Mario Kart is probably the single most universally praised video game series of all time. It’s hard not to love the cartoonish kart racer with its colorful cast, devious tracks, and trademark blend of auto racing and vehicular combat. Starting with Super Mario Kart (1992) on the Super Nintendo, the series had made a smash-hit appearance on all Nintendo consoles and handhelds, the most recent being Mario Kart 8 on the WiiU. (And that’s not to mention the Mario Kart Arcade GP games co-developed with Namco for arcades.)
With its many titles and massive popularity among all demographics, it’s not unlikely that you will be invited—or aggressively challenged—to play Mario Kart. But if you’ve made it this long without playing the game that invented the “cart racing” genre, you might feel a tad bit intimidated to jump into the race now. And sure, your 10-year-old niece might absolutely crush you on Rainbow Road. If that’s the case, never fear, the Kelleher Bros. have your back. We’ve written this “How To” piece to show you the ropes and give you the basic techniques for playing Mario Kart.
Mario Kart, at its core, is racing game. Most game modes are basically just auto races. (Not Battle Mode, but the others.) Sure, things start to get crazy with the all items, tricks, and traps that can affect your performance along the way. Some courses feature environmental hazards, such as cliffs to fall off, piranha plants to bite you, and thwomps that will flatten you like a pancake. But first and foremost, this is race to the finish, simple as that.
The controls do vary from one game to the next, especially as input devices change from system to system. But they usually hold pretty close to the original Super Nintendo control scheme. You will mainly want to know what button is the Gas, which button handles Items, and which button you can use to Power Slide/Drift. (More on that later.)
Selecting Your Character
Weight vs. Acceleration
Mario Kart features an ever-growing roster of adorable characters from the Mario universe. There are mainstays like Mario and Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi, DK and Bowser, and then there are lesser-known drivers, like Toadette and Birdo. While everyone has their own favorites for their own reasons, the thing to consider when selecting your driver is the character’s weight. Typically, lighter characters have better handling and quicker acceleration, but heavy characters do more damage in bumper-to-bumper collisions and have faster top speeds. Depending on your particular play style, you might prefer to use lighter or heavier characters, but while you’re getting used to the game, you might want someone more balanced. I recommend starting out using the Princess or Yoshi, or one of the Mario Bros. (But don’t take Koopa Troopa, because I’m going to use him.)
Question Mark Blocks - Item Boxes
Found in groups around each racetrack, these translucent cubes contain items you can use gain an advantage. Just drive straight into them to pickup a random item. When hit by a racer, these item boxes disappear momentarily, but they will rematerialize after a few seconds. With this in mind, don’t aim for boxes that other racers will get to just before you.
Sometimes called Zippers or Turbo Tiles, these racetrack panels give your kart sudden turbo burst of speed. Sometimes these Boost Pads span the full width of racetrack just before a massive jump that requires high speed. But in other cases, these panels show up on one side of the track or another, giving you an incentive to drive over them and speed through.
Since the original Super Mario Kart, there have been ramps for drivers to jump off and propel themselves into the air. In Mario Kart Wii, after hitting a ramp you can perform tricks in midair to earn a boost when you land. Introduced in Mario Kart 7, some ramps will also cause your kart to spring out a glider and allow you glide through the air for some stretch of the track. Don’t be surprised if you catch air a lot of the time.
Some Mario Kart titles feature coins strewn throughout each racetrack. Picking up coins will increase your kart’s top speed, maxing out at 10 coins. Wiping out, falling off the track, or otherwise taking damage will cause you to drop some of your coins, but you can always pick up more along the way.
Much of the genius of Mario Kart comes from the deviously clever track designs. Keep an eye out for possible shortcuts on every track. Sometimes there are shortcuts that are only possible with the use of a specific item—like a speed boost from a Mushroom, for example—and some of them are riskier to attempt than others.
Ok, this is where things get crazy. There are a lot of items in Mario Kart, and using them proficiently is the most reliable means to victory. But there’s too much material to go in-depth on everything, so let’s just hit the broad strokes.
Green shells, Red shells
Koopa shells are the primary offensive weapons of Mario Kart, projectiles you can launch from your vehicle in the hopes of hitting an opponent. The come in two basic varieties: Green Shells and Red Shells.
Green Shells fly in a straight line after you fire them, so you have to aim carefully to hit your target. They also will bounce off walls without breaking, meaning that you can hit your opponent with a bank shot if you can manage the trajectory. It also means that a poorly aimed Green Shell can bounce right back and nail you in the face if you’re not careful.
Red Shells are heat-seeking missiles. You don’t have to aim them because they will go after the next person ahead of you. (They can also be fired backwards, but in that case, they only travel straight.) Red Shells will not bounce off walls, they break on contact with anything. If your target rounds a corner before the shell can get there and it hits the wall instead, it will just break apart.
Both Green Shells and Red Shells can be dragged behind your kart as a shield, a tactic we’ll discuss a little later.
Banana peels, Fake Item boxes
Banana Peels pose obstacles that if run over, cause a kart to wipeout. Kind of a classic gag, banana peels have been around since the beginning of Mario Kart. Similarly, Fake Item Boxes are just decoys to trip up your opponents. They're a bit trickier, as they can appear like normal Item Boxes to the untrained eye.
Both Banana Peels and Fake Item Boxes can be dragged behind your kart as a shield, a tactic we’ll discuss a little later.
Mushrooms, the Star
Mushrooms give you kart a great burst of speed, as if you had just ran over a Boost Pad. Sometimes they come in a set of three, giving you more turbo bang for your buck.
The Star not only gives your kart a temporary turbo boost, it also makes you completely invulnerable to all items and attacks. While using the Star’s invincibility, colliding with other drivers with cause them to wipeout, essentially making you a speeding juggernaut for the fleeting moments that Starman fanfare plays. Since it grants you both speed and invincibility, the Star is an especially useful and versatile item.
The Lightning is one of my personal favorite items. It strikes all other racers on the track, wiping them out and temporarily shrinking them to a tiny size. After you’ve used Lightning, you can literally just run over any puny driver that gets in your way.
The dreaded Blue Shell
And finally we come to the mother of all items, the feared and hated Blue Shell (also called the Spiny Shell). The Blue Shell’s sole purpose is to seek out and destroy whoever is currently in 1st Place, like an airstrike called in by the person at the back. It turns would-be champions into losers in the blink of an eye, and it does so with a spectacular blue explosion. If you are leading a race, this item can be the bane of your existence. If you’re in last place, it’s a fun little benefit you get for your trouble. Either way, it tends to keep races interesting until the very last second.
The Blue Shell can be avoided, but it's not easy. Invincibility from a Star will protect you, and Mario Kart 8's new Super Horn can negate the Blue Shell with its shockwave. Otherwise it is technically possible to quickly boost pass the Blue Shell's blast radius with a Mushroom, but the timing involved is so precise that it's a miracle if you get it to work.
Tips & Tricks
Now we get to the good stuff. Here are the techniques you will need to win at Mario Kart.
The Rocket Start, or Boost Start, is a trick you can use at the beginning of the race to get a head start right out of the gates. To pull it off, you need to press and hold the Accelerator button at a specific moment during the countdown starting lights. Unfortunately the timing has changed from game to game, and failure to get it right will result in a punitively sluggish start, with your kart spinning and/or burning out. However the last four games have been consistent, so let’s go with that:
During the countdown, press and hold the Gas button just after the ‘2’ appears on screen.
If you’re going to win races, the single most useful thing to master is the Power Slide, or Drifting. Drifting allows you to skid around big turns without losing speed. And if done especially well, a good Power Slide will give you an extra mini-boost at the end. Always performed with a shoulder/trigger button, initiating a Power Slide usually involves a little hop as you lean into a turn.
In some Mario Kart titles, wiggling the steering as you slide builds up energy for your mini-boost at the end. (Because, you know, physics.) That’s just something you’ll need to feel out and get used to. However, in later titles, the boost you receive is simply a matter of how long you have drifted, so you don't have to worry about it.
Dragging Items as a Shield & Equippable Items
After Power Slides, the next most important technique for winning in Mario Kart is using items defensively. Green Shells, Red Shells, Banana Peels, and Fake Item Boxes can all be held behind your cart to shield you from attacks fired at your back. Simply press and hold the Item button—as opposed to tapping it—to drag the item behind your kart. This technique will also free up your item inventory, allowing you to pick up another item should you run through an Item Box while dragging this one behind you.
Additionally, some items—especially item bunches—are first equipped before you can fire them. These items will encircle your cart in a protective orbit and also free up your item inventory, allowing you to pick up another. Equippable items include Triple Green Shells, Triple Red Shells, Triple Bananas/Banana Bunch, Mario Kart 7’s Lucky 7, and Mario Kart 8’s Crazy 8.
This technique, also called Drafting, was news to me as I never realized it was possible in Mario Kart. Turns out it can be performed in the four latest games, as well as Mario Kart 64. Simply trail directly behind another racer’s kart for a few seconds to receive a mini-boost. (Because of aerodynamics and all that.) This can be used to overtake your opponent, or if the mood strikes you, to ram right into the bastard.
Mario Kart’s Battlemode is not a race, it’s vehicular combat, a fight to the death—or until someone’s lost all their balloons—whichever comes first. Everyone begins with three colored balloons tied to their kart. Each time you take damage, you lose one balloon. Three strikes and you're out.
Techniques like Power Sliding and Slipstreaming aren’t particular useful in Battlemode, but the smart use of items is a necessity. Peg your opponents with shells, trip them up with banana peels, hit them head-on when you get a star; use whatever you have. Here are a couple things to note:
Some items can be fired forwards or backwards, just aim up or down to so. Green Shells function the same either way, while Red Shells only heat-seek when fired forward. Banana Peels are normally dropped in your wake, but holding up will throw the peel far ahead of your kart.
Since Mario Kart Double Dash, ramming into another kart at turbo speed after using a Mushroom will actually steal one of your opponent's balloons! Now that's tricky.
It should be extremely helpful if you can familiarize yourself with the levels you’ll be battling on beforehand.
So that’s that, you now have the basic info you’ll need to play Mario Kart. While we couldn’t go too in-depth here—especially in relation to the differences between one Mario Kart to the next—you should be ready to tear up the tracks with your kart-racing friends. Have fun out there! And try not to take it too seriously. Remember, it’s just a game, man.