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When it comes to cart racing games, I think the Mario Kart series is still king and the first three games are all significant in some way. Super Mario Kart was simply the first game in the series. The foundation for all the rest. Mario Kart 64 was the first 3D game in the series and introduced some mechanics that have since become series staples. Then there’s the third game, Mario Kart: Super Circuit, the first Mario Kart game released on a handheld system. Developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo, Mario Kart: Super Circuit was released for the Game Boy Advance in August, 2001.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit is a lot like its predecessors but on a handheld system. It supports up to four players and comes with multiple game modes including Grand Prix, Time Trial, VS, Quick Run, and Battle. The Grand Prix is the real meat of the game, you can try to set record times in in the Time Trial mode, race your friends, and in Battle, players try to pop each other’s balloons in various courses. Quick Run is a new and welcome addition. In this mode, you can race on any unlocked course of your choosing and configure different settings like how many laps and if you want to enable items and coins. Multiplayer does require link cables and we did play through the two player Grand Prix mode.
The gameplay is very similar to Super Mario Kart with some mechanics borrowed from Mario Kart 64 and the eight drivers from Mario Kart 64 make a return and have different stats in speed and weight. You can accelerate, brake, hop, drift, and perform a drift boost. Drift boosting in Super Circuit works a little differently than that of Mario Kart 64. You need drift for a little bit and then straighten your cart out and the boost will activate. I really dislike this process because it all depends on you straightening out and it’s very easy to mess up. You can spin out if you oversteer, run over a banana, or hit certain things on the courses. However, depending on the cause, you can prevent yourself from spinning out by tapping the brake at the right time. How your cart handles will depend on the character you select and some characters do handle much better than others. Some characters can make sharp turns rather easily while others, not so much and they may slide a little. But unlike Mario Kart 64, making turns and maneuvers isn’t a frustrating endeavor.
As expected, Super Circuit retains the engine class difficulty – 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc. The higher the CC, the more challenging the gameplay. There are no mirrored courses but you can unlock all of the Super Mario Kart courses. The Grand Prix includes ten cups. Five of them consist of Super Circuit courses and the other five consist of Super Mario Kart courses. Drivers are awarded points based on their finishing positions in each race and the driver with the most points at the end of a cup, wins.
Just like in Super Mario Kart, there are coins on the courses but they serve more of a purpose here than just granting you extra speed. To unlock all of the Super Mario Kart courses, you need to accumulate one hundred coins in each Super Circuit cup but doing that on your first run will unlock nothing. You first have to win every cup in a CC and then race through the cups again and collect one hundred coins in each one to unlock their corresponding extra cups which consist of of Super Mario Kart courses. Why you can’t just accumulate the one hundred coins and unlock the Extra cups the first time through is beyond me. You are ranked at the end of each cup and trying to earn a three-star ranking for each one in each CC will require practice and skill.
It wouldn’t be a Mario Kart game without items and Super Circuit comes with a smaller selection than that of 64. Items are acquired by driving into the item boxes scattered around the courses and you can hold certain ones behind you as a means of defense. It is worth mentioning that Red Shells have been improved. They will actually follow the track this time and do a better job at homing in on the opponent in front of you. They can still fail if they hit barriers but we found them to be much more effective this time around. Furthermore, you can drop one behind your cart and it will chase down the next driver that passes it. The same goes for the Spiny Shell.
The AI is most challenging in 150cc. In the other CCs, you shouldn’t have a problem winning races. They will use items but not as often as players nor do they always use them strategically. But you will occasionally be hit by Shells, Lightning, and have your stored item stolen by a Boo. In 50cc and 100cc, you can lap opponents if you drive well enough, and it’s even easier to do so in the Super Mario Kart courses which are all five laps. Super Circuit courses only consist of three laps in the Grand Prix. In 150cc, rubberbanding is much more noticeable and AI opponents are usually up your ass unless you drive exceptionally well.
The Super Circuit courses are all new and their designs are similar to Super Mario Kart courses. You’ll get to drive off jumps and on boost pads. You’ll have to watch out for hazards like cannon balls being fired from the ship in the background of Shy Guy Beach. Lava rocks will come bursting out of the volcano and onto the course in Lakeside Park. Boos can slow you down on the Broken Pier course. And Super Circuit’s Rainbow Road features bouncing stars and lightning clouds that will shrink you. Unfortunately, the Super Mario Kart courses are not fully intact and as a result, are a little more bland than they were originally. For one thing, most of the obstacles and hazards have been stripped away. Plus, they only really resemble the original courses in layout. All of the assets used, including the backgrounds, are taken from Super Circuit courses. So Donut Plains courses don’t feel like they’re set in Donut Plains and Choco Island courses don’t feel like their set on Choco Island. Those in particular borrow from the western motif of Super Circuit’s Sunset Wilds course.
Super Circuit has the charming look of Super Mario Kart. It’s pixelated, colorful, and showcases some nice backgrounds and parallax scrolling. You can see lightning in the background of Bowser’s Castle 3 and you’ll drive through rain in Luigi’s Circuit. Other than the characters and carts looking a little washed out, Super Circuit looks really good. You’ll get to hear some new and classic tunes, most of which are catchy and memorable, but some of the new tunes aren’t on the same level as those of previous games. Overall, we felt the soundtracks of prior games were better. The sound effects get the job done and on the technical side, the game ran silky smooth for us and we encountered no major issues.
Super Circuit is the first Mario Kart game I ever owned so I have some fond memories of it. I played this a lot when it was in its prime and it still holds up rather well. We describe it as an enhanced version of Super Mario Kart. It feels a lot like that game with some mechanics borrowed from 64 and it had the most courses in the series before Mario Kart 8’s DLC and/or the Deluxe version released. There’s a lot to like about this game, especially for it’s time. It could be taken with you on-the-go, the AI can finally use all the items, the Quick Run mode lets you quickly jump into a race on any course, there’s a lot of courses to unlock and choose from, and it’s the first game in the series to include retro courses. My only major issue with Super Circuit is the retro courses. By taking out most of the hazards and obstacles, they’re just not as interesting or enjoyable as the originals.
Ultimately, we would recommend Mario Kart: Super Circuit to fans of the series and to those looking to bring Mario Kart with them on-the-go. Nowadays, there are better games in the series even as far as handheld Mario Karts go but Super Circuit is still enjoyable and replayable. Definitely check it out.