Item Boxes are colourful, floating boxes scattered in rows throughout sections of tracks in the Mario Kart series, which burst when run over to generate an item to the driver. They are major staples of Mario Kart and have just about featured in every game launched in the series. The items themselves are renowned for the unpredictable nature of racing courses in the series. The item boxes have also made appearances in a number of sport-based spin-offs as well. Item Boxes have their own fake counterpart, which can be obtained the real deals.
Whilst the item boxes do randomly generate different items to the drivers, there is always an established system in place. The strength of items given out to the drivers is proportional to their position in the race; for example, the leading drivers will typically receive weak items like Bananas and Green Shells, whereas those languishing in the bottom positions will gain the strongest items like Bullet Bills or Lightning Bolts.
In accordance with their name, item boxes typically take the shape of a cube box with a large question mark. Despite this, when they were first debuted in Mario Kart 64 in 1996 they were actually shaped as 2D diamonds. It wasn't until the succeeding Mario Kart: Super Circuit game that they took on their 3D box shape, which has been maintained throughout the franchise to this day with only the colours and graphical styles changing each game.
It's worth noting that Super Mario Kart - the game that kickstarted the series - didn't really feature item boxes as they would be known. In their place were flat ? panel markings on the ground that drivers would run over to get items from, as illustrated on the right. This was the case due to technical limitations of the time.
Mario Kart series
The game saw the first official introduction of item boxes, which as shown on the right were actually 2D diamond-shaped models. In a tradition that would be maintained throughout the series, the item 'diamonds' would generally be clustered together in rows, distributed in equal sections of the track.
Exceptions include Toad's Turnpike where they could only be found in vertical lay-bys featured in the course, and a particular oddity featuring in Luigi Raceway. Sometimes a Luigi blimp would rise down onto the track, with a singular item box dangling underneath. When burst open this item box always gives away a Spiny Shell, the most powerful item in the game.
The item boxes had their proper redesigns given in this game to resemble actual box shapes; they were cubes with different coloured sides of red, blue and green continually rolling around. Otherwise, they carried out their same functions and traits in Mario Kart 64.
The item boxes appeared as translucent, multi-coloured cubes that continually rotate around at their spot, which has served as the basis for their current appearances over the series. To fit with the double theme of the game which also featured double racers, double item boxes could also be found amongst the rows of single item boxes, providing two items.
The game has also oversaw introduction of singular item boxes that would travel along the courses as if they were animate; such boxes featured in Mushroom Bridge and City, which both also featured moving traffic.
Other than the obvious removal of double boxes and similar gimmicks, the item boxes remained unchanged. An interesting oddity again springs up however, in DK Pass. In between the curving turns up the slope and the bumpy section in the forest, a large snow hill has a single 'super' box that boasts only mushrooms and stars to provide an unexpected advantage to the driver, regardless of position.
The item boxes received a slight graphical update, with the use of colours in the green/blue spectrum and a subtle dotted pattern replacing the old checkers. On a side note, whilst driving through Toad's Factory it can be seen that item boxes are produced there in the manufacturing section of the track. Otherwise, the item boxes carry out the same function.
The graphical apperance has been refreshed again, with the item boxes now boasting a more colourful, rainbow-like apperance. The only other changes include the removal of the odd box in Luigi Raceway, which has made a return as a retro course. Now, the item box collected under the blimp will be just a standard one. Despite this, the infamous 'super box' in DK Pass (another returned track) still remains.
In the current editions of Mario Kart, the item boxes have received a more crystalline look in bluish and purplish hues. Whilst their function is the same as it had ever been, slight changes have been made to how the manner of the items received are held. This time, items can only be held individually at the time (e.g. a driver can't hold bananas behind with another item still be to be used). Drivers will also be physically seen holding the items in their hands as well.
In an unprecedented twist, the Deluxe Port has seen the re-introduction of double item box stacks that were originally designed for the premise of Double Dash!! only, now returned on the tracks in the same fashion.