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Super Mario Kart introduced players to the world of cart racing, Mario style. It’s a fun and often challenging cart racing game featuring Mario characters and items or weapons that the drivers will use against each other. Not only is it a fun game but it was also impressive for its time because of it’s pseudo 3D presentation, made possible by the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 technology. The series would transition from pseudo 3D to actual 3D in the next Mario Kart game, Mario Kart 64. Developed and published by Nintendo, Mario Kart 64 was released for the Nintendo 64 in February, 1997. To be accurate, the environments are in 3D. The characters and carts, among some other things, are still 2D. Mario Kart 64 does include four-player support and it introduced some new mechanics that have since become series staples.
Like its predecessor, Mario Kart 64 is a cart racing game featuring Mario characters. You can race as Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Bowser. The racers are divided into three classes – lightweight, mediumweight and heavyweight and they each have different stats. Although, the stats can be irrelevant when playing in single player because the AI can be cheap and the rubberbanding is ridiculous. You can accelerate, brake, hop, and drift. Mario Kart 64 introduces drift boosting. During a drift, if you move the stick left and right enough times, you can trigger a small boost. This can be an essential tactic for winning races and setting record times.
Mario Kart 64 supports up to four players and there are multiple game modes. The Grand Prix, Time Trial, and Battle modes return and you can race other players in the VS mode. The gameplay in the Battle mode is basically unchanged. Pop all of your opponents’ balloons to win and it does come with it’s own courses. That said, it’s most enjoyable with four players. The Grand Prix consists of multiple engine classes which equates to the difficulty and the higher the CC, the faster the carts move. There are multiple cups and to complete the game, you would need to win the gold in each cup for each CC. Mario Kart 64 introduces the “Extra” class/difficulty and it does need to be unlocked. It’s similar to 150cc except the courses are mirrored. In 150cc if you turn too wildly, your cart can spin out of control which can be annoying. Each cup consists of multiple courses and drivers are awarded points based on their finishing positions. The driver with the most points at the end of a cup, wins. If you manage to finish in fifth or lower, you’re given the option to retry the race or quit. The life system does not make a return nor do coins.
One of the things that made the first game so much fun was the items. Most of the items from the previous game return along with some new ones like triple green and red shells, triple mushrooms, super mushroom, spiny shell, fake item and banana bunch. Many items can be fired forwards and some can be launched or dropped behind your cart. Scattered throughout the courses are item boxes and driving into them will grant you an item. The super mushroom grants you unlimited boosts for a brief time and the spiny shell will travel along the ground and hit anyone along the path to the driver in first. Although, it can fail to do its job if it hits a barrier or wall. Now when you drive over a banana, sometimes you have the opportunity to prevent your kart from spinning out. Red shells still suck. If the opponent in front of you isn’t in view, they’ll often hit barriers and sometimes they even hit the player who fired them. You still can’t launch them behind you nor can you launch any of the triple shells behind you.
Mario Kart 64 is the first game in the series to let you hold an item behind you. If you hold down the fire button, you can hold certain items behind your cart and when doing this, you can acquire another item. It’s a great defense tactic in multiplayer because it can block incoming green and red shells. However, in single player it’s useless because the AI will never fire any shells. They won’t acquire shells, banana bunches, triple mushrooms or super mushrooms. The items are still a bit unbalanced but the balancing is much better than that of its predecessor. For one thing, Thunder Bolts are not extremely rare and you’ll usually get better items the closer you are to last. However, we would sometimes acquire Super Stars, Thunder Bolts and even Spiny Shells when in the top three positions.
For its time, I think Mario Kart 64 was pretty good. It featured improvements over its predecessor, it was the first 3D Mario Kart and it established some mechanics that have been staples ever since. However, it has aged and in our opinion, it has the worst handling in the series. When you turn or drift, your cart kind of slides a little bit before turning and it makes trying to maneuver around things a serious problem. If there’s an obstacle or item in front of you, you can’t just go around it easily. Funnily enough, in the Battle mode, the carts turn normally and feel great. I’m not saying the carts have to have perfect handling, but the sliding is just frustrating.
Rubberbanding is still present but the AI doesn’t outright cheat this time nor do they have their own unique items. We didn’t find any official information or confirmation that the rival system was carried over but it does seem that there’s always two AI opponents that will be up your ass in each cup. In 50cc and 100cc, things aren’t that bad. You can lap the AI if you drive well enough. But in 150cc and Extra, they can be seriously problematic. The AI is why the cart stats mean nothing. You could be racing as a lightweight character and reach your top speed, drift boost, and not crash but a heavyweight character with worse acceleration and lower top speed can still catch up and pass you. You can use a mushroom to boost and they’ll boost with you. On some tracks, the AI opponent in first can get such a big lead that it feels almost impossible to catch up. We noticed it happen frequently on the Bowser’s Castle course.
Mario Kart 64 does feature a nice variety of courses and they vary in length. There’s even some cool easter eggs. For example, you can drive to the castle from Mario 64 on the Royal Raceway course. There’s all kinds of hazards to avoid, you can find and take shortcuts, drive off jumps and boost pads will give you a burst of speed. Hazards will be a little different when playing in multiplayer. For example, the train in Kalimari Desert will be shorter. One of the more unique courses in the game is Yoshi Valley and that’s because you won’t know whose in what position until you finish the race. It’s a maze-like course with all kinds of paths to take. Another unique course is Toad’s Turnpike because you have to avoid traffic vehicles. In Extra, the vehicles are coming towards you making it one of the more difficult courses in the game. The terrible handling makes it even worse.
For its time, Mario Kart 64’s courses were impressive but as the game has gotten older, many of them feel bland. A good example is Kalimari Desert. Other than the train, nothing interesting happens and it’s just a lot of desert. Some courses feel like they go on for way too long. Specifically Wario Stadium and Rainbow Road. Nothing super exciting happens when racing on these courses so they feel like they just drag on. It should also be noted that Mario Kart 64 can be punishing. Getting hit, crashing and recovering often takes way too long and as a result, you can be dropped from first place to last. Your cart will fly up into the air, spin and you’ll bounce a little and if you fall off the course, it takes Lakitu a year and a fucking day to fish you out and put you back in the race.
Mario Kart 64 is the first 3D game in the series and it released during a time when 3D games were on the rise so in that context, it was visually impressive for its time. The characters and carts are 2D sprites which is a little disappointing but the courses are 3D. The presentation is colorful and several courses have a lot of details and things going on in the backgrounds. Some courses look a little more bland and uninteresting as mentioned earlier but in 1997, it wasn’t a huge deal. Plus, all of the courses are visually diverse. The racing is accompanied by upbeat, whimsical and memorable tunes and the characters are voiced. They will shout lines and make noises during races. On the technical side, the frame rate would dip occasionally when playing solo and it was noticeably lower when playing multiplayer.
Honestly, Mario Kart 64 is my least favorite game in the series and I think it has gotten worse with age. I never had a 64 growing up but I did play the game here and there over the years and this was the first time I really dedicated serious time to playing through it. Some of my issues with it are certainly due to it’s age. I can forgive the somewhat bland environments in some courses because this was the series first foray into 3D and I can also forgive the punishing gameplay. I mean if I crashed or got hit or fell off the course, I often found myself in last or close to it, especially in 150cc and Extra. Almost every time. You don’t always recover quickly. I can’t give a pass to the cart handling during races and for three reasons. One; the first game didn’t have this problem. Two; during battles, the carts can turn and maneuver without any issue. And three; I don’t find it fun. The actual driving is just not fun and it’s because of the handling. After playing it long enough, I kind of got used to it but not being able to easily maneuver and get around things is never not frustrating. This is one Mario Kart that I think was outdone by its competitors. Diddy Kong Racing released in November, 1997 and Crash Team Racing released in September, 1999 and I find them to be much more enjoyable.
It’s hard for me to recommend Mario Kart 64 now because there are so many games in the series with better gameplay. The handling is my biggest issue with it and unfortunately, it plagues most of the game. It led to more frustration than some of the item bullshit and rubberbanding. Mario Kart 64 is a game that released between the first game, Super Mario Kart, and Super Circuit. The next big one was Double Dash and I feel all of those games are much more enjoyable to play than Mario Kart 64 simply because of the way the vehicles handle. They have their own issues, don’t get me wrong, but controlling your cart or vehicle isn’t one of them, at least in my experience. If you’re a dedicated fan of the series and haven’t played Mario Kart 64, then I would say check it out. Otherwise, I would suggest playing any of the others.