Here are three reasons Sami Cetin, 35, is still playing Nintendo's 1992 racer Super Mario Kart competitively. The lack of boost mushrooms in the solo Time Trial mode limits the number of game-breaking skips available on each course. The lack of blue shells in the GP mode means that a first place finish can’t be robbed by a inescapable heat-seeking missile from the poor soul in eighth. And only one red shell at a time in Battle Mode makes sure no one can pop all three balloons dangling from a kart with three rapid-fire taps of the A button.
“Good driving and tactics, with moderate items,” says Cetin, listing off the fundamental tenets of superior Super Mario Kart play. “And the ability to do dodges in a cool way.”
In 1998, Cetin established the Super Mario Kart Time Trial World Records — an early-internet repository for anyone who found themselves captivated enough by Nintendo’s inaugural mascot Grand Prix to play it seriously. Since then, players have continually registered their best times in both five-lap races and single-lap sprints, and Cetin has updated the logs every week. His work has galvanized the community; a few years after he launched the site, a cadre of French players established the first Super Mario Kart World Championship — inviting all comers to compete in a grueling four-day gauntlet that tested players in every wrinkle of the game.
Since then, it’s become an annual event. Each year, the World Championship is divided into four major events. There’s the Time Trial tournament, in which competing players register their quickest paces in each of the Super Mario Kart’s 20 tracks. This is perhaps the most surreal event to an outsider; the courses are rendered empty by the missing power-ups and absent competing racers. It’s just you and the barren stretch of Bowser’s Castle beneath your wheels. The other three events are more conventional — Match Race pits two racers against each other in four randomly-selected tracks, 150cc Grand Prix does the same, except in one of the preset playlists delineated by the Mushroom, Flower, Star and Special Cups. Battle Mode is simply Battle Mode, except with much higher stakes.
In terms of structure, the World Championship is similar to something like Olympic gymnastics — players begin in pools and slowly add value to their seeding, before eventually placing in a bracketed knockout round. On the day after each tournament, the overall scores of each player are tabulated into 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, and a champion is named. It’s a decathalon, as filtered through a 25-year old Super Nintendo game.
This might seem a little unnecessarily maximalist. Do we really need to factor in Battle Mode in order to establish the world’s best Mario Kart player? Absolutely, says Cetin: that’s part of the fun. The mashup of styles and specializations causes constant matchup issues across the field of play. “It all ties in together,” he says. “A good racer can be a better racer if they have mastered Time Trials; otherwise if their opponent gets out of sight then they [will] have to rely on powerful weapons which may have a very low probability. Similarly, a tactical racer can cause problems for a Time Trial player, providing they are not too much slower. It is a game of chess in a way when playing competitively.”
Cetin won the title himself in 2012 and placed third at this year’s World Championship, but the best Super Mario Kart player in the world is Julien “ScouB” Holmière, a 31-year old from the South of France. Currently, he’s defending back-to-back championships from 2016 and 2017.
To watch Holmière play his best is to watch a complete desecration of everything you know and love about Mario Kart. This is the franchise that’s served as a nexus point for Nintendo’s casual audience for years; Mario Kart 64 remains essential recreation for dorm rooms across the world. But Holmière is steely, almost joyless — he has a dead-serious razor-sharp focus surrounded by chocolate mountains, koopa troopas and gorillas in toddler onesies.
There are so many subtleties that add up to a great Super Mario Kart player, he says. The complex system of mushroom-derived boosts (“long boosts, infinite boosts, wall-riding, pipe boosts,” says Holmière, naming some) that lets you cheat through patches of grass and dirt. Or the finesse demanded in Battle Mode, where you can use a well-placed banana to fend off an interloping shell. In his eyes, it all adds up to a perfect competitive game.
“Being a top player in [Super Mario Kart] requires a huge effort, because there are so many techniques to familiarize yourself with,” says Holmière. “The handling is much harder than on the recent Mario Karts. When you first play Super Mario Kart you will barely go full speed and barely stay on the track.”
A lot of the finer points of competitive Super Mario Kart are exclusive to a very small group of people that choose to push the game to its limits. Holmière and Cetin are joined by about 60 other players who play in the World Championship every year. Most are in their 30s and 40s, and have been competing for more than a decade.
Nintendo has a notoriously tenuous relationship with competitive gaming, as evidenced by its hands-off approach towards the massive Super Smash Bros. scene, and more recently, Mario Kart 8’s struggle to be taken seriously. Super Mario Kart is not much different. It wasn't originally intended to be played at a professional level. There are plenty of examples of poor balance — pro players race Time Trials with either Bowser or Donkey Kong Jr., as those are the two fastest characters in the game — but there’s still an attitude within many in the community that there’s something about Nintendo’s prototypical kart racer that’s purer than everything else on the market.
“[Super Mario Kart] is not like in the recent Mario Karts where you can be trolled by blue shells and be successively hit by 11 opponents,” says Holmière. “The fact that we still discover new strategies and beat the World Records on a weekly basis makes it really attractive.”
Cetin believes that pro players have squeezed “99 percent” of the available knowledge out of Super Mario Kart, with just a few minor variations and multiplayer strategies left unoptimized. (All shortcuts are legal in professional Super Mario Kart, save for a Lakitu glitch that allows you to finish some laps in less than a second.) But despite that, he notes that the top echelon of players keeps getting better. His 2012 title, for instance, doesn’t seem as impressive now. “If I were to win it again someday, [that] would be way beyond [my 2012 victory] as the skill level of all the players has risen so much,” says Cetin. “The level of the Top 16 round now is very tough and I think every player needs to be very focused.”
Still, Cetin has the honor of being the fastest Super Mario Kart racer in the U.K., and even if he personally never scales that mountain again, he’s training someone who might. Cetin’s niece, Leyla Hasso, is an 18-year old English Literature student in London, and all of her Super Mario Kart records sit a tick behind Cetin’s pace. She is, without a doubt, the second fastest player in the country. Cetin and Hasso are family, and they are also training partners. Hasso's YouTube heats are adorably primitive, just a video camera pointed squarely at a CRT TV beaming out a gloppy 16-bit feed as she tries to outlap her ghosts on those voided Time Trial tracks. Cetin is the founding father of competitive Super Mario Kart, and he’s found a way to keep the tradition alive forever.
“I think it is a great idea to pass on the knowledge of the game to the next generation, to watch them learn and grow in the game as a professional player,” he says. “To see the next generation enjoy the competition, record setting, and tournaments, plus having the opportunity to meet all the great people from around the world. It is a great way to keep the [scene] alive for years to come.”
The SNES Classic hits store shelves this week, and Super Mario Kart will be officially free from its archaic AV cable tech. Finally, you will be able to broadcast Donkey Kong Jr. directly through an HDMI port. The core Super Mario Kart community has mixed feelings about the re-release. Holmière has concerns about the SNES Classic’s save-state feature and the input lag inherent in LCD screens. The World Championship has always been played on a vintage Super Nintendo. No ROMs, no Virtual Console. But Cetin is a little more charitable. He says that the re-release won’t be soluble for competitive play, but he’s happy to welcome more people into the scene, and is petitioning Nintendo for some kind of online multiplayer service. “I know this is something everyone would love,” he says.
There is an off chance that the SNES Classic could reignite a global passion for Super Mario Kart, as multiple generations weaned on blue shells and handicaps find competitive liberation in the prodigal kart racer that pulled no punches. But the Super Mario Kart community has already proven its autonomy. It has absolutely no need for a Nintendo-sanctioned shot in the arm to keep it alive. These players found their game over two decades ago, and next year’s Championship is already booked.
“Super Mario Kart is more than just the game itself,” says Cetin. “It is about the community we have developed since 1998, which is like a family. And we hope it will continue to grow for the future.”