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What it takes to be the best Super Mario Kart player in America

The Super Mario Kart box

The Super Mario Kart box. (Nintendo)

Drew Blumfield just woke up after an all-nighter, so he sounds a little drowsy. That makes it hard to remember he has the reaction time and skill of an Olympic athlete, except instead of hopping hurdles, he hits you with red shells.

The 31-year-old iPhone repairman and reseller is one of the top American players at Super Mario Kart for Super Nintendo, the game that's captured dorm rooms for decades since its release in 1992.

Many people have fond memories of being characters from the Mario universe, racing around a track or battling it out, hurling turtle shells at each other, and boosting their speed with the help of the coveted star. But not many have continued to play it day after day for decades like Blumfield has. Through international tournaments, he has proven he's one of the best Americans at Battle Mode and a top 10 Mario Kart overall player too.

So what does it take to be one of the best? And what kind of person can reach the top? Despite having stayed up late repairing and listing phones, Blumfield shared his tips for high-level players and terrible ones alike.

How to win Mario Kart: Battle Mode

Super Mario Kart: Battle Mode

Super Mario Kart: Battle Mode.

Nintendo via YouTube

Battle Mode is Blumfield's expertise, and he has some advice for people who aren't yet at the professional level. (More advanced tricks are discussed in another section below.)

  • Always play as Koopa Troopa or Toad. On Battle Mode's obstacle-filled tracks, their superior handling is key. That steering outweighs the advantages of high-acceleration characters like Princess or Yoshi.
  • Go for the red shell — as an uncoordinated newbie, it's your best bet because you don't need as much skill to use it. Just let it fly and, like the heat-seeking missile of Mario Kart that it is, it will give you a better chance at hitting your opponents.
  • Don't be distracted by the prospect of getting a star and the temporary invulnerability that it provides. "Some people say the star is the best," Blumfield told me, "but you don't get the star enough."
  • While using a star, don't bother trying to ram in your opponents if you're a beginner. You probably won't have enough skill or speed, and you'll end up wasting your time or risking a crash. Instead, seek out a red shell to make a combo, since they'll give you immunity and speed plus a better weapon.
  • Newbies should carefully calibrate what items they seek out in the game. Blumfield suggests 93 percent red shells, 2 percent green shells, and 5 percent stars. (Yes, he breaks them down that precisely, because he wants to accurately depict the feel of the game.)

How to win Mario Kart: Race Mode

Super Mario Kart racing

Super Mario Kart racing.

Nintendo

Here's how new to intermediate players can cross the finish line first in Race Mode.

  • The fastest characters — Bowser and Donkey Kong Jr. — are the best thanks to their speed, though their relatively slower acceleration makes it even more important not to crash, because you'll lose time getting going again.
  • For beginners, a fast race time can be enough to win. But as you improve, strategic use of items becomes the key to success.
  • The lightning item can give you a half-lap advantage, but Blumfield says it will only happen rarely, so don't expect its help very often. Plus, you can only get it when you're out of the lead.
  • Blumfield's advice for the infamously difficult Rainbow Road level, with its ever-present danger of falling off the edge into nothingness, is a bit surprising: "Don't slow down. In general on all races, you never want to tap the brake. Take the inside of the course and hop the corners. That's just the best strategy."

The pros don't just play better — they know about every secret glitch in the game

Le Mans — site of the Mario Kart world championships.

Le Mans — site of the Mario Kart world championships.

Andrew Hone/Getty Images

Every year, Drew Blumfield flies to Le Mans, France, to compete in the World Super Mario Kart championships. If you didn't catch the connection, the world's best Mario Kart tournament is held in one of the most famous towns in the world for real-life car racing. That tournament is a key part of Blumfield's racing career, along with his preferred online tournament venue, SNESOT. The prize? Usually glory.

The only way to really be competitive at Le Mans is through tips much more arcane than picking the right character or shell. "When top players play newbies," Blumfield says, "because we know all the advanced strategies, that means they're sort of helpless." He can explain different acceleration rates in European and American versions of the game, and he also knows key glitches.

Those strategies include glitch exploits like the New Boosting Technique, which uses quirks in the game's programming to allow sliding through mud. The key isn't so much that Blumfield knows these "advanced longboosting techniques" — they were discovered by an active online community and can be found with a little digging. But his advantage is that he can recall and execute these technically difficult maneuvers at just the right times.

How Blumfield became one of the best Mario Karters in the world

Super Mario Kart's title screen

Super Mario Kart's title screen.

Nintendo

It all began at the tail end of high school when he and his friends switched from the 1996 Mario Kart 64 game to the older Super Nintendo version from 1992. He started to get the competitive itch immediately. The classic game had an allure and an appeal to mastery that newer games couldn't match.

"With the newer games, they focus more on graphics," he says, "But back then, it was just a simple challenge. ... It's the surprise factor of the game that makes it so memorable, where it looks so easy and simple, but there's all these complex strategies."

During college, he logged around three hours a day. If he stayed up late to play, he'd hear the game's sounds when he was trying to fall asleep. It was close to an obsession. "There were times in class when I couldn't wait to get home and play the game," he says. "It was eating away at me."

He says he's past his peak because he doesn't play as much these days. His reduced intensity is due, in part, to increased focus on his work: repairing iPhones and reselling them online (he got into it by reselling Wii video games and later transitioned to phones). Learning the tips and tricks of iPhone repair online, the same way he learned about Mario Kart, helped him become an expert on the new technology. "The way I was passionate about Super Mario Kart, I got passionate about these phones," he says.

He does have other hobbies, but games are definitely a priority: from 2008 to 2010, for example, he fixated on Pokemon Pinball for Gameboy Color (setting a world record and making gameplay videos like this one, which has 69,000 views). But even though he's no longer all Mario Kart all the time, he'll still be heading to France every year to play — and he invites anyone to sign up and join him.

But the tournament is single elimination. So just make sure you're ready.