My Super Mario Kart Journey

The Birth of an Era

On Christmas morning of December 1992, a little boy named Sami Çetin received a cool new game called Super Mario Kart (SMK) on his Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). It had been a present from his older sister Ayla and with hindsight, I think it is safe to say that Ayla didn’t know what she had gotten herself into. I mean, considering the fact that Ayla is my mother, I’d reckon that judging from the title of this post that SMK would become woven into the very fabric of her life. It certainly did with mine.

My first encounter with SMK was apparently in November 1999, when I helped my uncle Sami update the Time Trial website. By update, I mean literally smack the keyboard with my chubby little hands. Who needed to play with toys as a baby? I was clearly destined to become a computer programmer.

Would you be surprised if I told you that I have an A-grade in A Level ICT?

Sami’s childhood obsession for SMK grew exponentially throughout the 1990s into an undeniable passion, as he submitted his fastest records to magazines and competed alongside his friends. In 1998, he went one step further and taking the reigns from what I believe to be an older online database, became the Director of the Super Mario Kart Time Trial Records site, a title which he still admirably holds today. Sami sought to expand the competition, create links with other nations and simply help construct a community who altogether could cherish the game that had become so central to their childhoods.

As the online community grew, Sami decided to offer the game to his immediate family, with the hopes that they would willingly participate. I’m pretty sure that most of my relatives were forced to do this (my mum, specifically), and it wasn’t until a few years later when he began to sow the seeds of his most important project…

Joining the SMK Website

In 2004, at a mere 5 years old, I decided of my own accord and with NO outside influence whatsoever (ahem) to join the Super Mario Kart Time Trial Records site. If memory serves me correctly, I placed in the bottom few of what would’ve been around a couple hundred competitors. My times were understandably not so great but I remember loving the fact that I was a part of this community, and whenever Sami would organise gaming meetings with his friends in SMK Tower (the name attributed to Sami’s three-storey house), I revelled in the experience. I was a fairly shy child and didn’t communicate all that much as I sat cross-legged on the floor in the corner of the room in my bright aqua leggings. Looking back on it now, I had stuck out like a really sore thumb amidst a bunch of twenty-something year-old males. But did I care at the time? Definitely not.

Sami and I in 2004, right around when I joined the site

As the next couple of years progressed, I dipped into the Time Trial scene here and there, playing with my dad who had been long retired from the game, and yet still to this day calls himself the Iraqi Champion when this technically should be me. At the start of 2007, I had passed the Champion of Luxembourg, who as of today is positioned at 505th on the PAL rankings out of a total 592. But at seven to eight years old, I’d obviously had no real ‘tournament’ experience as I was a pretty slow and young beginner. While Sami and the growing worldwide community were competing online and in person, I was still a mere shadow in the image of my uncle. To me, SMK was a little hobby, a simple game which is played only when I’d completed all of my spelling homework early enough. The scale then was far smaller than it is now, and I know that my younger self had no idea of what was in store for her.

Clearly this was the most excited and focused I had been in a while

The Fairfield Halls Fiasco

I have absolutely no memory of the weekend of the 4th-8th October 2007. It’s funny that the events of this time are always used to tease or joke with me, them being for many years the thing that had defined me, on top of just being “Sami’s niece”. As I grew up, I found myself wanting to defend the younger person I was, as if this weekend was evidence of something that I had to be sorry for, which obviously wasn’t the case at all.

That weekend was Sami’s 25th birthday and to celebrate, he had organised a gaming meet in Fairfield Halls, Croydon, for UK, Dutch, Norwegian and French members of the community. A centrepiece of the event was a beginner/intermediate-level SMK tournament, in which I was thrust into like a prize pony. Eight players entered and a mini tournament bracket was formed, each match being played on PAL 150cc Grand Prix of Mushroom Cup. After successfully winning each of my matches, one notably against the lovely Lindsay Molenaar of the Netherlands, I was faced in the final with her fellow countryman, the Mario Kart Double Dash expert Vincent van der Fluit. The hall was completely decked out with spectators as even my grandma (yes, you read that right), my FINNISH GRANDMA sat on the chair beside us to watch.

That fateful day in 2007
Note the awkward smirk I am giving my mum so she can rescue me

The match became one of the most talked-about events in SMK history. I beat Vincent 5-0 to win the tournament and the fact that I was only 8, while I believe he was around 19, was the pinnacle of the joke. How on earth did a little girl, born seven years after a game was released, win her first beginner-level tournament against a young adult male? Albeit, Vincent was not an SMK expert and if this was Double Dash, I would’ve been completely SLAUGHTERED. But the point of the matter was that with my first tournament experience, I had essentially become and contributed to what felt like a meme.

From that moment on, I was always known as “Sami’s niece who beat Vincent”. In all honesty, I hated that. Even today, I still shudder whenever someone mentions Fairfield Halls or that weekend because I don’t want it to define me for the rest of my career. However, I was reunited with Vincent at the 2019 Championship in Alphen aan den Rijn last August, and we both joked about how we wanted to shake that event off. It was a brief but cool moment and I’m definitely happy that it occurred.

My First Interview with Nintendo

After the Fairfield Halls event, I had undertaken a brief hiatus from SMK. But in my time on the site, I had reached the #1 Women’s ranking in London and #2 in the UK. Not too shabby for a little girl, right?

Sami’s position as the overall UK Champion and sometime World Champion caught the attention of Nintendo UK, who in December 2008 interviewed Sami and I at the SMK Tower. I don’t remember much about this interview, except for the interviewer being a “nice lady” and the fact that I had made some childishly innocent yet seemingly controversial statements as I spoke to her. Suffice to say, those remarks never made the final cut. And no, I won’t tell you what I said.

The interview featured on the Nintendo Wii Channel in early 2008 and it is unfortunately still available to watch on YouTube so knock yourself out! Just don’t tell me that you watched it, otherwise I might never speak to you again.

Anyone normal hates the sight and sound of them speaking on camera, so imagine how painful it must be to know that your 9-year old self will be immortalised in the digital canon. I wish for this video to be burned but alas, life is never so kind 😦

The Return and Quest for the World Women’s Title

In late 2011 as I made the transition into secondary school, Sami suggested that I return to SMK and try to gain a couple of personal records (PRs). He assured me that this was just for fun and didn’t have to turn into a large-scale commitment. Well. Do you want to guess how that turned out?

A ton of PRs later and in early 2012, I achieved my first Women’s World Record at 13 years old. I had been completely hit with the Ambition Bug and fuelled by Sami’s guidance and pride, I managed to take the UK Women’s Title from Sue Cladingboel. But, my biggest achievement yet came on the 18th March 2012 when I passed Germany’s Tanja Bronnecke to become the fastest woman in the world on the PAL version of SMK.

This was an extremely cool moment for me as I suddenly felt like all my hard work and dedication had paid off. Not many years had passed since I first slammed Sami’s old keyboard at 5 months old but to me, it felt like a lifetime. I felt like I could finally consider myself a decent player and that I had the potential to grow and even one day, become just like my uncle whom I had looked up to so much. There was no way I was stopping yet. I had only just gotten started.

Entry Into the World Championships

The SMK World Championships (for legal reasons we can no longer call it this so when I refer to them as the “Championships”, just know that it is on a worldwide scale) returned to Reims, France, for its 2012 edition. Professionals from across the globe were planned to be in attendance and this felt like the perfect place to make my debut.

It was so surreal to attend such a championship when I had spent most of my life listening to the stories told by my uncle, while we sat cross-legged on the floor. So many of the strange, weird and wacky characters were but mere names to me and knowing that I would get to meet them and collect stories of my own was the icing on the cake. All my short life, I had desired inclusion and acceptance. My debut felt just like that. It was akin to a commencement.

Tournament-wise, the championship couldn’t have gone any better. Sami took the overall #1 title and won the tournament for the first and only time in his career, managing to sneak past France’s Florent Lecoanet, one of the greatest karters and people that ever walked the earth. I myself placed 32nd overall, which wasn’t too shabby given my lack of multiplayer mode experience. This created a drive within me to play better, perform better and achieve better. I knew that if I wanted to make an impact and one day be like Sami and Florent, then I would have to keep practising throughout the years. This is precisely what I then did.

Team UK at the 2012 Championships with the #1 trophy

Guinness World Records, Expos and Further Nintendo Interviews

Following on from my first Championship, Sami and I partnered with Replay Events and travelled across the UK to their seasonal gaming expos. Here we organised beginner-level tournaments for locals, performed exhibition matches and promoted our website and community. These expos took us to Manchester, Wolverhampton, Margate, Glasgow and various locations in London, allowing for the growth of a strong UK-based SMK network.

In 2013, following Sami’s appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records a year previously, I had the opportunity for my own entry in the 2013 Gamer’s Edition. This was awarded to me for having more World Records for a female SMK player than any other and my entry was reprinted in the 2014 and 2015 editions. I remember going to their HQ on what I believe was a sunny August day, where I met the team and another teenager who was being awarded for his records on the most recent FIFA game. The photo-shoot was pretty crazy because I’d had next to no experience in this sort of field and let’s face it, I was hardly Kate Moss! But, they gave me a cool Luigi hat which I still have in my possession so I must’ve done something right 😉

Hello braces, my old friend…

A memorable expo for me was the EGX event in late 2013, where Sami and I were invited by Nintendo UK to test out the upcoming Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U, before it had been released to the public. After crashing (a lot!), we were interviewed once again about our experience and I am happy to inform you that the sound of my voice in this one doesn’t cause me dread. Thank goodness!

Achieving the UK #2 Title

Just prior to the 2015 SMK Championship (and my third worldwide competition), at 16 years old I finally achieved the UK #2 Time Trial title on the PAL version, after passing Ben Allen. The only thing that stood in front of British glory and the #1 title was my uncle and while he still to this day remains victorious, I’ll never forget the awesome feeling of knowing that he was only one position ahead of me.

Eight Championships Later (2012-2019)

After competing in eight consecutive championships which spanned across France and the Netherlands, you do have a lot of stories to tell. Competitively speaking, there have been good years and bad which can be said for ALL karters involved. My best overall position at the championships was achieved in the 2018 edition in Alphen aan den Rijn, where I placed in 9th and subsequently secured my fist overall Top 10 to my belt. If I’d told my 13-year old self in 2012 that I would improve so much on my 32nd place position, I would’ve probably rolled my eyes. But here I was, 19 years old and in 9th place amidst a growing cohort of legends and karting specialists.

In my eight editions of competition, I had once taken the UK #1 Time Trial One-Try title, made consistent Top 16 knockout rounds in all of the modes and last year, I finally broke into my first Match Race Quarter Final, all while having the best time of my life with the best people. So much can be said about the amazing friends I have made in this community and while I won’t embarrass them by naming them here, they do know who they are ❤

Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to attend the first American Super Mario Kart Championship (ASMKC) in Monroe, Louisiana in March 2019, where I won my first career medal- a bronze in Grand Prix. A full post about this will come soon but I just had to mention it here because it was such a monumental and unforgettable experience in my SMK career thus far. It also taught me that I’m not so bad at a Deep South accent, which is always cool for parties!

Where Does This Leave Me In 2020?

Well, here we are. 2020. Where do I go from this, I hear you ask?

As of today, the 12th February 2020, I am the Time Trial site’s Women’s World #2 in the PAL version (after Alicia L’Hoest) and Women’s World #3 in the NTSC version (after Alicia and Sophie Jarmouni), as well as the UK #3 in PAL and NTSC. As far as the other sub-titles go within the championships, there are too many to list. But rest assured, I’m not doing so bad 😉

The second ASMKC will take place next month again in Louisiana and unfortunately, I can’t attend this time due to university finals. Because of the hectic manner of my life (thanks KCL, love ya!), I’ve rarely been able to play SMK for the past three years, being mostly limited to August only.

However, once I complete my English degree in May, I plan to get back into the swing of things and return to the 2020 edition with a vengeance…or something less sinister than that!

Who knows, maybe I’ll be one to cause an upset this year? But whatever happens, I just know that one day I’ll look back on it as a chapter in a very important story within my life.

    Published by Leyla Hasso

    I'm an anxious, 23-year-old Modern Literature postgrad and competitive gamer born and bred in London, who is trying to navigate this crazy world while always looking on the bright side!

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