In the Mario Kart series, players compete in go-kart races, controlling one of a selection of characters from the Mario franchise. Up to eight characters can compete in each race (six in the Arcade GP series, and twelve in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 8).
One of the features of the series is the use of various power-up items obtained by driving into item boxes laid out on the course. These power-ups include mushrooms to give players a speed boost, Koopa Shells to be thrown at opponents, and banana peels that can be laid on the track as hazards. The type of weapon received from an item box is often random, though sometimes influenced by the player’s current position in the race. For example, players lagging far behind may receive more powerful items while the leader will only receive small defensive items. Called rubber banding, this gameplay mechanism allows other players or computers a realistic chance to catch up to the leading player.
Each game features a variety of different modes. The following four modes recur most often in the series:
- Grand Prix – Players compete in various “cups,” groups of four courses each (five in Super Mario Kart) with four difficulty levels: 50 cc, 100 cc, 150 cc and Mirror. The eight cups are Mushroom, Flower, Star, Special, Shell, Banana, Leaf and Lightning. Players earn points according to their finishing position at the end of each race and the player with the most points overall wins a trophy. All games prior to Mario Kart DS let a second player play in this mode.
- Time Trial – A single-player mode in which the player races alone to finish any course in the fastest time possible with up to three mushrooms (except for Super Mario Kart) to be used at anytime during the run. The best time is then saved as a ghost, which the player can compete against in later trials.
- VS – Multiple human players race against each other on any course with customized rules such as lap changes and item frequency. Later games allow single-player VS races.
- Battle – Multiple human players use race items to battle each other in a closed arena. Each player starts with three balloons and loses a balloon with every hit sustained; the last player possessing at least one balloon wins. Different battle types were added as the series progressed, as well as single-player battles.