Nintendo’s star plumber has been a master jumper for decades, inspiring tons of competing platformer games. However, while I’ve been eager to play all the prospering platforming games, I’ve barely had the desire to play any new racing games. It’s possible that when the plumber started burning rubber, he also burnt up all of his competition.
It feels as though the “Mario Kart” franchise has completely stifled all innovation in the racing game genre. Now Nintendo hasn’t actually patented the genre or threatened any competitors, they’ve simply honed a well-tuned gameplay formula over the years. The simple controls with the mix of random items combined with the unique tracks and vehicle customization of later entries are some of the ridiculously fun and addictive.
It says a lot about the quality of this series’ gameplay when a slightly enhanced port of a six-year-old Wii U game has remained the highest selling Switch game since the console’s launch. “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” isn’t even the highest selling game in the series, with “Mario Kart Wii” reigning with around 37 million units sold. So with these massive numbers, who are Mario’s main competitors?
Well, it turns out “Mario Kart” as a franchise is a runner-up in sales to the “Need for Speed” franchise. I find it surprising then, how I’ve never heard of or played this franchise. Since I was ignorant, I checked to see what other people thought of the “Need for Speed” games. In general, they seem to all have average or mixed reviews, and pale in comparison to the overwhelming positive scores for the “Kart” games. It appears the last game in the franchise was released in 2017, and it’s worth noting that the best-selling “Need for Speed” title is beaten by four “Mario Kart” titles.
Besides “Need for Speed,” Mario’s current competitors are “Forza Horizon 4,” “Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled” and the Sega/Sonic racing games. “Forza” is one of the most relevant ones being Xbox’s exclusive racing game. “Forza” gets points for not being derivative of “Kart’s” gameplay, instead modeling its handling on emulating real-life cars, using real brands for players to drive. My biggest gripe is how the game seems to be based too much in reality, however, that’s my personal bias, and to “Forza’s” credit, they do have that bizarre “Lego DLC.” But it still doesn’t feel like a competitor to “Kart,” after-all you’re probably buying an Xbox to play “Halo” before “Forza.”
“Crash Bandicoot” seems like the best competitor for the plumber, after all, “Nitro-Fueled” has been overwhelming deemed 2019’s best racing game. It has a more advanced drifting mechanic, “powersliding”, which is rewarding but its gameplay is heavily based on “Kart’s” design. It’s bittersweet how a remake of an older game is “Kart’s” prime competitor. As a side note, we have so few new racing games, that racing was lumped in with sports games for 2019’s Game Awards. “Kart” has such a strong grip on the genre, that DICE gave 2019’s best racer to the mobile game, “Mario Kart Tour,” despite it not even having multiplayer yet.
It seems fitting that the best innovator in the racing genre is the blue blur. The latest game is “Sonic Team Racing, “which tries to change the formula by prioritizing cooperation with partner racers to gain speed. However, this entry has been received less well than Sega’s former racer, “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed,” which had a more diverse character roster and controls that rivaled Kart. Both of these series are still incredibly derivative from Mario’s gameplay.
The most innovative racing game I’ve seen is the Gamecube game “Sonic Riders.” Gameplay here prioritizes the intense skill and concentration as the player has to constantly earn and spend “air”, which is your vehicle’s fuel. Youtuber Liam Triforce did a wonderful review of the series and he pointed out why this innovative racer failed: terrible tutorials that couldn’t explain the intricacies of the game and zero support for online multiplayer. Sadly, this series is practically dead after the horrible Xbox Kinect entry, “Sonic Free Riders.”
I’m all for buying and playing new racing games, if only there were new racers that weren’t “Mario Kart” with a different coat of paint. The most successful competitors emulate real-life driving rather than the chaotic mayhem of “Kart’s” setting. Mario’s even killed innovation within Nintendo itself, as the racing series “F-Zero” hasn’t seen a new title since 2004 and only lives on in cameo tracks and vehicles in “Mario Kart 8.” Unless everyone truly believes that Nintendo has crafted the perfect racing game formula, I can’t help but wonder why so few developers are tackling the genre.
Featured Illustration: Miranda Thomas