Back when the Nintendo 64 came out, while it had the revolutionary Super Mario 64, everyone was left wanting a fantastic multiplayer game that used all four controllers with the console. Soon after launch, that’s where Mario Kart 64 came in.
Mario Kart 64 is the second in the series, and expanded a lot from its predecessor. While there are still only eight characters to select – Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Wario and Toad – you won’t be sat wishing that there were more characters.
If you’ve never played Mario Kart before, then the series is essentially a racing game using the Mario characters where you go through various race courses, all with their own themes and obstacles, and try to win. There are 16 courses across five different cups to play which may seem a bit small compared to the amounts we see in modern Mario Kart games, but many of these stages are classics. However, most of them don’t have as much going on in them as later Mario Kart games do. While Toad’s Turnpike has got vehicles through it, you’ll have stages like Mario Circuit and Royal Raceway which are practically devoid of anything special outside the aesthetics.
Playing solo, there are several options. There’s Grand Prix, where you can play through the cups at 50cc, 100cc or 150cc speeds and, new to this game, Mirror Mode where everything is reversed. Points are awarded depending on where you place, and at the end, you can win a trophy.
There’s also the Time Trial mode, where you essentially try to get the best score with the game saving your best five times and lap. On the original Nintendo 64 version you could utilise the Memory Pak to import ghost data to get friend’s best scores into the game, but the Wii U Virtual Console service, unfortunately, lacks that functionality.
Single player isn’t where the fun is, however. That is all in multiplayer, and Mario Kart can be played with between two to four players. In two-player, you can play Grand Prix, but you can’t in three or four player mode. You can, however, have VS matches, where you just race against the other players and the unique to multiplayer feature, Battle mode.
In Battle Mode, you have three balloons and must drive around specially designed courses and attack the other players in order for them to lose their balloons. The last player standing is the winner. This is a mode that has never really quite felt the same after the SNES and Nintendo 64 versions, and it’s certainly probably the best it has been here.
The multiplayer aspect of this game is key, and it still works so well to this day. It’s still quite fun in single player, although the game does rubber band quite often. You may get far ahead of the CPU players, but they will often perplexingly come back – especially with the Blue Shell, which was invented for this game. That said, there’s nothing as satisfying as throwing a Blue Shell in multiplayer when your friends are in the lead. Many friendships were lost that day.
The game runs silky smooth, at a solid locked 60fps which makes the game feel so fantastic to play. While the controls are a bit looser than later Mario Kart games, there’s still a lot of skill involved if you want to get the right boosts around every corner.
The graphics are solid and looking sharper than ever. While they obviously look aged due to the processing power of the Nintendo 64, there is a distinct charm to it. However, with it being upscaled, you can see some of the shortcuts that Nintendo took in order to get the game running silky smooth. Rather than 3D models for many of the obstacles, such as Piranha Plants, they just use sprites. It’s the same with the playable characters, where they’re very well designed sprites that just change depending on angle and camera orientation. This is by no means a bad thing, but it’s just so much more noticeable now than it was back in 1997.
The music is as charming today as it was when the game is released. There’s a lot of absolute classic music in the game that will often end up stuck in your head. The sounds are solid, although you may get tired of hearing the constant Mario soundbites as you go through each menu.
Mario Kart 64 has withstood the test of time and is still an absolute blast to play, especially in multiplayer. If you’re unfamiliar with the game but like the later Mario Kart titles, there is a bit of a learning curve to get used to its slightly different mechanics, but it’s ridiculously solid. If you have played it, then play it again. It may not be the best in the karting series and doesn’t feel as tight as its successors, but it’s still a lot of fun.