The switch from the fourth generation to the fifth one was relatively steep, as it was the one that popularised the change from 2D to 3D. Yes, graphics tend to always jump up in quality as each new generation comes along, but swapping to 3D changed not just how games looked but also how they played. Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64 was an audacious attempt by Ninty (I love calling them that just because I know it winds certain people up and I just find that hilarious for some reason) to try something entirely new with the Mario franchise and it was a rip roaring success. However, Nintendo also wasn’t afraid to go back to tried and tested formulas if they felt it would still work. So they took an already popular game, Mario Kart, and gave it that “new generation sheen” rather than re-writing the book.
I have vivid memories of playing Mario Kart 64 in a department store not long after its release in early 1997. I think I’d played briefly on Mario 64 prior to that, but this was the first time that the console had truly gripped me. I’m not sure why this was the case but I think it had something to do with the familiartity factor. Mario 64 was something entirely new to me, in the sense that it was the first proper 3D platformer I’d ever played. I was a big fan of the Mario games, but I was used to playing them solely in 2D, so the game moving to 3D was a big change that I had to digest. For that reason, there was a learning curve and adaptability required, which is hard to manage correctly when you only have five minutes to play the game while your mother picks up some curtains.
With Mario Kart 64 however, the gameplay was still very similar to the original Mario Kart game on the Super Nintendo, so I could jump straight in and enjoy it for what it was. I was suitably impressed to see the improved graphics and was additionally enthralled by the much bigger and detailed new race tracks. Had I had the money, I would have bought an N64 right then and there (And probably not left the house for a few weeks to boot!)
However, I was a mere child and I wouldn’t even get my PlayStation for another 18 months! As a result, I had to wave the machine goodbye and add Mario Kart 64 to an ever-growing list of fifth generation games that had captured my heart. I wouldn’t own the game until it was released on the Wii U almost 9 years later.
I do own an N64 but I never purchased Mario Kart 64 for it. I bought the N64 itself around, I think, 2001-2 from a guy at high school. It was quite a great deal actually as I got two controllers, the console itself and about 5-6 games all for a mere £60. Most of these games were boxed as well and a number of bit hitters were amongst them, such as Goldeneye 007, Mario 64 and Lylat Wars (Star Fox 64 if you lived outside of Europe). Can you imagine getting all that today for a mere 12 Bison Dollars? Heck, a boxed console with just Goldeneye starts at £45 on eBay these days!
Alas, Mario Kart was not amongst the selection of games. Another friend said that he had a copy, but he was actually thinking of Diddy Kong Racing instead, which in my opinion doesn’t even come close to touching Mario Kart 64 for enjoyment or gameplay. So time wore on and I just never got around to purchasing the game. I’d set it aside on the list of games that I would never own and had forgotten about it. That was until I saw that Nintendo were releasing it for the Wii U Virtual Console, and for a mere £8.99 to boot! I anxious waited till the 21st for the game to come out and spent a good chunk of Thursday and Friday playing it.
So, what are my thoughts?
I certainly enjoyed heading back down memory lane to play it again. I had played it during the ensuing years by way of emulation (Boo! Hiss! Naughty Man!) but it was nice to play it all legit like. The roster is similar to the original SNES version, with Koopa Trooper being kicked from the roster in favour of Wario.
One noticeable difference between the SNES and N64 versions of the game are that Bowser and Donkey Kong are much less cumbersome to control in the N64 version than they were in the original. Both characters were known for being slow starters in the SNES version, but they are much nippier in the N64 version. Being someone who enjoys playing Bowser on the SNES version, this is both good and bad.
It’s certainly less frustrating to start a race with Bowser now, and having better manoeuvrability when taking on corners is also very much welcomed, but a lot of the weight you felt from playing as Bowser is no longer as pronounced. Part of the fun of being Bowser was how you could plough through the opposing racers using your girth to ram them out of the way. When you crashed into the back of someone as Bowser on the SNES version, it felt like you really were delivering a big hit. On the N64 version, ramming someone as Bowser doesn’t really feel that much different to playing as any of the other characters.
The items are, on the whole, upgraded significantly on the N64 version; with the revolving shield of three shells my personal favourite, along with the Golden Mushroom that allows you to reach utterly bodacious speeds when used correctly. What I will say though is that there are far too many bananas on the N64 version, with the race track resembling the floor of Donkey Kong’s banana cave by the time the third lap starts. One good thing about the game is that the CPU controlled racers at least have as much chance of stumbling over course hazards as you do. Sometimes on the SNES version it felt like the CPU racers were incapable of making a mistake, which meant you were punished more for making ones yourself. The balance has at least been addressed somewhat in the N64 version.
For the most part, I enjoyed the courses in the N64 version of the game, but I found some of them to be needlessly over difficult at times, Yoshi’s track on the Special Course in particular. I found with most of the tracks that, with some practice, I could eventually finish most of them in good time but some of them would still cause a faint shudder down my spine when I saw it was time to race on them.
Overall, I still really enjoyed Mario Kart 64 and I certainly feel like I got my money’s worth. Is it the best Mario Kart game? I’d probably say not after playing it again and looking at it more in depth. I was always of the opinion that it was the best, but I think I’d lean more towards the SNES version these days. It plays well enough, has some fun items to use and has some well-designed courses to race on, but it just isn’t as polished as the previous game. I’d still highly recommend it though, especially if you’ve never played it before.
As always, I’ll post some footage of the game below.
Thanks for reading
Nil Satis, Nisi Optimum
You can take a look at YouTube Footage of the game, courtesy of World of Longplays, by clicking HERE
Looking for more great content here on the site? Well why don’t you take a goosey gander at the following?
You can read Kane’s review of the Banner Saga by clicking HERE
You can also read Jorge’s excellent article on Dark Cloud by clicking HERE
And, seeing as you’ve read this article, why not have a read of one of my other features? You can read my take on Rise of the Tomb Raiders over one million sales on the X-Box One by clicking HERE