Why you should care
Because you’re never too old for real-life gaming — #adulting.
Mario speeds around the track, eyes wide and focused, hoping to win. But he’s out of luck as Hello Kitty sweeps past, followed by a smiling 6-foot pizza slice piloting a bright-yellow Minion. One driver plows into the hay bales that line the track, and a pileup occurs. As the vehicles stall bumper-to-bumper, a race marshal dressed as a hot dog rushes over to separate the competitors. The tension at this track in San Mateo, California, in May is high — and hilarious — as everyone in on the action is riding a modified, battery-powered children’s Power Wheel that tops out at around 26 miles per hour.
Welcome to the Power Racing Series, a statewide circuit designed for Mario Kart fanboys and funsters alike. “We see a lot of Marios — it’s the fallback costume,” says Jim Burke, who founded the race series in 2009 and has seen it expand from a single venue to eight locations by 2017. A self-professed geek, he’s happy to embrace Mario Kart associations, but says the goal is to encourage people to have fun with engineering, learning as they innovate. “It’s a Dinky Toy car series; we’re a dollar-store Formula One!” he adds — and notes proudly that three former Power Racers are now employed as engineers by NASCAR.
I used to play Mario Kart with my brother. My favorite part was crossing Rainbow Bridge at full speed with the wind blowing in my face!
Sabrina Toh, laboratory executive and Mario Kart enthusiast
Since its release in 1992, Nintendo’s Mario Kart has swiftly become a video game favorite, leading to eight separate games, with more than 115 million copies sold. But what’s more surprising is the recent trend of fans showing appreciation by modding and building karts of their own. Go-kart builders used to be adults, investing in serious horsepower and championship racing, but now YouTube influencers have inspired a younger generation who are trying their hand at it, showcasing do-it-yourself karts at events like the Power Racing Series.
And DIY real-life kart fandom shows no sign of abating. At Colorado State University, mechatronics students designed Junkyard Battle Racers that include infrared sensors that can activate speed boosts when the kart drives over designated pods with modded laser guns to zap competitors. Then there are the Mario Kart parties — for kids and adults alike — where tracks and cars are custom-built for the occasion, and the DIY site Instructables, which has 730 posts about Mario Kart, including everything from how to build a kart to making the perfect toadette hat.
Other commercial brands are also getting in on the action. Mercedes-Benz has used Mario Kart imagery in its advertising. And last year, millennial fashion company Chubbies Shorts recorded a video that went viral of Mario Kart drivers racing each other down San Francisco’s famously crooked Lombard Street on plastic toy cars, knees tucked tight into their chest. “If you played Mario Kart with your little brother till 3 a.m. every night, crushing a six-pack of Sunkist, you’ll get every single reference in [the video] and really appreciate them,” says Grant Marek, editorial director at Chubbies Shorts, who says the attention to detail is why the video achieved 25 million views on Facebook and 374,000 on YouTube.
Now let’s travel to Tokyo, where we find a life-size Yoshi, Mario’s dinosaur friend — aka Sabrina Toh, 26, blasting down a road, oblivious to horns and gawking passersby, easily hitting 50 miles per hour on a kart styled and designed by the Tokyo-based tour company MariCar. Princess Peach roars past her, and she smiles and revs her engine, checking the wing mirror to make sure her green Yoshi hood is looking good.
Toh, a lab executive at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, is participating in the MariCar Mario Kart tour of Tokyo, where as many as 20 drivers per group get a whistle-stop tour of the city’s hot spots in less than two hours — international driving permit required. The tours have been a hit, which is no surprise, really, considering a Mario Kart attraction is said to be the hot ride of the forthcoming Super Nintendo World attraction in Japan. “I used to play Mario Kart with my brother,” Toh says. “My favorite part was crossing Rainbow Bridge at full speed with the wind blowing in my face!”
At a stoplight, Hugh Jackman — yes, that Hugh Jackman — notices a gaggle of go-karts had pulled up alongside his vehicle. The actor shoots a video of the scene and posts it on his Facebook page, complete with narration and encouraging shouts of “Go, Mario! Go, Luigi!,” as the light turns green and the karts zoom away.
Nintendo tried to shut down the MariCar race with a cease-and-desist order, citing copyright infringement and trademark violations. So far the Japan Patent Office has dismissed one lawsuit; the other is still pending with Tokyo’s District Court. Despite those legal moves, Nintendo is happy to play up the build-your-own-kart subculture. (Nintendo did not respond to OZY’s request for comment.)
At SXSW 2017, the video game giant teamed up with Pennzoil to create a real-life Mario Kart track for visitors to drive. It featured race cars with RFID-tagged Power-Up decals that boosted speeds through a wireless server link. Even Target is getting in on the Mario Kart action, albeit in a more low-tech way. To promote the Mario Kart 8 on the Nintendo Switch video game platform, they dressed shopping carts in 650 stores as Mario’s ride and placed motion sensors at store entrances that lit up and played the video game’s theme song when people entered.
Manuel Garin, a film and media professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, isn’t surprised by how Mario Karts are proliferating. “There are more videos and more Mario reappropriations — the thing is growing,” he says. One appealing aspect of Mario, Garin notes, is the lack of narrative, which “enable[s] fans to reinvent the characters in their own concepts.”
For now, at least, the fandom shows no sign of abating, and no doubt more complex and creative home karts will soon be on the horizon — maybe even solving Toh’s one complaint about her tour: “The only downside was that we couldn’t throw shells and banana peels.”