Collier’s Weekly: What Would Pittsburgh’s Mario Kart Courses Look Like?

Reflecting on the hazards, environments and obstacles that would threaten Luigi and Toad in an all-Pittsburgh Mario Kart circuit.


I’m pretty sure my blood pressure ticked up a few points while I played “Mario Kart 64” last night.

The classic racing game re-entered my consciousness last month, when Nintendo rolled out a selection of classic games from the Nintendo 64 system as part of its Nintendo Switch Online service. While there have been some mixed reviews of the throwback offerings thus far, the nostalgia factor is overwhelming — for me in particular. I was 11 when the Nintendo 64 hit shelves, so the imprints of its bizarre controller are practically etched into my hands.

I forgot just how heart-stoppingly tense “Mario Kart 64” could be, though. The go-kart racing game is programmed so that most obstacles can be overcome, but the threat of loss is always an inch away; you’ll never be so far behind that you want to quit and yet at any time you could be passed by a careening Bowser.

Hmm. Relative ease yet constant complications — kind of like getting around Pittsburgh.

After the spectre of Wario breathing down my neck faded, I began to wonder: What would Steel City Mario Kart courses look like? The game adapts environments inspired by other video games into racecourses full of pitfalls and hairpin turns; if we put the Mario Kart contestants onto Pittsburgh-themed courses, what would those tracks look like? (And could anyone actually win?)

In “Mario Kart 64,” each circuit consists of four themed courses, so that’s what we’ll go with here. And each course is supposed to be very different, so it can’t just be “navigate traffic on 51” four times, even though that’s exactly what you face if you live in the South Hills.

First Course: Kennywood Turnpike
We don’t have a wide variety of biomes to race through, so we’re going to need to get creative with our courses. Why not start at Kennywood? Everything is better when you move the action to an amusement park. Now, the actual path through Kennywood isn’t all that long, so we’re going to need to add some track. Easy solution: Take the race onto the Phantom’s Revenge. Imagine flying down the hill and underneath the Thunderbolt with a red shell homing in. Terrifying — yet thrilling.

Difficulty: Medium. Some tight turns, but a pretty straightforward course.
Biggest Challenge: Not stopping for Potato Patch.
Who Wins: Wario. He’s too grumpy to be distracted by fun.

Second Course: Dahntahn Nights
We need to cover the heart of the city, but let’s add a bit of romance to it and make it a midnight race. The Golden Triangle makes for a nice, neatly laid-out racetrack, though we could always add a bridge and loop up one of the rotundas at PNC Park if we like (then, naturally, dash off the roof like Jason Momoa). We can ring the Point fountain with Item Boxes, and keep a good one (automatic circle of red shells) at the top of the water!

Difficulty: Low. It’s midnight Downtown, the streets will be empty.
Biggest Challenge: Not getting confused in the vicinity of the Steel Building and accidentally turning down a one-way street.
Who Wins: Donkey Kong. He does well around tall buildings, as we know.

Third Course: Vintage Grand Prix
Most Mario Kart circuits have at least one proper race track, and we simply don’t have those in the immediate vicinity — except for one weekend each year. We’ll recreate the course for the annual Schenley Park road race, but add one of those speed ramp things to fling racers all the way to nearby Frick Park for a woodland finish. (I know we have to do multiple laps, but … I don’t know, there’s a warp pipe or something.)

Difficulty: Medium. Lots of twists and turns in this course, but ample opportunities to sprinkle items throughout the course make it easy to catch up.
Biggest Challenge: Occasionally, a confused suburbanite — lost looking for the Waterfront — pulls directly onto the course in a midsize SUV. Your kart doesn’t stand a chance.
Who Wins: Mario, since he’s pretty vintage himself these days.

Fourth Course: 28 North Raceway
What else? There’s no driving challenge in Pittsburgh greater than navigating the incessant traffic, beguiling lane shifts and omnipresent construction of Route 28 between Millvale and Harmarville. This would have to be a course that doesn’t loop — just one lap of attrition, trying futilely to make it as far as Pittsburgh Mills. Like the tricky “Mario Kart 64” course Toad’s Turnpike, opposing traffic will remain on the course for the race. These cars wouldn’t come at you, though. They’d just sit there.

Difficulty: Very hard. Victory is secondary to preserving your sanity.
Biggest Challenge: Not getting stuck in an exit lane and unintentionally crossing the Allegheny.
Who Wins: Toad, simply for being small enough to weave in and out of traffic — if he doesn’t get spun into the river by an Iron City truck.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly