There are few video games as synonymous with my gaming youth than Mario Kart 64. The number of hours I spent with its Grand Prix, Versus and Battle modes are uncountable. For a good few years, it was my go-to multiplayer game. The Mario Kart series has come a long way since this second installment hit the Nintendo 64 in 1997, so how well does Mario Kart 64 hold up after so many years of Nintendo perfecting the formula?
The short answer to that is… pretty decently, though there are aspects of the game that haven’t aged particularly gracefully as well.
Being the first 3D entry in the series, Mario Kart 64 was capable of certain feats that the SNES original couldn’t pull off. The new 3D racetracks were more robust, with features like changes in elevation, slopes, and long jumps, among others. This helped Mario Kart 64 create some of the series’ most iconic tracks, many of which have been recreated in subsequent Mario Karts.
On the downside, these 3D visuals are now rather ugly to look at. Sure, it’s easy to defend it as being an earlier title in the N64’s library, but that doesn’t change the fact that, when playing the game today, it can sometimes strain the eyes. Not only do the environments look blocky, and the character models downright odd, but you can often only see what’s immediately in front of you, with everything else looking like a pixelated blur. This can sometimes make turns and obstacles difficult to see, which can really effect you during a race. This is all the worse when playing split-screen multiplayer, as the tinier screen space means things look that much blurrier.
On the bright side, the core gameplay is still a lot of fun. The control scheme is simple enough (A to accelerate, B for breaks, and Z to fire weapons), and is among the select Nintendo 64 games that are still fun to control. And it’s different modes bring out a lot of fun in the gameplay.
Gran Prix sees one or two players taking on computer-controlled opponents in a complete set of races. Time Trials consist of single player races against a “ghost” player in an attempt to get the best time. Versus mode consists of singular races of two to four players without the computer opponents. Finally, Battle mode has two to four players facing off in enclosed arenas as they gather items and try to pop every other player’s three balloons (this is also the only time in the series where defeated players in Battle mode would become bombs that could ram into a surviving player to eliminate one of their balloons for a little revenge from beyond the grave).
The modes are all fun in their own right, with Battle mode probably being the best of the lot. Though there is one huge downside to the game’s multiplayer that should be addressed. When playing a game with the maximum of four players, there is no music to be heard. This was probably due to technical limitations with the Nintendo 64, but it doesn’t change the fact that playing the game without music definitely takes away from the experience. And Mario Kart 64 has a pretty good soundtrack as well, which makes its absence in four player games sting all the more.
This puts Mario Kart 64 in an interesting situation where – despite being an entry in a multiplayer series – the single player modes have probably aged better. Though you can still have plenty of fun playing Mario Kart 64 with friends, the added blurriness to the visuals and the lack of music are really noticeable when playing today.
As for the character roster, players can take control of Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Yoshi, Toad, Donkey Kong, Wario and Bowser. This game basically established the “primary eight” characters of the Mario universe (though Rosalina and Bowser Jr. probably make it a primary ten these days), so there aren’t any complaints with the selections (no babies or Pink Gold Peach here), though players may feel a little underwhelmed by the lack of unlockable characters.
Mario Kart 64 is a more basic entry in the series then. But while it may lack the content and depth of many of its successors, it’s still a lot of fun to play. It has its fair share of attributes that show their age, but it’s still way more fun than a lot of other multiplayer N64 titles are when playing today.
If you want a more definitive Mario Kart, just pop Mario Kart 8 into your Wii U and have a blast. But if you want to revisit a N64 classic that can provide hours of fun for you and some friends, you could do a whole lot worse than Mario Kart 64.