Monday, July 4, 2011

Super Mario Kart, or, The Kart Racer that Could

When I was just a wee lad, I had a very gradual introduction to video games. Our family started with Gameboys (complete with Tetris), and when I was around four years old, Dad got a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which my sister and I promptly usurped from him. At that point of childhood, I wasn't privy to recent technological advancements in the gaming industry. Therefore, when I saw a Mario Kart 64 demo at Walmart, I thought that this magnificent game was available for the SNES.

Complete with Mario, Wario, and narcoleptic Peach.

So, when I went to McVan's Video Game Store and got what I thought was the same game for the Super NES, I was somewhat shocked at what I saw.


Being the child that I was, I was very upset at this game was different from what I was expecting. The graphics weren't polygonal, the controls were totally different, and there weren't any of the cool tracks that I saw in the demo of 64. For these reasons, I harbored quite a bit of resentment towards Super Mario Kart. I even traded it temporarily to my cousin's husband for Super Mario All-Stars (which, actually, was a fairly good investment at the time, but I'm glad that I eventually got this racer back).

The truth is that, although the game could be frustratingly difficult at times, it was still revolutionary for its time. The graphics were really quite good for the SNES, utilizing Mode 7 technology to simulate depth, and although textures were somewhat limited, there was quite a bit of variety in the tracks. But the music is one of the main reasons that I remember the game to this day.

The music for Super Mario Kart (1992) was composed by Soyo Oka, who also wrote the music for the NES game Wario's Woods and did the arrangements of soundtracks for classic Mario games in the SNES game, Super Mario All-Stars. With credits such as these, Oka's music bears a striking similarity to that of Koji Kondo, the main composer of the Super Mario series. Not only does it make sense that she would try to emulate the style of Mario's platformers, but there may have been even more pressure to do so, as this was one of the first attempts to move him outside of the realm of a standard platformer; that is to say, if the music did not reflect the Mario that people had come to know and love, it may have thrown the rest of the game out of harmony and sever the parallel that gamers made between this game and the rest of the Mario series. Oka did not disappoint.

This first example comes from the first track of the game, "Mario Circuit" (of course, there are a total of four Mario Circuits in the game, each with the same elements used in conjunction with different track layouts).

"Mario Circuit" - Super Mario Kart

This acts as a prime example of the parallels between Super Mario Kart and the rest of the Mario series up to this point. This song is bouncy and has MIDI instrumentation similar to that of Super Mario World, which was released two years prior. For example, the hand drum, bongo-esque drums in the background mimic the drums heard in Super Mario World when riding atop Yoshi.  In addition, the now-traditional tempo increase for the final lap is also reminiscent of the original Mario games: when nearing the end of the time limit in the original game and SMB3, the tempo became about twice as fast, and while there is no strict time limit in this game per se, this change takes place in the final lap to signify the urgency of getting past the finish line, just as in the other Mario games. All of these musical aspects can also be found in the Choco Island theme and the Donut Plains theme.

Another aspect that strengthened Super Mario Kart's ties to the other games in the series is the addition of the Ghost Valley tracks:

"Ghost Valley" - Super Mario Kart

It's easy to see what influenced this music. Just as the course was based on the ghost houses that appear in Super Mario World, the music is almost exactly the same as the ghost house music. The Kart version is a bit faster, and it doesn't have the leitmotiv of the World version, but the alternating three-note stings and the constant crescendo and decrescendo of the theme is straight from the original Kondo version. With tunes such as these, it's no wonder that Oka's music was often mistaken as Kondo's work.

However, Oka also proves that she can create intricate, beautiful music with limited hardware capabilities that does NOT sound overtly like Kondo's compositions.

"Rainbow Road" - Super Mario Kart

Oka's work on the Rainbow Road theme set the precedent for intricate, beautiful music for every Rainbow Road hereafter. Having arranged this for a cappella, I know first hand how odd the repeating chords during the beginning section are. Even though they're dissonant, they work really well, and it provides a stark contrast to the ascending whole-note chords that accompany the melody in the second part. Not to mention the bass part frequently spans octaves and provides the entire funky rhythm to the piece. It's clearly the pièce de résistance in Super Mario Kart, and rightfully so. It's the most unique and difficult music in the game, custom-built to fit with the most unique and difficult track in the game.

Another testament to the quality of this game's music is the number of remixes it's garnered from the general public. One such video, an a cappella rendition of the "Mario Circuit" theme, exemplifies the gigantic range required to effectively sing/play the song. Most impressive, though, is an album of Super Mario Kart remixes performed by the band, The OneUps. In a stellar display of creativity and true dedication, The OneUps prove not only how complicated the music is but also how infinitely versatile it is to many people's interpretations. I highly suggest checking out the album; it's worth your ten bucks and then some. 

At first glance, Super Mario Kart just seems like an ordinary racing game with Mario characters and a few new items thrown into the mix. However, it is due to several intricacies, including the ever-changing course route and its amazing music, Super Mario Kart will go down in history as one of the most revolutionary games of all time.

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