All right, buckle up—oh wait, there’s no seatbelts in Mario Kart, you just have to hang onto the wheel and pray Lakitu gets you back on track in a hurry in the event of an accident.
What a game. For a title from the Nintendo 64, this one still looks pretty good, too, which is a rarity; one smart choice the designers made was rendering the character and kart animations with 2D sprites, while building 3D courses around them. Angular dirt and grass won’t bother you as much as a box-shaped Wario might—although at the time the game arrived, I think people didn’t appreciate this stylistic choice as much.
But who even cares what the game looks like, it’s still as fun to play as it ever was. Just a soaring, peppy, terrific ride across the lands that Super Mario World (and the original Super Mario Kart) made famous. That’s one of the interesting items to note, that the game makers could have based all the racetracks on Super Mario 64 levels (seeing as the Nintendo 64 launched with Super Mario 64 just a few months beforehand). But no, they stuck to the original for inspiration on most of the levels: Choco Mountain, Frappe Snowland, and Bowser’s Castle all harken back to the Super Nintendo days of Super Mario World and Super Mario Kart. The penguins from Super Mario 64 made it into Sherbet Land, as did the Princess’s shiny new 3D castle in Royal Raceway—not to mention there was no Wario or Wario Stadium in the original kart game—but you could tell this sequel was inspired by the Super Nintendo much more than the company’s newest hardware.
That old-and-new sense was perfect for 12-year-old me, because this was a transitional game. My brothers and I had grown out of our Super Nintendo by now and were absolutely begging for a Nintendo 64 by Christmas 1998. On Christmas Day we spent the morning eating breakfast, opening presents, reading the Christmas story, and pretending that it was no big deal at all that none of the presents came in a box big enough to fit a Nintendo 64. No video-game sized boxes, either, that we could find.
But my brothers and I were reasonably good kids. We buried our disappointment reasonably well when the stack of presents dwindled down to nothing. At that point, we were probably counting days until our birthdays, and estimating how much cash it would take for the three of us to come up with a new console on our own.
Suddenly, my dad pulls out a notecard and does a whole, “Wait, what’s this thing?” routine and we start to smile before we even read it. This card leads to another card, and another, and through this treasure hunt we’re heading from one end of the house to the other and getting more and more hyped while guessing what the treasure at the end would be. The last card sends us under my bed, and in an unassuming black garbage bag we find the greatest Christmas present of them all (or one of them anyway): A new Nintendo 64 system with 2 controllers and 1 game—Mario Kart 64.
It was fitting: one of our two first cartridges for the Super Nintendo had been Super Mario Kart, and my brothers and I had played it endlessly. But we soon discovered that this new game improved on it in every way: the graphics looked great (while keeping enough 2D sprites to not fully blow my mind with the 3D), the musical scores were soaring, orchestral feats when compared to its low-key predecessor, the tracks were longer, more complex, full of shortcuts (most of which we never discovered), and you could play with 3 or 4 players now, not just 2! That was perfect for my brothers and me, who had plenty of experience living in a family of 5 within a world built for families of 4.
The game is timeless, and as good as the original Super Mario Kart was, Super Mario 64 was so good that we couldn’t ever really go back and play the original. Once you taste that fruit, it’s over. It wasn’t even the levels or racers or music or new battle mode levels, or whatever—it was literally the sense of speed you got from the game that blew away the original. Super Mario Kart was an uber-cute, surprisingly-fun little racing game and you could challenge yourself with higher CC cups and time trials and all that. But the sense of real movement, the feeling you were driving something with actual weight, the power you felt in these karts in Mario Kart 64, simply replaced all interest we’d had in its forebear.
The multiplayer items were still fun, chasing down your bros in battle mode was terrific, and just trying to get better on your own was cool, too. Mario Kart 64 was really built on two things: multiplayer and immersion. It got couch multiplayer gaming pretty much perfect (and spawned another 6 or 7 editions of the game that thrive on that quality), but somehow this cartoonish, 2D-3D mixture game set amongst the Moo Moo Farms and Kalmari Deserts and Koopa Troopa Beaches ended up creating an immersive world for us to inhabit both in those early days when it was the only world we had on the Nintendo 64 and for years afterward. There was something real in the midst of the cartoony tracks.
Over the years, we picked up plenty of other racing games for the Nintendo 64. Will any of those make this list? Doubtful, because most of them were terrible. Lego Racers was okay in a goofy sense, F-Zero X was a very fun game (and should make my top 100) but the most “realistic” racers we had, like Monaco Grand Prix, somehow just couldn’t keep you in the game. No matter the realism built in, the mechanics of driving felt way off, and they just ended up seeming so strange and clunky. You could never forget that you were trying to push buttons—something Mario Kart 64 did surprisingly well. In fairness, F-Zero X is great, too, but there’s nothing “real” about it, either. And Diddy Kong Racing, I mean, knock yourself out if that’s your bag, it just felt like a real cheap kiddy knockoff to me.
But when you fire up Mario Kart 64 and park your kart at the start of Rainbow Road, there’s nothing like it on the 64. Three beeps, the light goes green, and then every color flashes before you as you soar through the most beautiful video game racing landscape ever, with the perfect gliding, hoping, soundtrack to match. That’s what Mario Kart 64 did best: it took you out of your world but into a world that was just as recognizable, almost as real, as you sped on through the unreality and the beauty of the infinite drive, the unfettered speed, the dream of the kart. It was the perfect ride from old to new, past to future, and your bros were right there with you. Hold that A button, close your eyes, and drift away.