Those krazy kids
Eight characters, loads of tracks, GP and Time Trial modes, support for one to four players, onboard save features and a GameBoy Advance exclusive. Sound familiar? That's right, I'm talking about Konami Krazy Racers. Reviewed back in the haze of the GBA launch, I commented from my experience of Mario Kart Advance (as it was then titled) at ECTS 2000 that there wouldn't be much to distinguish the two. How right I was. But now that it's here, I genuinely prefer Mario. How does that work then? Goemon and co. are an amiable bunch, the tracks were classy, the graphics cutesy; Krazy Racers had so much going for it. Unfortunately, the thing it cannot compete with is Super Mario Kart's sparkle. It's the original. Even when it was new and companies were trying to sideswipe it, Mario Kart was a world apart. It had the memorable tracks (who can forget the original Rainbow Road) and it had the visuals. It pretty much defined the genre, and nobody has done a great deal to redefine it since then. Mario Kart on the N64 was a muted success, but Mario Kart Super Circuit is a return to form. That said, this isn't the game to redefine the karting genre either. In fact, I'm beginning to doubt that anybody will ever take it in new directions now. Mario Kart Super Circuit actually features over forty tracks, more than twice the number Krazy Racers did, and its characters are far more memorable than the occasionally anonymous ranks of KKR. There are eight characters, but they fall into six categories this time. Mario and Luigi are the all-rounders; Peach and Toad are nippy but lack weight; Yoshi is slightly heavier but moves quickly; Donkey Kong and Wario move quite slowly but pack a lot of punch; and Bowser is the slowest of the lot, but solid as a rock.
A star is reborn
Other changes from the classic SNES version include the addition of a new Lightning cup, bringing the total number to five - Mushroom, Flower, Lightning, Star and Special - and there are now four tracks to each cup instead of the SNES version's five. The tracks won't appear all that memorable at first, but don't worry, we'll get to that later. What you will notice is that the game is slightly harder than it ever was on the Super Nintendo or N64. 50CC is still a breeze but it's not the dead calm that it used to be, while 100CC and 150CC in particular are hard going. The track design is still impressive, each themed around a different Mario environment. All your old favourites are back, including Bowser's Castle, the desert, lakeside, Mario's circuits and more, and there are some fiendish additions. Many tracks feature close-to-the-corner speed boosts which, if used wisely, can set you (or your opponents) well ahead of the pack. Tracks are littered with coins again too and, as in the original, if you drop to zero coins you are liable to be sent spinning by an opponent. Grabbing lots of coins also enables you to achieve a higher top speed. The incentive that you will really care about though, is that if you grab enough coins for each cup you can unlock the original Mario Kart tracks from the Super Nintendo. You receive a ranking for your performance as well as a trophy this time, and the higher the amount of coins the higher the ranking, so you can get an idea of how close you are to the goal. I was a little embarrassed yesterday when I let out a jubilant yelp of 'wahey!' in front of a packed carriage of commuters. But I bet they would have been happy too if they had just unlocked the Mario Kart tracks for the Star Cup.
Of course, the single player won't be what keeps you coming back. As with Super Mario Kart, the real emphasis for many will be on multiplayer, and Mario Kart Super Circuit takes no prisoners in that department. Do you have friends with GBAs? Great, you're all set. Single cart play is included, but Nintendo are using it as a try before you buy style option, with four basic tracks on offer to go head-to-head in order to make a decision on the purchase. You can still enjoy screwing people over in single race mode using last-lap power-ups and such, or you can resort to buying the damn thing for all your mates and engaging in battle mode, which is probably still the most entertaining thing in the entire game, even after all these years. Battle mode is done far better than it was on the N64. The whole three dimensional thing never worked for me - it felt out of place in Mario Kart. Because Mario Kart Super Circuit is limited to a two dimensional plane, it's my opinion that battle mode has returned to its former glory. The idea (as if you didn't already know) is that each kart has three balloons orbiting it, and your job is to race around collecting power-ups with which to pop your opponents' balloons whilst preserving your own. This is harder than it seems, because your enemies will sniff out those elusive heat-seeking shells and invincibilities, and use them on you when you least suspect it. Now more than ever, because you can't simply glance at the other half of the screen to work out what your enemy is armed with. The tactical use of ghost power-ups has been forcedly randomized too - a ghost icon just means you disappear from his screen, take whatever he has in his inventory, and you can no longer know what that is in advance of deploying it. Of course, if you run out of friends for whatever reason, what better way to occupy your time than shaving hundredths of a second from your best time trials. It's an activity that used to keep my young mind ticking over from morn 'til night every day, trying to figure out the best tactic, imaging every turn…
Visually, you'll think it looks a whole lot more like Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo than anything else, but there are definite improvements. The question mark blocks that litter the track containing power-ups are spinning 3D models rather than painted on to the track, and the character models seem to have more depth than they ever did on the SNES. The game also features digitized stereo audio. The GameBoy Advance is of course vastly superior to the Super Nintendo technically speaking, so this is hardly a surprise, but it has been said to me by a few elitists that Mario Kart Super Circuit could have been 'a lot more'. Frankly though, I don't think there's much I'd rather they had done. There are one or two problems that I might mention, but there always are. One of the most annoying is down to the console's oft-criticized lack of back-lighting. Ghost tracks are incredibly dark, and seeing that tiny gap where your kart is inevitably going to slip through into the blackness below is very difficult. The righting mechanism is a bit badly behaved too. In traditional style, if you find yourself out of bounds your pal on the cloud will fish you out and drag you back to the track, but he does it rather like one of those seafront grabbing machines, moving on two axes independently. He never makes a beeline for the nearest area of track, and he seems to randomly delay his descent too, all of which can lead to an unfairly long period of idleness, which can lead to lost laps, races and even championships, not to mention lost balloons in battle mode. What easier way to win than to find your opponent out of bounds and camp the area where he will be replaced with a red shell? The fact of the matter is though, apart from some niggles, one of which is a hotly contested design flaw in the console and one of which is a carry over from the Super Nintendo version, this conversion of a five year old game is the best driving game on the GameBoy Advance to date, and I would take it over a lot of its big brother's competitors on the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast too. It has everything a single player, or indeed a foursome of like-minded console gamers, could ever dream of, and all with the added benefit of extensive replayability. With Super Mario Advance 2 still a way off, Mario Kart Super Circuit is the killer app for GameBoy Advance as of now. Buy it.