Written By: Mark Armstrong
Series: Mario Kart
Released: December 14 1996 (Japan), February 10 1997 (US) and June 24 1997 (UK)
Certificate: 3+ (Nowadays 3)
Super Mario Kart had proven to be a huge success, but there wasn’t an immediate sequel until the launch of the Nintendo 64, with the arrival of Mario Kart 64 – a game which I consider to be the best of the entire series. I can still vividly remember the first time I played Mario Kart 64. It was probably much later than it was for anybody else, but hear me out.
Although I had played Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo and enjoyed it greatly, I found that it was too easy for skilled gamers to master; by that, I mean that once somebody worked out how to become a dominant force on SMK, it was impossible for newcomers or casual players to compete. In single-player races, this wasn’t an issue, but in multiplayer, it reduced the entertainment value; why battle to win a race that the more experienced player virtually had in the bag before proceedings had even begun? Because of this, and because of other franchises capturing my interest (such as FIFA, SmackDown and Grand Theft Auto), Mario Kart became little more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane for me.
Fast-forward to 2007. After a few sessions on Mario Kart for old time’s sake, one of my brothers gave me a rented copy of Mario Kart 64 (a copy which was never returned, but that’s another story). I was told that it would be worth giving it a go, due to the recent renewed interest in SMK, but I can remember being specifically told that, because it was so different from the original, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it.
Famous last words, because I began playing it, thinking I’d give it a 15-20 minute session and move on. But I enjoyed it. Immensely. A quarter-hour session led to a longer run the next day, then another one, then an hour or so, and eventually I devoted virtually the entire summer of 2007 to this game. Sure, I had plenty of time to kill because I was on a long summer break from my first year in university, but that doesn’t completely explain why a game which, by this point, was a decade old would take up so much of my time, nor does it explain why I took to it so quickly.
So here’s the simple answer: Mario Kart 64 is one of the greatest and most entertaining videogames that I have ever played. It’s in my personal top five of all-time, and probably my top three. It’s even a contender for the top spot. It was that good, and it remains so whenever I play it again to this day.
Okay, let’s talk about the game itself now instead of talking about me. When you begin playing it for the first time after only playing the original, it immediately feels like you have greater control over the player. It doesn’t feel like you’re out of your depth, especially when competing alongside more experienced human players. The steering is occasionally hit-and-miss, but that aside, the actual experience of controlling your character and their vehicle is a huge upgrade from that of the original.
Obviously, though, the clearest advancement from the first Mario Kart comes with the graphics. Bear in mind that Nintendo bypassed the 32-bit era altogether, choosing instead to march straight into 64-bit with the N64 console. Therefore, this was the first Mario Kart game to have 3D graphics and, at least by the standards of the time, they look outstanding. The characters look more polished than ever before, we get camera angles of Mario and friends that we would never have previously gotten on the SNES, and they deliver voiceovers and facial expressions for the first time. True, the character models and items remained 2D sprites, but they still looked so much more advanced than what we got in SMK. This doesn’t include the other elements of the game: the well-designed sprites for the items mean that the shells and banana peels look great when being launched at an opponent, and of course the tracks themselves truly flourish from being produced in 3D (more on those shortly). This was long before the HD era, so the graphics may not impress many first-time players today, but they had significant wow factor at the time, and to be fair they do still hold up today. If you’re playing this on a large-screen television, then you’ll probably notice that things aren’t completely smooth, but these graphics blew people’s minds upon the game’s original release.
The character roster remains at eight, but Donkey Kong Jr. is out for, erm, Donkey Kong, and Koopa Troopa has been replaced by Mario’s evil twin brother, Wario. Not just because he was a newcomer to the MK series here, but Wario was my favourite character on the game: he provides a contrast to everyone else (even the similarly-evil Bowser), and his soundbytes are the funniest in the game, from his wicked cackle to his “WAAHHH!” when he encounters problems. Some may have expected one or two more characters, but by 1996/1997 standards, keeping the total at 8 was acceptable. Incidentally, DKJ has never returned to the series for unknown reasons.
So, the controls are much more user-friendly, the graphics look great and the roster is fine. However, it’s the aforementioned tracks which provide the fuzziest nostalgic feelings. Unlike SMK, where a few simple tracks were repeated with minor adjustments, every race track here is completely different, and many of them are absolute classics for the genre. It starts suitably slow in the Mushroom Cup with Luigi Raceway and the slightly trickier Moo Moo Farm, before things get interesting with Koopa Troopa Beach and Kalimari Desert (which boasts a cool train which is long in single-player mode and short in multiplayer mode). The Flower Cup raises the stakes with Toad’s Turnpike (beginning the tradition of a chaotic road with vehicles of varying sizes and shapes), Frappe Snowland (with its innocent-looking yet brutal snowmen), the exciting Choco Mountain (think of the course from SMK but on a downwards loop) and the simpler Mario Raceway.
Then there’s the Star Cup which, in itself, is one of the best Cups of the entire series. Wario Stadium takes the genre to new heights with a huge track around a massive stadium with stunts and potential hazards aplenty. Sherbet Land brings us into an Antarctic-style environment with large igloos and massive penguins. Royal Raceway is essentially a longer version of the game’s more basic tracks, but with a massive jump, and it’s set in the very heart of the Mushroom Kingdom. Rounding out this Cup is Bowser’s Castle, which to me is the best version of the castle ever in the series. It’s very hard, but it’s incredibly fun, with loads of obstacles and a real villainous feel to the complex as a whole. This is exactly what a scary castle in a kid-friendly videogame should look like, and in full 3D too.
Lastly, there’s the Special Cup: DK’s Jungle Parkway is a real adventure, Yoshi Valley is a rickety environment which doesn’t inform players as to who is in the lead until the race is over, Banshee Boardwalk is a more updated version of the old Ghost track from SMK, and Rainbow Road is – well, amazing. It’s a simple track, essentially one long looping course, but with the multi-coloured platform and LED images of all characters in the night sky, along with occasional instances of falling stars and other items, plus some other surprises, it’s the ultimate “final track”, perfect for a game like this. Future versions of Rainbow Road may make this look basic, but this one is a phenomenal experience (or at least it was at the time), and a classic end to an all-time great selection of MK tracks.
Elsewhere, there are new weapons in the game, one of which is the spiky blue shell, which would become infamous as the series rolled on. There are plenty of neat features within the courses themselves beyond the track and the participants: drive on the grass in DK’s Jungle Parkway and you’ll be knocked back onto the surface with coconuts, whilst Toad’s Turnpike can see you mowed down (in a manner which is not life-threatening, of course) by trucks and cars. The enhanced graphics and console power allow for ramps, drops, hills, dips and other modifications to prevent the surface always remaining flat as it were in SMK. There’s loads of little Easter Eggs in the game too, from references to past and then-current Mario titles to secret pathways and shortcuts which can be a life-saver during the harder races. Oh, and the SFX are brilliant: the voice-overs and regular sound effects are topnotch, but it’s the theme tunes for each course which truly stand out. SMK had its share of memorable background songs, but many of the BGM tunes in this game are fabulous, perfectly bringing you into each environment as well as being totally different from one another, and generally adding to the fun of the game as a whole.
The game isn’t without its flaws or limitations. The control scheme is mostly very good, but as implied earlier, steering to avoid colliding into walls (especially on curved tracks) can be challenging. You may find that characters strangely catch up on you faster than logic would normally dictate, which in 150CC can lead to some frustrating near-victories. In addition, there’s only four tracks per Cup here, compared to five in SMK, although the tracks here are much longer (Rainbow Road is huge!). There’s also three laps instead of five, but again that’s down to the larger tracks (the first lap of Rainbow Road lasts longer than most races did in SMK). Finally, the Feather item is no more, which makes things a little fairer but won’t satisfy those who made the most of that particular item previously. However, none of these spoil the game when judged as an overall package, nor do the graphics, which were great at the time, but have drawn criticism in recent years when compared to later MK titles (which I find unfair, considering that this is a game which debuted in 1996, and so its graphics shouldn’t be judged against those for games released in 2018).
I have to be honest: you’ve probably noticed, but I have a certain level of bias towards this game, and of the console where it exists. However, that doesn’t alter just how brilliant Mario Kart 64 is. It’s the perfect combination of fun, excitement, unpredictability and competition, with the best graphics ever seen in a Mario game to that point and a simple yet extremely effective control scheme and gameplay engine. It doesn’t try to incorporate gimmicks, nor does it cross the line in trying to conjure up surprises which see you go from first to last in a micro-second. It’s challenging, but in a good way, whilst not being so easy that it insults one’s intelligence. It looks great, it feels great, it plays great, and – well, it’s great! This is a game which you can easily lose hundreds of hours to (as I did when I spent an entire summer playing it originally!), and it’s a game which appeals to children and adults in equal measure.
It isn’t the simple 16-bit package that SMK was, it has fewer characters than Double Dash, it has fewer courses than Mario Kart Wii, and its graphics aren’t as sharp as those of Mario Kart 8. But none of these matter because Mario Kart 64 still delivers in every major area and, crucially, the gameplay is outstanding. Put any other name to this and it’s still a fantastic game; add Mario and co. to it, along with all the bells and whistles of the deliberately-ridiculous courses and items, and you have what is, to me, one of the greatest videogames of all-time. It’s a title which provoked the greatest feelings of nostalgia amongst people I quizzed relating to this review, and it often tops fan’s rankings of Mario Kart games (amongst those who were around in the mid-1990s, anyway), an impressive feat considering that it has been over 20 years since its release.
If you still have a Nintendo 64, get this back out and start playing it again. If you don’t have the N64, or if you don’t have this game, I strongly suggest you stop what you’re doing and add this to your collection (or purchase it in the virtual stores on the Wii or the Wii U); you definitely will not regret it. In closing, Mario Kart 64 is an all-time great game, the best entry of a stunning series, and it was a title which I’ll personally always cherish and consider to be an unforgettable part of my own life.
Overall Rating: 10/10 – Perfect