D sprites, and a pretty simplistic presentation, all things considered.
So when Rare decided to make Diddy Kong Racing, everything was a step up. The game is noticeably sharper on the presentation, with improved characters, menus, and most noticeably, upgraded tracks. Seriously, compare Toad’s Turnpike to Star City, or Everfrost Peak to Frappe Snowland, and it’s no contest. They didn’t stop there, though, with three unique kart types that you can swap between on most courses, four unique battle modes (not just four maps), a full single-player adventure mode, multi-tier powerups, a fantastic soundtrack…and all while maintaining good performance, satisfying kart controls, and four-player multiplayer. It just wins by sheer scale of improvement.
A sequel, Donkey Kong Racing, was being made, but never materialized. They did ‘remaster’ Diddy Kong Racing on the DS, but it doesn’t compare as well. Mario Kart DS was much more capable competition, but some of the changes to Diddy, mainly the new stuff being iffy (four unimpressive new tracks, some frustrating mini-games and obvious downgrades from the N64), but the game is still perfectly serviceable, if not the best choice on that platform. Rare themselves did go on to make Mickey’s Speedway USA (unremarkable), Banjo-Pilot (alright) and Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts (actually cool if you ignore the license).
#1–Mario Kart 64
Crash Team Racing
It was always gonna come down to this head-to-head, and you knew it. We’ve already talked about Mario Kart 64, with its ups and downs, but there was a bigger war going on at this point. Crash Bandicoot, the main mascot for the PlayStation brand, had been wiping the floor with Mario in some ways, and losing ground in others. Naughty Dog decided to take it one step further with Crash Team Racing, and the sheer level of quality is undeniable.
While Mario Kart early on had trouble communicating its world via its tracks, Crash Team Racing gets the presentation of its tracks down to a T, almost looking like they could be converted to proper Crash levels with more holes and crates. This extends to the characters, with their on-point voice clips, and even Aku Aku / Uka Uka giving you tips in their friendly / hostile ways. But what’s even more on point? The driving. The acceleration, weight, and handling of the karts is about as close as you’ll get to real go karts while staying arcade-like. They’re heavy to turn and they feel like it; they’re gas-guzzlers right down to the tailpipes, and the sound is just 👌. When you drive a CTR kart and go back to MK64, MK feels floaty and whiffy. But we’re forgetting about one thing. MK64 has drifting mini-turbos, but CTR takes it one step further with chained mini-turbos. You get three, at which point you can pop straight into another drift and do three more. Naughty Dog polished this system to a mirror sheen.
It all works together like peanut butter and jelly, and the single-player campaign with races, time trials and other challenges are more than enough to keep you occupied for a good long while (not to mention the four-player via multitap). CTR is so well remembered that it got a sequel in the form of Crash Nitro Kart on the 6th console generation, which was just as good (at least it was to me dammit ;___;) and just got a 2020 HD remaster in the form of Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled, which is a thoroughly worthy remaster, battle pass, and microtransactions notwithstanding. Crash wins this head-to-head by far, and is more trading blows with Diddy Kong Racing than it is this one. Although, in an odd situation, Sony did win the karting wars after all…
The Ultimate Kart Racer Console
See, in my quick research and simple recall of kart games for this article, my mind immediately went to a bunch of other kart racers I’ve played before. I ignored them all for two major reasons – one, if I took the time to do a head-to-head of Mario Kart 64 to every other game, this article would be three times longer than it is, and two, almost all of them were on the original PlayStation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like every kart racer ever made on the PlayStation was a good game – you only need to look at something like South Park Rally to prove that assumption wrong. It’s also not like every game here was PlayStation exclusive. But the ratio of good kart racers on the platform, period, is honestly impressive. You have the generic but impressively speedy Speed Freaks, which was oddly published by Sony in the same year of CTR’s release. Traveller’s Tales managed to make up for their absolutely horrific Sonic R by releasing two high-quality licensed racers in the form of Muppet RaceMania and Toy Story Racing.
If you’re willing to go a bit weirder, there’s Motor Toon Grand Prix, from the team that would go on to make Gran Turismo. It takes the cartoony aspect of what you might expect a kart racer to do and turns it up to 11, making karts bend as they go around turns and giving the rest of the presentation one heck of a tune up along those lines as well. Or you could go a bit more fantasy oriented…final fantasy oriented with Chocobo Racing, which is probably the least well remembered, but it’s blend of RPG and kart racing still has its fanbase.
And if you want to stretch the definition of kart racer just a little bit, we have three options for you. If you like your RC cars more than your go-karts, the excellent Re-Volt knows just how to play that while sticking to arcade, kart-racing like rules. The gravity defying Rollcage lets you flip your “car” (basically four wheels on a metal block) on its head, drive upside down in circular tunnels, and run over big buildings to your leisure. And if you like just a little bit of edge to your racing, try out S.C.A.R.S. – the karts are more ATVs than karts, but they’re still arcade-handling, weaponized machines with ridiculous courses. If we stretch the definition any more though, we’ll end up in Wipeout territory…
And that’s not even where the buck stops, but if I keep going I’ll be talking forever. Long story short, Mario absolutely isn’t the king of this castle. The sheer variety in kart racing from the competition means that Mario was frantically fighting for the top (and in a lot of cases, losing) throughout most of the franchise’s life. Considering what kart racing is like, it’s honestly appropriate. Have you ever played any of these games? Any recommendations for kart racers that eat Mario’s lunch? Feel free to comment if you know. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if I can clip a second off my time on that damn lava course in Kirby Air Ride…