Mario Kart 64 review
Middling Kart


While Mario's roots may be firmly in the platforming genre the plucky plumber is not adverse to trying new things. During the SNES era Mario hopped into a racing kart, gathered a few other Mario stars around and set about tearing up the track with burning rubber and a variety of weapons. The gamble worked, as Super Mario Kart not only gained an army of fans but is often cited as the inspiration for virtually every other spin-off kart racing game to come afterwards.

Fast-forward a little to the following generation. It was all about them there 3D polygons then, as the world was being wowed with characters moving around in 3D environments. After a transformation of his platforming series it became the turn of Mario's karting game to receive a 64 bit upgrade. While you can certainly see a lot of the Mario magic in here there are also some pretty irritating aspects as well.

MK64 is, at heart, a kart racing game where you take one of eight characters plucked from the Mario universe, shove them into a kart no matter how unfeasible it may seem and race to the finish on a variety of tracks across 3 laps. One of the appealing factors of the game is its accessibility. The controls are accurate and responsive, so you'll find it easy to get your chosen driver to move where you want them to. The different button commands are logically mapped and always within easy reach. Firing a weapon is as simple as pressing the Z trigger your finger should be resting on anyway.

The ability is hop is an interesting trait. Tapping the right shoulder button will cause your kart to bounce up slightly into the air. Under normal circumstances the jump has little height and will initially seem rather pointless, but a deeper look will reveal that this feature holds some fantastic applications. Although a simple jump on a flat piece of track is largely pointless, leaping off an opponent while boosting or jumping off a ramp just as you go airborne has much more use. The former is simply handy for getting past the front runners without having to struggle through, but the latter is great for opening alternate paths through tracks and knocking precious seconds off your time.

Holding the jump button as you enter a turn will cause your kart to begin sliding around the corner. This alone is useful as it allows you to minimize slowdown while helping you to turn. However, wiggle the analogue stick back and forth as you slide will cause the smoke to change colour. Once the smoke turns red you can release the jump button for a mini-boost. This is a valuable technique you will need to use often as it can seriously reduce lap times and help give an edge over opponents.

However, this is where one of the game's problems comes in. There are sixteen racing tracks in all, split across four racing cups. Sounds nice but the issue is that only about half of these are actually interesting and the others will simply bore the player. Tracks like Bowser's Castle, Banshee Boardwalk and Toad's Turnpike are examples of the good tracks. Each circuit is filled with some tricky corners and challenging hazards. There's a certain feeling of smugness when you can take the boardwalk's 'Z Bend' at full speed, or when you just slide under the Thwomps before they smash you into a pancake.

By contrast, you have stages like Luigi Raceway, Frappe Snowland and Rainbow Road. These tracks lack anything particularly threatening as they either don't have hazards or they are easily avoided. These tracks also tend to be far too easy on driving skill, possessing rather wide tarmac with easy, gentle corners. Rainbow Road also has the problem of being far too long (too long to even save a TT ghost), making for a poor ending to the Special Cup. While some of these tracks may be in the earlier cups that is no excuse to be so forgiving and generally devoid of challenge.

Obviously, the raceways themselves won't be your only hazard, as the opposition drivers will also try their best to beat you to the line. As well as racing you to the finish, all karters can pick up and use a variety of weapons. These weapons are gained by driving through crystal-like question boxes on the circuit, which causes a sort of roulette to start, which in part determines the weapon you get, although this is also influenced by your race position where those at the front get more defensive items while the back markers will score the hard hitting weapons. The idea of rewarding someone for poor driving with better weapons seems really weird, but in MK64 it sort-of works. When racing with a full set of drivers it works nicely, as the weapon setup is probably one of the most balanced I've seen from the series. The high end weapons aren't complete overkill and won't end up dominating the race, which is nice. The only time this system becomes an issue is in races with a small number of participants (especially in two player), where second place can and will get handed power stars and lightning bolts even if they're right behind first place.

If you're racing against the computer then you'll find other concerns. To put it simply, the computer karts of MK64 cheat. By that, I mean they do things human players could never do, and this has nothing to do with simply driving better. The computer will gain weapons even if they miss the weapon boxes, they will all target the human players regardless of who is near them, they will catch up to the human player almost regardless of what the player does to get ahead (about the only thing that prevents this is taking huge shortcuts, and even then they might still manage to catch up) and they will recover instantly from a crash or a pancake moment if they are offscreen.

Yet, strangely enough, this doesn't make the computer that challenging. Once they've caught up their speed lowers to your speed and they do fall victim easily enough to weapon hits. The overall feeling is rather odd; a mix of irritation that they pull these kinds of stunts and disappointment that there is still no challenge in beating them even with that.

As mentioned previously, there are eight Mario characters to choose from, but they really don't perform drastically different from one another. About the only standout trait is weight, where the likes of Bowser and Wario will knock the others about a lot more easily than Peach and Toad. There are differences to things like speed and handling, but it's hard to notice them. On the plus side, this does make picking personal preferences a lot more viable.

There are three racing game modes on offer, plus one non-racing mode I will cover later. Grand Prix is the meat of the single player, although a second play can join in if they want. In this mode players compete against the computer karters for points and trophies. Unlike other modes you don't pick a singular track but rather you choose a cup and then race through the whole set of tracks in that cup in sequence.

In each race points are awarded to the top four finishing drivers, and then top three scorers are given trophies at the end (amusingly, fail to score in the top three and watch your drive get blown up in typical Mario style). That said, the game also tends to be too forgiving here too. It is impossible to move on from one track to the next unless a player finishes in the top four. You are forced to retry or quit. The retry option is nice but I wish it was actually optional and not forced.

Time Trial is a single player mode where you can pick any of the racing circuits on offer and attempt to set the fastest course and lap times. There are no other drivers on the course and the only weapons in play are three mushroom turbos given at the beginning of any TT run. The game also allows for the saving of TT ghosts, which is essentially a ghost version of your run on that course. However, the saving of these ghosts is pretty limited. Not only does the game take up almost an entire standard memory pak (121 blocks to be precise) but even that only allows for a maximum of two ghosts. There are also a couple of Course Ghosts already in the game that can be unlocked on relevant circuits if you race fast enough, which are TT runs set by some of the development team. Fancy taking you skills against those that made the game?

Then there is Versus, one of two modes exclusively multiplayer. 2-4 players can compete in any of the sixteen racing courses to reach the finish. While much of the action is pretty similar to single player minus the computer karts there are some notable differences that causes the versus action to miss the mark slightly.

One niggle is the loss of certain features on some tracks. Presumably to maintain a steady framerate you will find some track features are either reduced or gone completely. The Kalamari Desert train is a perfect example, as it has lost almost all of the train cars it was pulling along.

Also, for some strange reason the team decided to put mini-bomb karts on each track. Whether this was meant for extra challenge or not is unclear, but the issue is that avoiding them is a nightmare. These little things are surprisingly difficult to see and a lot of them are moving around pretty quickly. Even if you seem to be clear one might still side-swipe you.

These things aren't that bad though and the game is certainly an improvement over the single player since you don't have the computer karts to worry about. The game also keeps track of wins as you race more and more, although this is not saved to the cart or the memory pak, so the stats are lost when you quit.

Finally there is the battle mode. This mode takes the usual racing conventions and tosses them out the window, putting the focus solely on the weapon side of things. There are four specially constructed arenas to fight in, ranging from a simple circular area with a lava pit and large wall blocks to a skyscraper with numerous pits about. These areas are all nicely designed and lend themselves well to battle.

In this mode each driver is given three balloons that are tied to their karts, and the goal is to make the opponent's lose all of their balloons before they do the same to you. For this you can crash into them to make them spin (for the heavier drivers only), strike them with weapons or cause them to fall off the track into the pits or lava of some arenas.

The weapon selection is smaller than in other modes since the ones dropped would either be a bit useless here (turbos) or seriously overpowered (lightning). That said you still have a rather solid selection that is no longer dependant on race position. Lay up traps, wait in ambush or drive around like a headless chicken hoping you don't get hit. Battles are often fast and frantic and is easily one of the most entertaining aspects of the game.

Interestingly, even players that have lost all their balloons aren't immediately mere spectators providing more than one other player remains. In this case the player becomes a mini-bomb kart, which can perform a single hit on another driver by driving into them, perfect for getting revenge on the sod that just stole your last balloon.

The game looks pretty good as an N64 game. It's definitely a step up from SM64, as the character models are smoother and have been fleshed out a little more to give them a more believable fantasy appearance. The courses themselves also look pretty sweet, with some strong aesthetically pleasing designs.

The heads-up display has also been worked nicely into the game. The available displays vary depending on the number of players, but in single player there are three in all. Two of them show the lap times, top four drivers and the lap counter. Where they differ is one shows a mini-map of the course (complete with markers showing other drivers' positions) while the other has a speedometer (nice to look at but lacking functional value). The last display clears the screen of most other details and displays a square ranking system that shows the race positions of the drivers and the general distance between drivers (not an actual figure but by the spacing of driver icons). Switching between displays is pretty easy so it's a case of use whichever one you want.

The framerate is usually pretty solid, keeping the game moving at a steady pace. There are times when it tends to suffer. Inparticularly I've had issues in battles on Skyscraper, but it's rare and doesn't hinder gameplay much. Some of the special effects seem a little weak though, like how explosions look timid and merely end up sending the kart straight up rotating.

Music is hit and miss. It's all the classic Mario styled music we've come to know and love over the years, but while some tracks are easily the kind to hum along to, there are also some pretty bland tunes in there that just sink into the background. Sound effects seem pretty good for doing their job, and it's nice to hear the drivers so vocal when racing.

Mario Kart 64 doesn't really live up the the expectations laid down by its predecessor. The game is at its best in multiplayer, but even then the game has some flaws and the single player has even more problems than that. It's not a bad game, but take some thought before you invest in it, as it's not as epic as you might want it to be.

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