The Mega Drive and SNES gave those of us old enough to remember them many gaming delights. The consoles are best known for the platform games featuring Sega and Nintendo’s mascots, Sonic and Mario, but for all their coin/ring-gathering mayhem and frantic cartoon soundtracks, these were one player games - joyful but lacking the most satisfying gaming experience an 11-year-old boy can have: beating a friend in real time action while lording it over them. Here are three 16-bit racers that provided ample opportunity for gloating…
Super Mario Kart (SNES)
Everyone knows Mario Kart – and its popularity is easy to understand. This is a game anyone can play and enjoy. Whether you’re four years old or 94 years old, whether you’ve played games all your life or dismissed them as "chewing gum for the eyes" (while watching Coronation Street), anyone who can hold a control pad and track objects on a screen can "get" Mario Kart. It is charming but challenging, simple but ingenious, a high-paced race from A-to-B with power-ups and weapons.
Perhaps the greatest tribute you can pay to the version of the game that appeared on the SNES is that very little has changed as Mario Kart has been rolled out on more high-powered consoles. The graphics have improved, of course, but beautiful as the renderings for the Wii are this is largely a cosmetic enhancement.
All the things that make Mario Kart truly great are there in the SNES original: the character choices, the two-player splitscreen race and battle modes, the turtle shells and the dreaded Rainbow Road, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a track that pulls you off the surface and into black nothingness because you’re afraid of falling off into black nothingness.
And has there ever been a more satisfying experience in gaming than turtle-shelling a friend metres from the finishing line and celebrating victory while they’re still in the midst of a spin…
Micromachines 2: Turbo Tournament (Mega Drive/SNES)
Made by Codemasters, Micromachines is an eccentric, top down (or bird’s eye) view racer in which the player competes against other miniature cars on tracks set on domestic surfaces such as kitchen tables, with plates, forks and even rotating corn cobs providing obstacles and bridges that will test your nerve.
Single player races were quirky and fun but where the game truly excelled was in multiplayer mode. Rather than opting for a split-screen view, Codemasters utilised the top down nature of the game to retain a single screen for both players, with your objective not to win the race but to get far enough ahead of your opponent that they literally disappeared from the screen!
This made Micromachines a game in advance of its time because with the Mega Drive J-Cart option (a game cartridge with inputs for two additional controllers) four-player racing was made possible. On several occasions in the mid-90s my bedroom became a riot of noise as kids (and one or two adults!) brought their Mega Drive controllers up and plugged in for some frantic racing action, prefiguring the N64/PS2 days of Goldeneye, Timesplitters and Pro Evolution Soccer multi-tap mayhem.
Even better, since I was the one who owned the game I always won…
Speed Racer (SNES)
Readers may know Speed Racer as the highly successful manga and anime franchise that spawned a big budget film directed by the Wachowski brothers and starring Emile Hirsch - but let's not neglect the video game!
The first time I was exposed to true multiplayer potential was at my cousin’s house when a number of his friends were around and Speed Racer was on. We would have been between 7 and 10, a gaggle of unruly innocents mashed together atop a single bed staring at a screen the size of an American sandwich – but the aura of the game filled the room.
It was fast, it was frantic, it was cartoony. Cars flew into the air and bashed into each other and tyres and children squealed. Perhaps a forerunner to the Burnout series in terms of the pace of the action and the emphasis on contact and aggression, Speed Racer rewarded bravery and risk-taking and generated such excitement that even those not involved in the current race were glued to the screen and invested in the action.
I recall that evening of game playing vividly – it generated feelings of excitement and communality I hadn’t experienced before and, at the risk of sounding slightly tragic, perhaps never will again.
There is a magic in childhood and there is a magic in certain games. Speed Racer had that magic – and so did Micromachines and Mario Kart. Modern racers may exceed them in terms of graphics and gimmicks, but do any provide such pure, unadulterated fun?