Throughout his career, Mario seems to have done it all. He has starred in many platform games, of course, but he has also been featured in puzzle games, sports games, fighting games, and even a first-person shooting game with Yoshi. One of his most successful series of games has been the Mario Kart series, which has seen six entries on as many different Nintendo systems. One game in the series that truly stands out for me for nostalgic purposes is Mario Kart 64, released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. It is filled with such wonderful childhood memories, and even though it has been surpassed by its sequels and other racing games, it can still be a lot of fun.
As with all Mario Kart games, there is no story whatsoever. Mario and his friends just head out to race in such locations as a farm, a beach, a mountain, and the famous Rainbow Road. Your mission is to try and beat your seven opponents to the finish line in a three-lap race. To help you accomplish this goal, there are items that you can collect from item boxes scattered throughout each track. Mushrooms can give you a speed boost, banana peels can be placed onto the track for someone to slip on and spin out, stars make you invincible for a short time, ghosts can make you invisible and help you steal an item from an opponent, lightning bolts shrink the other drivers, and shells can be thrown at anyone who is in front of or behind you. Making its debut in this game is the blue shell, which homes in on whoever is in first place. The shell can be a pain to deal with, but not quite as badly as it would be in later games.
Eight drivers can be selected, and each one is in a weight class that determines his or her strengths and weaknesses. Mario and Luigi, being middleweight drivers, are well-balanced and are not particularly strong or weak in any way. Peach, Toad, and Yoshi are lightweight drivers, who have good acceleration and handling but a low top speed. Bowser, Donkey Kong, and Wario (the latter two making their debut in a Mario Kart game) are heavyweight drivers, whose acceleration and handling leave a lot to be desired, but they also possess a high top speed. As with any racing game, trying out each driver to see which one works best for the player is vital for determining which character can win the most gold trophies.
There are four grand prix races in the game, each with four tracks. Each grand prix has three difficulty levels to choose from, and in each one, your car increases in speed, but your opponents become more aggressive. Place fourth or better in a race, and you will move on to the next one. If you get fifth place or worse, however, you will not qualify for the next track, and will have to restart the current race. You will get points based on how well you place in each track, and depending on how many points you have at the end of a grand prix, you will get a gold, silver, or bronze trophy, or no trophy. Try to obtain gold in every difficulty in all four grand prix races, as doing so will unlock a mirror mode that makes the tracks even harder to win.
The tracks are not generic courses with nothing special added to them. Often, there are features that can help or hinder your progress. One course has you trying to avoid traffic, while another has penguins that will make your car spin out if you hit them. Some courses have shortcuts that, if used well, can help make all the difference between a first place win and an eighth place loss. These tracks are quite memorable, and with eight drivers on the course, the action can get pretty frantic in a hurry.
It gets even wilder if you invite up to three other players to join you, because the game truly shines in the multiplayer mode. In Grand Prix and Versus modes, you must try and beat your opponents to the finish line just like in the single player races. Versus mode adds bombs to slow players down and add to the frenzy. The famous Battle Mode has you using weapons to make your opponents lose all of their balloons before they can do the same thing to you. The multiplayer fun can easily last for hours, as it is that frantic and enjoyable.
As fun as the game is, though, it feels dated and limited by today’s standards. There are only 16 tracks in the game, whereas Diddy Kong Racing, released later that same year, would have twenty tracks. The action in the single player mode is not as frantic as it would be in later games, and having only eight drivers and no unlockable characters limits the game even more. Additionally, some tracks seem to go on forever, and not being able to redo a single race without starting the entire grand prix over (unless you place fourth or worse) is annoying. All that said, the game is still pretty good, and one of the most memorable Nintendo 64 games of all time.
Having a full screen as opposed to a split screen allows the game to present some nice graphics for its time. Some slowdown is present, but the environments and characters look pretty decent. The music is filled with some rather catchy music, with Rainbow Road, Luigi Raceway, and Toad’s Turnpike being particular favorites of mine. New to the series is voice acting, with wonderful voices coming from every character. They cheer when they hit an opponent and cry out in agony when they get hit. This practice would become commonplace in later titles, but its debut here adds to the game’s charm.
Mario Kart 64 has its limitations, some of which were apparent even when it was new, but it is also a pretty good racing game. The sheer amount of nostalgia from the game will stick with you, while the single player and multiplayer action are still exciting after all these years. The game has popped up on the Wii Shop Channel for those who do not wish to track down a copy of the original Nintendo 64 version. If you want a racing game that provides plenty of fun in spite of being limited, then Mario Kart 64 is the racing game for you. It may have been surpassed by other racing games, but its legacy of being an exciting game in its own right will live on forever.