Starting life on the SNES the Mario Kart series has now graced just about every Nintendo system since and each time a new gimmick or mechanic has been added. Looking way back to the second game in the series we see a distinct lack of gimmicks, some 3D rendered tracks and the introduction of the dreaded blue shell.
Mario Kart 64 had a lot to live up to following on from the hugely popular Super Nintendo game. Fans loved Super Mario Kart (though it’s crazy to think critics weren’t always as keen at the time), and the track design and pure gameplay would be seemingly hard to beat. But with a new powerful system out Nintendo had to try and pull something out of the bag.
The big leap is in terms of the graphics. The tracks are now properly 3D with much more depth of field and solidity than before (though occasional objects on the tracks are still 2D). The game also introduced a completely new selection of tracks to race around and the super racers among you could also unlock mirror mode for the first time.
All the new tracks (bar about two), are of an exceptional standard and either showcase a simple gimmick or act as speed demon heaven. Many of them have found their way into other Mario Kart games other the years and they showcase just how creative Nintendo was with the franchise when it was in its infancy. There’s ice to slip on, marauding cows and even a train that manages to cross the road just at the wrong time. Every track requires concentration to avoid hitting hazards and a keen eye to spot potential shortcuts.
Most of the cast of the first game return but now Donkey Kong Jnr has been replaced with standard Donkey Kong and poor old Koopa Troopa has been dropped in favour of Wario. Dropping Koopa Troopa was a strange move as he was the first choice for many SNES gamers but then he was far less recognisable than Wario and Nintendo had a new character to promote. We are very glad to see the little guy return in later versions of the game though.
There were also a few changes in the power up departments with continually replenishing floating squares now dishing out weapons instead of the one use question marks on the road. The feather is also long gone and the triple green and red shell pick up came in. This was the first time the leader-smashing blue shell turned up as well. Hated by many, the spikey shell will zoom directly to the racer in first place and knock them up into the air. This is very annoying when it happens to you but great when it hits someone else.
The other big change which divides fans is the rubber band mechanic that is very apparent. Especially noticeable in single player it is almost impossible to actually build up a meaningful lead over your opponents. Even at 50cc you’ll be racing around with one or two racers permanently popping up at the edge of your screen. You can hit them with all sorts of weapons but chances are at the next corner they will magically appear again.
It’s something we really dislike about the game as it just seems cheap and unfair. The computer also makes ridiculous defensive shots (such as hitting a speeding green shell with a forward thrown banana), and manages to catch you even when you’re hammering through mushroom power ups. In our eyes this is a real mistake as though it keeps things close it makes the player feel there is little point doing anything offensively unless you are on the last corner of the last lap as the computer will just recover almost immediately. At least later versions of the game better hid their rubber band mechanics behind power ups given to those towards the back of the pack.
Overall, returning to Mario Kart 64 left us with more good feelings than bad. The rubber band mechanic is annoying but the tracks and intense racing is some of the best ever seen. The level design is arguably a series highlight and the general feeling of fun remains throughout. It certainly deserves to be in any Nintendo fans collection and it more than holds up against other games in the series. If you can get some friends together it raises up to a whole new level as well with in-room chaos likely to break out very quickly.