Sunday, October 15, 2017

Super Mario Kart

So a few days ago I played through all of Super Mario Kart's 4 cups on both 100cc and 150cc modes, courtesy of our new SNES Classic! (<3)  It was absolutely glorious.  I don't know if I've had that much intense fun playing video games in quite a while.

Like many others, I was first introduced to Super Mario Kart back in my childhood.  It was one of the very few Super Nintendo games that featured a 2-player mode that wasn't just a head-to-head competitive battle -- you could both enter GP mode together and race against the CPUs.  I was in elementary school at the time, maybe 5-8 years old?  It was before my brother went off to college, at any rate.  So there I was, playing with my brother, who is 9 years older than me, with of course a proportionally better ability at playing games -- but I could certainly hold my own too.  I was very lucky to have grown up around video games in a way that probably few others did at the time (or at least I could tell judging from the way that I trounced everyone else in my age group at them, lol).

As a principle, my brother always picked Toad and I would always pick Koopa Troopa, simply because those were the characters that we liked best.  They had the best handling (ability to take turns well), which I think appealed to both of us (there was also Bowser and Donkey Kong, who had the highest top speed, Yoshi and Princess, who accelerated the quickest, and Mario and Luigi, who were basically balanced).

Koopa Troopa will always have a special place in my heart because of this, and Toad too, although to a lesser extent because Toad's later incarnations tended to be...less pleasant.  It's worth noting that each character had their own musical theme that played when you took 1st place with them, and that Toad's theme in particular became oh-so-familiar to me due to my brother taking 1st place so often, though of course I would also hear Koopa's theme a lot too.  I actually still use Toad's theme as a custom ringtone when my best friend calls me, so it's still present in my day even now. (I'm actually also fond of Princess's theme as well, though I didn't hear it too much at the time)

A core mechanic of the entire Mario Kart series is the ability to "drift" or "power slide", usually by pressing the shoulder buttons of the controller, which initiates a drift turn, which (depending on the exact game) usually allows you to conserve speed through a turn, corner more effectively, and sometimes get a speed boost when exiting a turn.  Super Mario Kart's drifts are triggered by pressing L or R (which causes you to do a hop) while turning, which initiates the slide.

Something that's really interesting is that when I first played SMK way back when, I actually didn't use drifting!  I took corners without doing power slides at all and just used normal turning, which looks something like this:

This actually works reasonably well in terms of just being able to navigate the course (particularly because Koopa and Toad have the best normal turning!), but ends up costing you speed.  I believe (?) there may also be some turns that are just too tight to get around with normal non-drift turning, and I think in those cases I would just bump into the walls (!).  So obviously I wasn't playing optimally at all, but somehow it actually worked out pretty well for me.  I was still holding the accelerate button the whole time and never touched the brake button.  It's great, of course, that you can still be pretty decent at the game with just the basics.  But maybe this is part of the reason that my brother was just better at the game than I was.  It's worth noting that in Donut Plains there are several turns where your kart will actually spin out if you try to take them with normal cornering, so I actually DID use the power slides for that level specifically.

Of course, the ideal way to play the game is with the power slides, which is what I started doing once I was older (and again now too).  You end up starting the turn way earlier and =sliding= around the corners, which looks something like this:

Notice how the approach to the turn is completely different.  Without the drift, the best strategy is to start on the =outside= of the turn so that you don't have to take such a sharp angle.  But with the drift, since you start turning way earlier but slide sideways around the corner, you can actually hug the inside of the corner, which results in a shorter distance traveled (in addition to you preserving your speed better).  Taken to its extreme, it looks like this:

...except you are probably not taking the corners THAT aggressively unless you are a speedrunner (the above gif is pushing the game to its limits).

In SMK, once you start a drift, your kart continues to slide around a bit, even after you've let go of the turn direction.  To counteract this, you actually have to =countersteer= for a brief moment at the end of a drift, which straightens your kart out and sets you up to go straight again.  The timing and execution of this countersteer is actually really important and a slight screwup can mean you exit out of the turn pointed totally wrong instead of being lined up with the track.

One really important thing I'd like to get across in this post is just how different this implementation of the power slide physics is compared to the way that it is in later mario kart games, including Mario Kart 64 all the way up to Mario Kart 8.  Here's what the newer version of drifting looks like:

I am of course glossing over a whole world of significant differences in the way that drifting works in these different newer games, but let's just use these gifs as an example.  In the newer Mario Kart games, drifts are usually =controllable=.  Once you initiate a power slide turning to the right, you are "locked in" turning to the right until you let go of the L or R button and during this time, you can actually press right to make your turn sharper, or alternatively press left to slow down your rate of turning.  You can see Yoshi in the first GIF start the turn relatively aggressively, then ease off for a bit before turning more sharply again.  Back in Super Mario Kart this wasn't possible -- you could let go of the direction of the turn for bits at a time, but pressing in the opposite direction (counter-steer!) would just result in the slide ending altogether.

Speaking of counter-steer, since you end a drift by letting go of L or R, the counter-steer element is gone entirely and instead when you end a drift by letting go of the shoulder button, your kart straightens out automatically, as you can see by toad's boost in the second GIF.

So to drift in SMK, you usually:
- Start on the =inside= of the track (ideally)
- =Commit= to when you start the drift
- At the right moment, =counter-steer= in the opposite direction, enough to straighten out, but not too much to throw you off alignment

Whereas to drift in MK8, you usually:
- Start on the =outside= of the track (ideally)
- Start the drift, then =adjust= your steering during the entirety of the turn 
- Let go of the drift button (and automatically straighten out)

So basically in SMK the drift is super committal and you really need to be precise about where and when you start the drift, whereas in MK8 you can just adjust your steering as soon as the drift starts, so it's no big deal.  In SMK too you have to manually countersteer and straighten yourself out.  It's way more difficult in general and I can see why they moved away from it.

...but MAN is it satisfying to do.  I think requiring such precision is exhilirating and really feels like a true test of your driving abilities.  There are a lot of turns in SMK that are really challenging to execute properly, with obstacles and boost pads and whatnot to make things even more interesting.  This time around I even used the technique of tapping the brakes sometimes when I needed to cut a corner really sharply or abort a drift that threatened to swing wide, as tapping the brakes seems to stop you from sliding and straighten you out much faster.

Don't get me wrong, the newer mario kart games are fun (especially MK8 I think.  And MKDS was...well, that was sort of its own thing).  But I think something about the physics of SMK really, truly shines out to me in a way that I love, and it's no wonder that MK64 doesn't garner nearly the same amount of respect from me as SMK does.

So anyways, we played through the 100cc races and then moved onto 150cc and that where things get real.  150cc is pretty unforgiving in that all of your slip-ups are really amplified because everyone is moving so much faster, so running into an obstacle or going off-course is so much worse.  Plus, you're just going at a much faster speed so you can't just leisurely approach each turn conservatively -- you really have to go for it and start the slides early, and even string them together.  It's =exhilarating=.  And then of course, there's the CPU players, who can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes.  I was playing as Koopa, which meant that the Luigi CPU was always the one I was fighting with for 1st place, and man, both Mario and Luigi are insanely annoying when you are trying to compete with them because their special ability is basically to flash invincible as if they have a Star, basically at will -- and touching them in that state makes you spin out.  So basically getting close to them is always super frightening at any moment, not to mention you're also going really fast through really challenging courses with turns and narrow straightaways, little room to maneuver, etc.  This time I actually had quite a few times where I just slammed on the brakes because it's better to just slow down and avoid trying to pass Luigi until you have a good chance rather than run into him and spin out, which is a disaster.

150cc Special Cup (like many other things in the game, to be honest) holds special significance for me since me and my brother spent so much time trying to clear it.  Some of the courses in that GP are really brutal and I have to say, even now it truly pushed my abilities as a gamer.  I had to try it quite a few times and on the last try, I reached the last course, the glorious Rainbow Road (with its epic music and all) with 3 lives remaining.  I failed my first attempt, and then also my second, and it was down to my last shot remaining.  I was off to a great start, but slipped up in the middle and fell behind, but somehow managed to super duper clutch it out and catch back up safely, taking some really crazy maneuvers as well as avoiding all of the CPUs to regain 1st place and finish the race.

All that is to say that Super Mario Kart is and probably always will be my favorite racing game of all time.  It's really all in the way that the karts handle and I'm really amazed they were able to create something so unique, skill-testing, and satisfying all at once.  I love SMK!!!

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