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Mario Kart Super Circuit: Forty tracks of handheld racing fun

Mario Kart Super Circuit takes elements from Mario Kart 64 and combines them with the 2D racing of the original Super Mario Kart. The result is a great handheld version of Nintendo's best-selling racing-combat franchise!

Mario Kart games are intuitive and require little explanation. If you've played any Mario Kart game, you know how to play all of them. But for the uninitiated, let me explain: you race a go-kart against seven other racers. You select one of three speeds at which to compete: 50 CC, 100 CC, or 150 CC. The A button accelerates and the B button brakes. The latter is rarely done, though a well timed tap of the brakes can prevent you from spinning out after hitting an obstacle such as a banana peel. The R button lets your kart do a tiny hop, though this also isn't often needed.

Tracks are littered with yellow coins. The more you collect, the faster your top speed becomes (and unlike in other Mario Kart games, it's not capped at ten). If you have no coins, bumping into anything causes you to spin out. Tracks also contain obstacles to avoid, such as snowmen, mice, puddles, and Thwomps. There are also copious red-and-yellow strips on the track. When you run over one, you receive a boost of speed. If you fall in water or lava, Lakitu will fish you out, costing you precious seconds and a couple coins. He does the same if a ramp causes you to fly over the wall and go out of bounds.

Some specific skills need to be mastered to succeed at the 150 CC difficulty. The most important is power sliding (also called drifting): holding R during a turn lets your kart turn more sharply and slide through the turn. If you aren't careful, however, you may turn too sharply (or start the slide too late) and end up off the track in the dirt, water, lava, etc. If you hold a slide for more than a couple seconds, you'll get a little boost when you come out of it. Another key skill is pressing the accelerator at the last possible moment before beginning; doing so gives you a valuable boost to get up to speed (this also works whenever Lakitu sets you back on the track). In contrast, pushing A way too early before the race starts will cause your wheels to spin.

A hallmark of the Mario Kart series is the special items, which are obtained by driving through floating boxes (similar to the question-blocks of the Super Mario games). The block grants you a random item, which can be used with the L button. Most of the items from Mario Kart 64 return: Super Star (invincibility), Super Mushroom (boost), lightning (shrinks all opponents), Boo (steals a random item), banana peels, and blue, red, and green Koopa shells. Shells and banana peels can be shot ahead or held behind your cart by holding ↓. Holding an item also has the advantage of freeing you up to pick up another item, effectively allowing you to carry two at once.

When you're near the back of the pack, the odds of receiving a powerful item like a Star increase greatly. This allows for sudden reversals of fortune. In my opinion, items bring the right amount of chaos to the game, making it possible to go from first to last or last to first with the right item. Skillful players can take advantage of the items, although sometimes even the best of players cannot recover from being sniped by a Koopa shell in the last lap.

The HUD shows you everything you need: your current place in the bottom-left, the top four racers in the left-center, your coin total and the current lap in the top-left, your current item in the top-center, elapsed time in the top-right, and a mini-map with all the racers' positions in the bottom-right. In deference to the GBA's small screen, a shape appears in the middle of the screen to indicate the direction of an upcoming turn or a split in the track.

The same eight-character roster from Mario Kart 64 returns. There are the heavyweights Bowser, Wario, and Donkey Kong, who accelerate slowly but have the highest top speeds. Mario and Luigi are the middleweights. The lightweights Peach, Toad, and Yoshi accelerate quickly and handle easily, but they top out at lower speeds. Note that acceleration is mislabeled as "speed" in-game. Somebody needed to brush up on their physics!

There are five circuits to choose from: Mushroom, Flower, Lightning, Star, and Special. Each contains four tracks. Tracks are raced in three laps, a lap typically taking about a minute or less. Finishing first on a track gets you 9 points, second is worth 6, third is worth 3, and fourth 1. Finish below that and you lose a life and have to try again. After three lives, it's Game Over. After the fourth and final tracks, gold, silver, and bronze cups are handed out. To unlock the Special circuit, you need to get the gold medal in the other four.

The game boasts 20 new tracks in the style of Super Mario Kart. There are four new Bowser Castles, a Luigi Circuit, Peach Circuit, Shy Guy Beach, and a third iteration of Rainbow Road. Boo Lake looks like a ghost house but takes place outside around a huge pit ("lake"). Some tracks feature never-before-seen geographies, like Yoshi's Desert, complete with pyramids. My favorite may be Sunset Wilds, which takes place in the mesas of the Western United States, with a burning red sky. As you play through the laps, it gets progressively darker as the sun sets!

The game is no more difficult than its predecessors, but this one introduces grades. It's possible to get the gold based on points yet only score a B! As it turns out, the game uses a complex formula to determine whether you performed skillfully enough to earn an A, one star, two stars, or three stars. You need to keep your thumb on the gas as much as possible, collect lots of coins, and avoid braking, colliding with walls, going out of bounds, and getting hit by shells. I've yet to get even one star, and I consider myself pretty good at Mario Kart! Getting three stars sounds almost impossible.

One of the best things about Super Circuit is the inclusion of all twenty tracks from the original Super Mario Kart as bonus circuits. This makes for a total of 40 tracks, more than any other game prior to Mario Kart 8! The circuits are remixed to break them into five circuits instead of four. To unlock a classic circuit, you need to get the gold cup in the corresponding Super Circuit, then play it again and collect at least 100 coins. This is easily done, as the courses have far more coins than in the original. You can easily get 30 or more coins in a race.

For those who can't get enough of Super Circuit, you can also challenge yourself to getting the fastest time on any individual course. Just like in the original, your fastest time is saved as "ghost data," allowing you to race against a ghost racer that recreates your best run. It's a fun way to play. There's also a Quick Run mode, where you practice one track against seven computers. 

And of course there's multiplayer, one of the main appeals of Mario Kart! You can play the normal Grand Prix mode with one other player. With three or four players, you can do Vs. mode, which doesn't include computer-controlled racers. And Battle Mode is always a joy. It takes place in four special, enclosed arenas. The goal is to pop the three balloons on your opponents' karts. Back in the day, this required multiple players owning a Game Boy Advance and their own copy of the game, then connecting their machines with link cables. Up to four machines could be connected this way. I did this just once with friends, but it was a hoot. (On Switch Online, which just got GBA games this month, you can play multiplayer online with friends, which is very cool.)

The flames indicate a successful burst of speed.

The graphics are colorful and very cartoony compared to the first game. The game features lots of interesting backgrounds, such as a Yoshi sphinx. The music is pleasant as well, even though the GBA hardware produced sound noticeably inferior to that on the SNES. The hardware limitations of the Game Boy Advance precluded making a 3D racing game, which means to some extent Mario Kart Super Circuit was bound to look like a step backwards. I think people who joined the series with Mario Kart 64 had a hard time appreciating Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart Super Circuit. But because I loved Super Mario Kart as a kid, I also love Super Circuit. It's like a direct sequel to the original game. Some people only like Mario Kart as a multiplayer game, which may explain Super Circuit having a lesser reputation than the rest of the franchise, but I like racing solo just as much. The more Mario Kart, the better!

Grade: A
Linked Review
"Mario Kart: Super Circuit is still a good time and provides hours of kart racing action to anyone looking for it."
— Ron DelVillano, Nintendo Life, 7/10


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