Mario Kart 64 is the second installment in the combat racing series by Nintendo released for the Nintendo 64. I’ll assume you’re familiar with Super Mario Kart or the series in general when reading this. The basics are the same. You race using Mario characters in Mario-themed tracks with Mario items that you can pick up along the way to help you or hinder others. This game removes the coins and changes the roster a bit along with having all new tracks. There are four cups of four races each for 16 total tracks. The placing and points system remains but there are no lives to speak of. There’s still 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc for difficulty levels and speed but they are all unlocked from the start here. Getting gold trophies on 150cc will unlock not only an alternate title screen but an Extra option when picking difficulty. This mode mirrors all of the tracks while making enemies even more aggressive, as far as I can tell anyway.
Many of the items make a return, but some exclusions are the AI only items from the previous game as well as the coins and the feather. This game introduces a few as well. There’s a triple mushroom item that gives you three boosts instead of just one but occupies the slot until you use them all. There’s also a super shroom that lets you boost infinitely for a short period of time upon its first use. There are also triple shell variants for both the red and green Koopa shells that revolve around the player upon their first use and remain until they are fired or collide with another racer or destructible obstacle. There’s now a bunch of banana peels that can be placed one by one but will be spread out in the nearby area if someone hits the trail prematurely. There’s a fake item box item that can be placed and will look just like an item box except for its question mark being upside down. Hitting this will send the racer flying into the air. The most infamous of these new items is of course the blue shell, which runs through the track knocking over any poor sap in its way before ultimately colliding with whoever is in first place. Another quirk to note about the item system here is that any item that can be held around your kart will actually consume it from the item slot, allowing you to pick up another item while still holding the previous one. This game also introduces tailwind boosts which happen if you follow behind another racer for a long enough stretch.
There’s a grand prix for 1 or 2 players to race against everyone. Some obstacles will actually be more difficult on higher engine classes here. There’s also vs for 2 to 4 players where there are no AI opponents but bomb karts that swivel in place are placed in designated spots across the tracks. Time trial is only for one player, but if you choose to save ghost data you can race against your previous record-holding ghost data. Battle mode is similar to the previous game but with the ability to play with 2 to 4 players and there is more verticality to the tracks. There are four battle tracks and the goal is still to pop everyone else’s three balloons while keeping your own. In 3 and 4 player the first ones eliminated actually get resurrected as bomb karts that they can drive around. They can’t pick up items, but they can explode on other racers and obstacles. After one explosion they are out for good.
I think the overhaul of the item system adds a ton to this game. The ability to hold items makes it even more hectic, yet use of them appropriately is even more important because of all the situations you can wind up in. And having more items in general just adds more strategy and a greater range of possibilities for creating fun situations. They have great persistence too, so by the third lap you’ve got fake item boxes hiding out, banana peels littered everywhere, and shells banging around the place. It’s a real battlefield to get to that finish line. The tracks have some fun set pieces in them as well to keep them from all being just flat, standard tracks like most of its predecessor. The jumps, track hazards, and interesting scenery just liven it up so much. Visually I think it’s great. It’s very colorful and… well it looks like an N64 game which is good if you’re a fan of that sort of thing… and I am. The music has an interesting feel to it with the bass and organ pushing out some energetic songs that blend in with the scene and don’t distract you from your racing. I also think the voice work is pretty satisfying here. Just hearing your character say their line indicating someone hit one of your items is so satisfying. It’s also probably the easiest in the series to get a hang of due to the drifting being pretty much optional. You can beat the whole thing without ever really doing it and the handling of the karts is so nice that you can focus on learning the tracks and mastering the items rather than making your vehicle do what you want it to. It’s a great balance of skill and spectacle without the headache of an unresponsive kart.
The game certainly isn’t perfect, though. The drift boosting is tough to get down and doesn’t often seem worth the risk when you consider what failure will do. The items can be pretty hectic and I’ll admit that sometimes falling off of a ledge can take too long to recover from and… the blue shell is a rough one. It’s not too frequent, but sometimes it feels a little hopeless when you see another player use it and you know it’s coming no matter what. It’s an equalizer, but not always the most fair. Holding onto multiple items can get a little cheap too. If you can get a decent item or two and get up in higher places you’ll be pretty set for a while. And constantly getting even just banana peels over and over in the lead can be enough to keep you there until someone DOES get that blue shell, which give that a tad more balance I guess. The rubber banding is terrible in this one, though. If you get ahead, those computers will be right back up your ass in seconds. It doesn’t matter if you get a super shroom and fly through an amazing shortcut, they WILL be back on your ass quick. This makes it feel more hard than challenging due to it being unfair as I don’t believe this effect applies to human player getting smoked. Rainbow Road is visually stunning and the music is great, but it’s so long with a lot of nothing happening in it track-wise. The 3 and 4 player races don’t have any music for some reason. The ghost data for time trails apparently takes up a LOT of memory pak pages. There are just some things that could’ve used a little tweaking and weren’t quite perfect.
Still, Mario Kart 64 is a vast improvement over its predecessor. I would recommend it to anyone looking to get into the series that doesn’t mind N64 graphics, or better yet, actually likes them. It’s not perfect and maybe not the most appealing, but it still holds up pretty damn well and is worth at least 20 bucks if you can get your hands on it. Maybe up to 30 bucks for the Mario Kart fans and N64 fans, but I don’t know if it goes for the cheap outside of virtual console. It’s good. It may not be an amazing game, the best N64 game, or even the best Mario Kart, but it’s solid at what it does and has some charm to boot. I’d highly recommend it to the right crowd, provided they somehow missed it until now. BINGO! OH HO HO HO! I uh… I had to.