SUPER MARIO KART / Nintendo / SNES
Everybody has at least one game that they were The Guy at, way Back In The Day. I was rarely The Guy at any game - always in the upper reaches of the competition (thanks solely to misspending so much of my time with these infernal toys), but almost never the absolute best or dominant. I was The Guy at Goldeneye for a little bit, because I was the first to toss proxy mines in the upper crevices of doorways and at intersections; then everyone else caught on to that and an hour later I wasn't The Guy anymore. One game that I became The Guy at, however, solely through sheer persistence, was the original Super Mario Kart. When my friend first got it I was "rubbish", as our buds from across the pond would say, but after a couple solid months of nightly practice after school, I was smashing everyone's Time Attack records and doing it with Bowser just for the hell of it.
What I really like about the first Mario Kart game is that it's the cleanest and simplest, the most reliant on driving skill to determine your level of play. As much as I enjoyed Double Dash, this game doesn't have that joystick-waggling "blue sparks" bullshit that made that one so distracting (it was OK if you had a second player doing it for you in co-op, but it was tedious and annoying for a single player). In this one, you accelerate, you brake, you skid around corners with the shoulder buttons, you sometimes throw stuff, you learn the tracks and their little tweaks and shortcuts and you get good. It's straightforward, simple and fun.
Also nice are the clean and colorful graphics - leagues better than the murky attempt to throw in the 3D plasticy versions of the characters that they made with the GBA follow-up (and presumably did again with this new DS title). It's old-school, yeah, but it looks *nice*, and I really wish they'd just gone with sprite art for the later handheld incarnations of the game. The backdrops are varied and colorful, and I can always clearly see what's coming up ahead - really all I ask for. The only aesthetic quality of the game that can draw criticism is the music, and that's not really bad so much as it is just tepid and kinda boring (which has become par for the course for the Mario Kart games it seems). (To be fair, the Rainbow Road theme is a classic however).
Single player mode gives you an easy learning curve via the 50 CC difficulty level, and you can Time Attack any course that you've cleared. 100 CC gives you a nicer challenge, and then once you take home the gold in all of those circuits you unlock the 150 CC difficulty and the Special Course tracks. Only complaint about the AI here is the "rivals" system that this game employs - at the beginning of each single-player circuit, the computer determines who is going to finish in what order, and if the top racers are taken out by a shell or banana peel they get some mysterious nitrous boost and rev right back up to first or second place in short order. It's a cheap way of making it difficult for you to finish first overall, and the only way you can really break the computer's predetermined order is by shelling your "rival" right before the end of the final lap. It's not a huge problem at the lower levels, but if you're playing 150 CC and you draw Mario/Luigi as rivals you might as well just reset the game right there. Instead of picking up items off the track, the computer racers have an inherent power that they continually use - while most of them are relegated to impotently lobbing objects ahead of you, Mario and Luigi get an infinite stock of invincibility stars. At 150 CC they are constantly either right near you or ahead of you, and oh boy do they spam those things constantly.
Getting back into this one after a decade, I found my skillz weren't quite what they used to be, but I still easily blew through the 50 CC races and negotiated the ol' track shortcuts with ease (can't quite seem to get Bowser's speed boost at the starting line though - the timing is REALLY particular in this game). And I had quite a good time with it - I'm off to challenge the 100 CC races now and get me some Rainbow Road unlocked. Here's to hoping Nintendo sees fit to re-release this on the Virtual Console, even with all the enhanced remakes the original is still easily worth a play.
* Gameplay Video