FYIG is going to start paying a bit more attention to games from the past and that all starts today with our Mario Kart 64 review on the Nintendo 64.
In the early 90s, Nintendo was riding a huge wave of success with Mario as its flagship character. Not only did they have the plumber himself, but they had a great supporting cast of iconic characters that were starting to become household names as well. It was only natural that with all of these characters, there would be some crossover games that would bring them all together. The first of these games came in 1992 when Nintendo released Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo. After the success of Super Mario Kart, Nintendo brought their Mario Kart to the then-new Nintendo 64 in 1997 with the release of Mario Kart 64.
Mario Kart 64 was the first game that I played in the Mario Kart series. I never got the chance to play Super Mario Kart when it came out so Mario Kart 64 always stands out in my mind more than that one. I was only 7 years old when it came out and I remember having many bouts of Battle Mode with my siblings each weekend. It was a game that was purely fun, it brought people together and tore them apart at the same time. Let’s take a look at why the game was so special and what could have been improved to make it even better.
Mario Kart 64 is very similar to its predecessor in the way that it’s set up. Players can race against 7 CPU players (or 6 CPUs and 1 other player) in Grand Prix, try and beat their best times in Time Trials, race 1-3 other players in VS. Mode, or try and pop your opponents balloons in Battle Mode. There are also three different kart classes with 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc. The higher the class, the faster the karts and the better your opponents are. There are 8 playable characters in the game. Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Bowser, and Toad carry over from Super Mario Kart. The two newcomers are Wario and Donkey Kong who replace Koopa Troopa and Donkey Kong Jr.
The racing itself isn’t as difficult to me as in Super Mario Kart with the wider tracks in Mario Kart 64. That’s not to say that there’s no skill involved, but it’s a tad bit easier in my opinion. You have to choose between whether you want a heavy character which slows down more when going off track or a lighter character that can be knocked around a lot easier. That gives the game a bit more strategy. Other than that, the game has pretty simple controls: accelerate, brake, skid, use item. It’s easy for anyone to pick up and play. It’s that very fact that presents a bit of a weakness as well because Mario Kart 64 feels like it’s based less on skill and more on luck of the items that you find to use. If a player is in last, often times they’ll receive speed boosts to get them right back with everyone. It keeps players on an even playing field. While that may be a good thing for novice, more seasoned players probably won’t like that as much. It has since become a standard formula for Mario Kart and it’s been ultra-successful so it can’t be that bad. If you’re a good racer, you’ll find some way to squeak out a victory most times.
The item pickups in Mario Kart 64 are largely similar to its predecessor, but the feather is no longer in the game. In its place is the now infamous blue spiked turtle shell that seeks out the player in first place as well as a fake item box marked by an upside down question mark that blows drivers up when they pass through it. Other items include the ghost that steals players’ items and makes the player holding it invisible for a short period of time. The lightning bolt shrinks other drivers so you can drive over them and the mushroom gives players a turbo boost. There’s even the ability to get three red or green shells at once that act as a shield which helps a ton if you’re in the lead…at least if you don’t get hit by the blue shell.
The level design of the race tracks is pretty memorable. There are a lot of things that stand out about most of the levels. There’s the boat that you fly over on DK’s Jungle Parkway, the penguins in Sherbet Land, traffic on Toad’s Turnpike, and even Chain Chomps on Rainbow Road. Each level has a lot of character and there aren’t many that feel very similar to each other. It makes a lot of sense that some of these levels have been remastered in later Mario Kart games, most of them are iconic levels with a lot of character. I also like that a lot of the tracks had alternate or hidden routes. It’s a game that you can really master if you take the time to explore the different tracks.
The one-player mode in Mario Kart 64 is decent, but the one problem I have with it is that there’s no sense of progression through the game. There is a Mirrored 150cc Mode if you get the Gold Cup on regular 150cc, but that hardly feels like much of an incentive. Later games in the series fixed this problem, but Mario Kart 64 just didn’t have a lot of single player replay value. If you don’t have a few friends to play this game with, it probably isn’t as appealing. I know it isn’t to me whenever I have a go at single player. It doesn’t help that you can’t enter names for Time Trials which makes that feature virtually useless for bragging rights between friends. You can race your ghost, though, so that’s a plus.
The multiplayer is obviously where Mario Kart 64 excels. There’s nothing like the friendly rivalries that come out when you’re playing this one with 3 other friends. The racing is pretty standard, especially in VS. Mode, you’re going to get a similar experience to single player. It would have been nice to play Grand Prix Mode with 4 players, but I think the technical limitations of the N64 were too much at the time. Battle Mode is a lot of fun in multiplayer and provides 4 unique levels to try and blast enemy balloons in. Each level lends itself well to the battle aspect with two of the levels (Block Fort and Double Decker) having multiple levels for players to drive around and gain different vantage points while Big Donut and Skyscraper are more straightforward circular levels. I’ve had a lot of fun with these over the years, but I do wish that they had a couple more levels for variety. Once you play it for an hour or two, these levels get very repetitive. I also didn’t feel the need for the radar, especially during split-screen!
Graphically, the game still holds up fairly well today. I find that most N64 games don’t look that bad even by today’s standards. It had a specific art style that seemed to help games age better than on the PS1. Even with the pre-rendered sprites they used for the drivers, I still don’t have many complaints about this one. The drivers can look bad up close, but the game doesn’t close in on the drivers that often.
If you have an N64, Mario Kart 64 is a must-have title. Super Mario Kart started the series, but Mario Kart 64 helped make it a household name and the premiere racing game to play with friends. It’s been 20 years, but I still go back to this one from time to time. It’s an iconic game and one that will keep you and a few friends entertained all night long.