Over the years the Super Mario series has had a ton of spin-offs that allow players to control more than just the titular plumber and his over-shadowed brother. All of them have some fans but none are as popular as the Mario Kart series. The Mario Kart series is the only spin-off that is handled internally by Nintendo and because of this, the character choices are closely tied to the main series. So now that we covered all of Super Smash Bros., I thought it would be fun to take a look at the racers of Mario Kart and why I believe they made the cut so that we can attempt to predict the racers in the eventual Mario Kart 9.
Super Mario Kart
The original Super Mario Kart was never intended to have Mario characters at all. Instead the character was just a generic racer in a helmet with overalls. He eventually became Mario though when one of the developers was curious what it would look like and the idea stuck. So from this we know that Mario was the first character added to the game (what a shock). From there we don’t have any officially stated reason for why the rest were included, but I imagine most of the characters here were obvious first picks due to their importance. Luigi is player 2 and Mario’s brother, Peach is the heroine and main goal of each game, Bowser is the main villain of the series, Toad has appeared countless times in every game so he’s synonymous with the series at this point and Yoshi was massively popular and very relevant on the SNES.
I don’t think anyone would question the inclusion of these six but Donkey Kong Jr. and Koopa Troopa are more interesting choices. Donkey Kong Jr. had never been in a Mario title prior to this and Koopa Troopa was just a generic enemy. Why did these two get in over other characters like Birdo or Daisy? Like I said before, no official reason has been given but we aren’t completely left empty-handed. One focus of Mario Kart is the weight classes and while Super didn’t call them that, the manual made reference to the fact that every character has stats that were paired with another. So, for example, both Mario & Luigi are the balanced racers whereas Yoshi & Peach have faster acceleration than the rest. Bowser & Toad aren’t paired up together but instead with DK Jr. & Koopa respectively which gives the impression these two were chosen as match-ups. Donkey Kong Jr. was another rival to Mario and had a bigger presence than Wart or Tatanga. He was also roughly Bowser’s size. Koopa Troopa was small like Toad and, unlike Goomba, has arms so he can steer. When we view it like this, these inclusions make sense although those last two were definitely less important, and that is why neither of them returned in the sequel.
Mario Kart 64
Coming four years after the original, and for the first time in true 3D, we got Mario Kart 64 which keeps the roster at eight racers, just like its predecessor. However, not every character is the same as we have two newcomers this time around, Wario and Donkey Kong. Once again, no official explanation has been given for these changes but we can easily infer some reasons, as well as clear-up a misconception. The obvious answer for the removal of Donkey Kong Jr. is that Donkey Kong was the most modern incarnation, and this is probably why Donkey Kong eventually made it in. After all, Donkey Kong Country was huge and Donkey Kong was an icon. However, this theory does not match up with what we know because in fact, Wario replaced Donkey Kong Jr. instead.
Thanks to pre-release videos it was revealed that originally Wario was to be joined not by Donkey Kong but by Yoshi’s rival, Kamek. Kamek was introduced in between Super Mario Kart and Yoshi’s Island, and makes a lot more sense than Koopa Troopa. While Koopa is a nameless mook, Kamek is an actual character who’s important to the series, and he was also a type of Koopa, so this allowed Bowser to have a minion on his side in the race, just like Peach had with Toad. Wario was brought in to replace Donkey Kong Jr., most likely because he was popular and Mario’s new rival character. So, what happened to Kamek? We do not know for sure but if I had to give a reason it seems likely that Donkey Kong was just much more relevant and popular than Kamek. Then, given that a Kong had already appeared in the previous game, the team might’ve worried about fan outcry from his removal. Here is a call to action from me to all of you. Please keep an eye-out for any early previews or thoughts from critics of Mario Kart 64. Perhaps there were lots of complaints at the lack of Donkey Kong that caused the dev team to take note. While you guys do that, I’m gonna jump into the next one.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit
Mario Kart: Super Circuit didn’t change anything major from Mario Kart 64’s roster, although it did remove a playable character: the battle mode’s Mini Bomb Kart. This racer only appeared in battle mode if a player had died and existed purely so you could enact a revenge kill. It never came back after Mario Kart 64 so it was technically removed here. If players used the Game Boy Advances Link cable to connect their systems, and only had 1 copy of the game, then it was also possible to play as different coloured Yoshis. These were Pink, Light Blue and Yellow Yoshi, and the players colour was dictated by which player they were. This feature would later return in future Mario Kart games with a different character taking the place of the Yoshis.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
Now we get to the good stuff with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! on the GameCube. This is when the character selection truly grew as the roster jumped from a simple eight to a whopping 20. So that is twelve new characters to talk about and no cuts! Heck, we even got Koopa Troopa coming back and nearly got Donkey Kong Jr. back as well. The focus of Double Dash was the pair-up mechanic and it was this decision that helped to influence most of the roster this time around. Mario & Luigi are an obvious pair-up still, but the Super Mario Kart crew could have more logical pair-ups here than they had prior. Peach got Daisy, Yoshi got Birdo, Wario got Waluigi, Donkey Kong got Diddy Kong and Bowser got Bowser Jr.
The former three on that list (Daisy, Birdo and Waluigi) were quite common in Mario spin-offs during this time thanks to Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64. That game also had these newcomers paired off with the same partners as here so this was the presumed natural pair-up at the time. Diddy Kong and Bowser Jr. have slightly different reasons. Diddy Kong makes a lot of sense as this was the pair-up of the original Donkey Kong Country, but originally this is why Donkey Kong Jr. was going to come back. He was going to be Donkey Kong’s partner. He was replaced with Diddy Kong because by this point Donkey Kong Jr. was no longer the all-star he once was and Diddy Kong was far more important amongst gamers at the time. As for Bowser Jr. he was an obvious partner for Bowser, but he was also a fairly relevant and new character.
Both Toad and Koopa Troopa got their own newcomer partners with Toadette & Koopa Paratroopa. Paratroopa had appeared in Mario Tennis but this likely wasn’t an influence. It was most likely because they were both Koopa enemies and so they naturally fit together. Toadette’s inclusion is more unique because this was her first ever game. She was a totally original character. I couldn’t find anything about why she was created but I assume it’s because there was no other suitable partner for Toad. Just like with the Koopas, they likely wanted the two parters to have a visual similarities. Why Toadsworth was not chosen I do not know. I guess they wanted them both young? Or Toadsworth’s position as the trophy giver was already decided.
This leaves four more characters to discuss. Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, King Boo & Petey Piranha. For the former two, Baby Mario had begun to appear in the Mario sports spin-offs on Nintendo 64 and GameCube so he made a place for himself in the Mario line-up. Baby Luigi just tagged along as the obvious partner. This may have also been done so there was a default pure light-class apart from the Koopas as the Toads were unlockables this time. The other unlockables were King Boo and Petey Pirahna who don’t really have any thematic connections other than that they are both boss monsters that the Mario Bros. face. It was likely their current relevance that got them a position as both appeared in Super Mario Sunshine with Petey getting a lot of focus. But King Boo is not just like any other villain as he was the main villain of one of the GameCube’s launch titles: Luigi’s Mansion.
Having such an exceptionally awesome cast, we were all curious what the next iteration of Mario Kart would do. Would it expand just as much and who would they add? Well, with Mario Kart DS, Nintendo decided to set a precedent that would stick with the rest of the series going forward.
Mario Kart DS
The Nintendo DS was a handheld and not nearly as powerful as the GameCube. Games were smaller and Mario Kart was no exception. Unfortunately, what this meant was that the roster could be nowhere near as large as before and Mario Kart DS ended up seeing a mass exodus of characters. Every character introduced in Double Dash, with the exception of Waluigi and Daisy who had cemented their status as THE spin-off characters at this point, was cut. This included Koopa Troopa once again, although Toad stayed on and was available from the start once more. According to pre-release data Birdo was also planned to remain in the game as well but was cut, possibly due to time-constraints or file space.
This game was not all cuts though. We saw three new characters jump onto the tracks although one of these was in a unique way. In order to promote multiplayer games on the DS, Nintendo introduced download play. This feature allowed you to play games with friends without owning the game itself, although your content was limited. In Mario Kart’s case you couldn’t pick which track to race on or which character to play as. Instead, you were defaulted to the new racer, Shy Guy. This was the only way to play as this minion (at least for now) so that makes him a special character. Although there is evidence that he was intended for the main roster.
A minion of Bowser who was a regular addition was Dry Bones. This skeleton equivalent of Koopa Troopa is kind of an odd addition as Dry Bones had not really been relevant in the main-line series or most spin-offs. In fact, this game is his first 3D appearance. However, the absence of Koopa Troopa might be the explanation. Just like the theory for why Kamek was chosen, the possibility here is that they wanted to replace Koopa Troopa with a new version of the racer and Paratroopa had already appeared. This theory can be supported by them reusing Koopa’s assets which is easier than them making a new character from scratch, which was originally the plan. See, Professor E.Gadd was actually planned for the game, known thanks to internal files, but replaced with Dry Bones. No official reason has been given so presumably it was to save time. This will be a very common trend in later Mario Karts, but I am getting ahead of myself.
The final newcomer for Mario Kart DS is certainly the most unexpected of the bunch, and that is the Robotic Operating Buddy, a.k.a. ROB. ROB is the first guest character in the Mario Kart series. Unfortunately, like with most of these newcomers, there are not any available interviews to explain why these choices were made. It is interesting though that ROB saw an odd resurgence in this era of Nintendo. Two years prior to Mario Kart DS he cameoed in F-Zero GX on the GameCube and had been showing up frequently in the WarioWare series. Perhaps there was some kind of internal push for ROB with Nintendo (even though SEGA made F-Zero GX, Nintendo may have been involved in some areas).
Before I wrap up part 1 of this series I want to give a brief shout-out to the Mario Kart Arcade line of games. These were made by Namco Bandai and they only attempt to add a few unique newcomers. For example, the first game only had characters from Mario Kart 64 but then added Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man and Blinky the Ghost. These are all Pac-Man characters, who is the mascot of Namco Bandai so appearing with Mario makes sense. In the sequel, Grand Prix 2, Waluigi was added in as well as newcomer Mametchi. Finally, in Mario Kart Grand Prix DX we got various characters who I will talk about next week but the unique three are Fire Mario, Ice Luigi and Don-Chan, the hero from Taiko Drum Master. The former two were special downloads and more like the alt costumes we will see in Mario Kart 8 but Don-Chan was new and likely added because this is an arcade game and Taiko Drum Master is a very popular arcade series in Japan. I’m not sure why Mametchi made the cut though. I guess because Tamagotchi is popular? I can’t say for sure, but the point here is that as Namco Bandai made these they essentially stuck to only adding their own characters in each iteration and remained separate from the rest of the series. Mario Kart VR doesn’t add anyone new.
So with that, let’s end part 1 here. Mario Kart DS may have possibly started a trend in the characters chosen that we will see expanded and become the norm over the next three iterations of Mario Kart. We will also see more patterns show up that might help us to speculate on future characters in the series. Until then, let me know your favourite character from Mario Kart below and if you think you have any interviews or sources that explain some of the choices with more concrete facts them let me know and I will update this accordingly. Make sure to drive safely and I will see you all for part 2.