Mario Kart 64
  • Genre:
    • Racing
  • Platform:
    • Nintendo 64
  • Developer:
    • Nintendo
  • Publisher:
    • Nintendo
  • Released:
    • JP 12/14/1996
    • US 02/10/1997
    • UK 06/24/1997
Score: 90%

This review was published on 07/25/2013.

Mario Kart 64 is a 3-D racing game originally released for the Nintendo 64. Despite its title, it's not the 64th game in the Mario Kart series. In actuality, this is the second Mario Kart game, with the first one being released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Mario Kart 64 is the first true 3-D Mario Kart game with actual polygons; none of that Mode-7 nonsense here. The racing game genre benefited greatly from having 3-D graphics, as this allowed you to actually see what was coming up ahead, giving you enough time to prepare for turns. 3-D also made the courses far more complex, because it allowed for things like change in elevation. This is also the first Mario Kart game that allows for up to four players in its multiplayer modes, thanks to the N64's four controller ports. Because of these reasons, Mario Kart 64 is a huge step up from the original Super Mario Kart. Similar to the first Mario Kart, this game has one of the best local multiplayer modes ever, up there with the likes of Bomberman. Mario Kart 64 establishes many mechanics that would become standard for the highly prolific Mario Kart series. It hasn't aged to well, but it's still one of the best multiplayer games on the N64.

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In case you haven't heard, Mario Kart is primarily about racing. The folk from the Mushroom Kingdom take a break from their daily lives to have a simple race. Bowser, the main antagonist of the Mario games, is no antagonist in this game. Everyone just wants to have fun racing, no plot required. You have a variety of modes to select from, from the standard Grand Prix to a number of different multiplayer modes. The Grand Prix consists of four cups, each with four individual tracks for a total of sixteen courses. There's no need to unlock any of the tracks or cups, as everything is available right at the beginning of the game. The same goes for the characters, too. That's a pretty nice feature of Mario Kart 64. That's not to say that there isn't anything to unlock, but pretty much all of the important stuff is available right away. If you want to practice any individual courses without having to worry about the other racers, then the Time Trial is the way to go. You can save ghosts of your best times to a memory card to trade with friends, though this is a feature that is obviously no longer relevant. As for things that can be unlocked, the main thing is Mirror Mode. This brilliant mode does as its name implies and mirrors all of the courses. It's a brilliant mode that breathes new life into old courses. The instincts you developed from beating the courses regularly will be put to the test in Mirror Mode, in a fun and challenging way. Mario Kart 64 has plenty of modes to keep the racing fresh for a long time.

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Racing works a lot like it did in Super Mario Kart, but with countless additions and drastic improvements. The controls are a lot more forgiving now, making it far easier to make tight turns. You press A to accelerate and B to decelerate; holding down B eventually makes you go in reverse. Because this is still a Mario themed game, you can jump. The jump isn't too useful for clearing gaps, as it's more of a small hop than an actual jump, but it can come in handy when taking tight turns. Speaking of tight turns, this is the first Mario Kart game to have the current drift system that all modern Mario Kart games now use. Whenever doing a drift during a tight turn, you'll see small smoke clouds come out of the muffler of your car, signifying how much power you're building up. When you release this power, typically when coming out of a tight turn, you'll get a sudden boost in speed. This is very helpful and is the main way you'll gain on your opponents when unarmed. Beyond that, racing is pretty simple. You'll want to stay out of the rough and on the pavement in most of the courses, unless you're on a course with no pavement. Sometimes the way to success is to merely drive well enough to avoid all the hazards in a given course, though this won't fly in the higher difficulty modes. CPU racers have rubber band AI that allows them to always stay in step with you, and they are almost infallible in the tougher modes. At that point, in comes down to skillful driving and getting lucky. The game is pretty easy if you stick to the easier difficulty modes, though. In any case, Mario Kart 64 controls like a dream, especially when compared to Super Mario Kart.

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Items are the main draw to the Mario Kart series, and Mario Kart 64 greatly improves on the item system. Many of the old items from Super Mario Kart were changed to be a lot more useful, while a lot of the less useful ones were omitted entirely. Mario Kart 64 adds quite a few new items to the mix, too. There are items that hinder other racers and items that augment your own racer's abilities on a temporary basis. Green Shells, Red Shells, and Banana Peels make a return as the backbone of the offensive line of items; Green Shells are a basic projectile attack that bounces off walls, Red Shells home in on the nearest target, and Banana Peels are left on the ground in hopes that a racer will slip on them. The homing capability of Red Shells has been greatly enhanced, making them almost always hit nearby targets. In fact, Mario Kart 64 might actually have the most accurate Red Shells in the entire series. Naturally there are limitations, like Red Shells won't be able to hit targets that are too far away, and they get destroyed by walls or obstacles. It's a good thing that they're a lot better, though, because they weren't terribly good in Super Mario Kart. As far as support items go, you've got Mushrooms that can be used for a quick nitro boost, Boos that make you temporarily invisible, Stars that give you temporary invincibility, and a lot of other stuff. Items are randomly acquired via diamond-shaped boxes that float about in the stages, though what item you get isn't entirely random. You generally get more powerful items the further behind you are, giving you a chance to cheat your way back to the top. The Mario Kart series has had a tumultuous time with item balance, in that the first game made items far too weak to be useful, and the newer games made items far too powerful. Mario Kart 64 strikes a perfect balance, because the items are extremely useful, yet never to the point of breaking the balance.

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Multiplayer is king in Mario Kart 64. You've got two basic modes; Versus Mode and Battle Mode, just like the first Mario Kart. The Versus Mode is just a straight up race between two to four players. It's a good mode, but most people won't spend a lot of time with this one. That's because this game has improved upon the Battle Mode substantially. The Battle Mode in this game is so good, it practically justifies the purchase. There are two reasons why the Battle Mode of this game is amazing: the offensive items are very adept at dispatching opponents, and the courses are absolutely fantastic. Not too many courses are available in Battle Mode, but the ones that are there are the best in the series. The proof is that a lot of these Battle Mode courses get remade and remixed in future Mario Kart games, though they tend to be downscaled. Everyone's favorite Battle Mode course of Mario Kart 64 is the Block Fort, which is a giant fort of blocks. This course is perfect for hiding from your opponent and sneaking up on them when they least expect it. This course, like a few other Battle Mode courses, has multiple levels to it, with bridges connecting the higher levels. A really fun strategy that can work against you or for you is to aimlessly spam a bunch of Green Shells. The shells will congregate at the bottom of the course, bouncing around in an endless, deadly loop. At that point, anyone courageous enough to venture to the bottom of the course is going to have an exciting time. Battle Mode in Mario Kart 64 pretty much never gets old, providing endless hours of entertainment. The only drawback is the game won't play any music if you play with four players, due to limitations of the N64's hardware. This is quite a major drawback, admittedly, but the fun courses more than make up for it.

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Mario Kart 64 greatly improves on the original in almost every way imaginable. The 3-D enhances the experience by leaps and bounds, the controls are a lot easier to handle, and the multiplayer is phenomenal. It's also a lot more accessible than its predecessor, as it's not insanely difficult, though there are insanely difficult modes available for those looking for a kart racing challenge. While it's true that this iteration of Mario Kart hasn't aged too well in terms of graphics and features, it does have some of the best Battle Mode courses in the whole series. The item balance is also a lot better in Mario Kart 64 when compared to newer iterations of the series. Future Mario Karts improved on just about everything, save for the Battle Mode and item balance. There may not be too many reasons to go back to this one after playing the newer Mario Kart games, but it's important to remember that those games owe a lot to Mario Kart 64.

Word Count: 1,651

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