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RAIN­BOW ROAD

EDGE - - CREATE - From Mario Kart se­ries De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Nin­tendo Ori­gin Ja­pan De­but 1992

The deadly, beau­ti­ful rib­bon that has en­tranced gen­er­a­tions of racers

Hu­mans have long seen rain­bows as sig­ni­fiers of prom­ise, be it a fa­bled pot of trea­sure to claim, the ces­sa­tion of Bi­b­li­cal-scale eco­log­i­cal cleans­ing, a bridge to other worlds, or sim­ply that the sun will be wait­ing when the rain fi­nally clears. Af­ter 22 years and seven con­sole games, the Mario Kart se­ries car­ries its own im­plicit prom­ises, not least of which is that there will al­ways be at least one Rain­bow Road to test you among its track list. The re­ward at this rain­bow’s end is a cov­eted one and, true to at least one leg­end, it’s usu­ally a shiny golden prize: the Spe­cial Cup.

In 1992’s Su­per Mario Kart, Nin­tendo laid down Rain­bow Road’s fun­da­men­tals: a track that is both vis­ual set-piece and ul­ti­mate chal­lenge. From the ear­li­est mo­ments you put tyre on tar­mac in Mario Cir­cuit, the de­sign­ers have be­gun to play with the idea of not hem­ming you onto the course and the crit­i­cal path, but it isn’t un­til Rain­bow Road that you’re sus­pended over black void with­out a sin­gle bar­rier and left at the fickle mercy of a jostling pack of racers and deadly Th­womps. Kick­ing off a last­ing aes­thetic legacy, mean­while, the ground is mes­meris­ing, a shim­mer­ing pa­rade of tech­ni­colour that con­trasts strongly against the suck­ing gulf of space be­yond. SNES Mode 7 graph­ics of­fered a won­drous faux-3D per­spec­tive, too, but its lim­i­ta­tions left this Rain­bow Road pan flat, and the se­ries’ purest test of driv­ing skill. It’s short, taut, and unique among its peers for hav­ing no coun­ter­part, which is also a fit­ting de­scrip­tion for the game cred­ited with spark­ing off the kart-rac­ing genre.

But rein­ven­tion has proved key to the track’s ever­green pop­u­lar­ity, and ev­ery­one has a favourite ver­sion. A rad­i­cal over­haul for Mario Kart 64 brought a dash of star­dust and neon, but more cru­cially the additional N64 pro­cess­ing power al­lowed the road to shift to semi-translu­cent and wend­ing, stomach-churn­ingly ris­ing and fall­ing through 3D space. Yet in a ret­ro­grade step, star bar­ri­ers came plas­tered to ev­ery edge, all but elim­i­nat­ing the pos­si­bly of un­forced falls. So early on, the track’s rep­u­ta­tion for ex­treme chal­lenge threat­ened to spin out, even if vi­cious Chomps and lengthy turns pro­vided some of the toothy han­dling re­quire­ments fans ex­pected. It wouldn’t last: from GBA’s Su­per Cir­cuit on, a size­able por­tion of ev­ery track has been left open to treach­er­ous falls into space, en­sur­ing steady em­ploy­ment for Lak­itu and his fish­ing rod.

Ev­ery Rain­bow Road has its gim­micks, though, Nin­tendo ex­hibit­ing its usual flair for re­cy­cling set­tings but sus­tain­ing in­ter­est with one-shot twists. Su­per Cir­cuit’s has a branch­ing path, a thin strip of boost-pad-lined road a short hop away from the main artery to en­tice the un­skilled and un­lucky to their doom. Dou­ble Dash’s track siphons play­ers up a gi­ant suc­tion tube, pro­vid­ing a mo­ment of respite amid the grow­ing chaos of shells, stars and Bul­let Bills. DS’s Rain­bow Road turns an of­ten fig­u­ra­tive roller­coaster into a thrill ride with a ver­ti­cal loop and corkscrew, whereas Wii’s un­du­lat­ing rib­bons play into its trick sys­tem, and its track also takes in a fig­ure of eight where dare­dev­ils can dice with a re­set for yet more stunt boosts. And while al­most all Rain­bow Roads are set in outer space, Mario Kart 7’ s is the first where you can leave tyre tracks on lu­nar soil.

At var­i­ous points in its his­tory, the road it­self has be­come a mir­ror, a pearles­cent strip with oil­slick rain­bows rather than the hard light of 64, but a Rain­bow Road has al­ways re­flected the ti­tle in which it ap­pears. GameCube’s Dou­ble Dash in­fa­mously rep­re­sented a shift to­wards item dom­i­nance, so fall­ing stars be­come Starmen on im­pact with its track, while ju­di­ciously placed lumps mess with shell tra­jec­to­ries as rec­om­pense. Wii’s drive for main­stream ap­peal meant a con­trol scheme de­signed to chan­nel sym­pa­thetic rac­ing leans, leav­ing its Rain­bow Road to com­pen­sate for the im­pre­ci­sions of early mo­tion con­trols by

There is lit­tle more in­fu­ri­at­ing than the Spiny Shell that finds you and flips you over the edge into space

widen­ing sec­tions of track to un­prece­dent­edly gen­er­ous pro­por­tions. Mario Kart 7, mean­while, blends homage and wan­der­lust to elec­tric ef­fect, its fi­nal test bring­ing back the coins and Chomp threats of its ear­li­est an­ces­tors, yet length­en­ing out the course to one long lap that takes in more sights and rac­ing styles than ever. The long-ab­sent SNES Road even makes a come­back in the Retro Cup, af­ter a sen­si­tive makeover for 3D hard­ware.

Rain­bow Road is a mir­ror, but it’s also an am­pli­fier, its un­for­giv­ing na­ture height­en­ing the frus­tra­tions and tri­umphs that are the hall­marks of this se­ries. There is lit­tle more in­fu­ri­at­ing than the Spiny Shell that finds you at an in­op­por­tune mo­ment and flips you over the edge into space, adding track-re­set in­sult to chart-po­si­tion in­jury. But there is also no leap of faith more sat­is­fy­ing than the care­fully planned one that lets you cir­cum­vent a por­tion of the road, with ex­ploits across the years briefly trans­mo­gri­fy­ing Rain­bow Road into some­thing more akin to Im­pos­si­ble Road.

Twenty-two years on, Rain­bow Road and Mario Kart are now eter­nally en­twined. Even out of con­text, one im­me­di­ately re­calls its coun­ter­part, a fact Nin­tendo knows and uses spar­ingly in its crossovers. Rain­bow Road is the zenith of ev­ery Mario Kart, held aloft miles above its com­pe­ti­tion, and a fit­ting send-off to each in­car­na­tion. In 2007, Mario Galaxy’s de­sign­ers found out space is a bril­liant play­ground for Nin­tendo’s great­est mas­cot, but even that was merely a re­dis­cov­ery of the prom­ise Su­per Mario Kart es­tab­lished when it dared to take us to in­fin­ity and back in 1992.

Su­per Mario Kart’s taut Rain­bow Road is short for the se­ries, but its groups of Th­womps, 90-de­gree turns and ob­scured coins mean it’s re­mem­bered for be­ing a stern test of skill

Seg­ments of Mario KartWii’s Rain­bow Road rip­ple be­neath you, which skilled play­ers can use to chain to­gether a run of stunts

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