Nintendo's jump from the 16-bit era straight to the 64-bit generation was a doozy.
Even though it only launched with two games, one of those games was Super Mario 64, a title that forever changed the landscape of gaming. While we're here to talk about kart racing, it's important to recognize the major graphical shift that occurred when the Nintendo 64 (N64) launched. With the freedom to render truly 3D worlds came lots of new gameplay opportunities, and Mario Kart 64 was no exception.
But let's back up a minute. If you haven't been following, this is part two of a seven-part series leading up to Mario Kart 8 on May 30. In it, I'm revisiting each of the main Mario Kart games and sharing some memories, impressions and other fun content celebrating this unique and groundbreaking series. Catch up on the SNES Super Mario Kart post, and then head back here to keep reading!
Every Mario Kart game has released on new hardware, which is often a big influencer of what is new or different about that particular title. Mario Kart 64 might be the most different of any of the games from its predecessor. As mentioned above, the N64 allowed a move to fully 3D tracks--although, interestingly, the character models were still 2D sprites (albeit more detailed and fluidly animated). The change allowed for tracks to gain verticality: ramps, angled turns, tunnels and more. This extra dimension extended significantly into Battle Mode as well with arenas like the tri-level Block Fort becoming instant fan favorites. Perhaps more importantly, though, was the introduction of analog steering thanks to the N64's still-unusual "trident" controller and its analog stick. As with Super Mario 64, the new input device offered players a greater degree of control, which made turning much more accurate. Thankfully, hops and slides remained a feature.
Although Nintendo added so much more to this game compared to the original in terms of detail and scope, it's a little surprising that the number of characters remained steady at eight. In fact, aside from two roster swaps (Donkey Kong, Jr. was replaced by Rare's vision of Donkey Kong and Koopa Troopa stepped aside for Wario), the lineup was nearly unchanged. Although Wario's presence in game made for a cool level in Wario's Stadium, I was always slightly bummed that Koopa didn't make a return lap in MK64, as it seemed unbalanced to add a third heavyweight racer and remove one of the lightweight racers from the original lineup. Koopa would eventually make his way back to the series, but his absence led me directly to becoming a Toad purist in most subsequent Mario Kart titles.
The track list, however, got an expansion with the addition of a fourth cup, the "Special Cup" (although each cup only had four tracks instead of five). This configuration of new tracks (four cups with four tracks each) would come to be a series staple in all future editions. Additionally, Mario Kart 64 included a new Rainbow Road track (a re-imagined version of the final track of Super Mario Kart in 3D). This, too, would become a fixture of the series, as each subsequent Kart title got its own interpretation of the out-of-this-world raceway. However, some tracks featured innovative designs that would be expanded upon in future games: the most notable of these is likely Toad's Turnpike, which featured a track full of real cars and trucks eager and willing to flatten Mario and crew into the pavement. This sort of creative thinking is a perfect example of Nintendo's brilliant ability to take a really simple idea and create something the world had never seen before that, incidentally was maddeningly fun as a gameplay device.
There are other aspects of this game worthy of mentioning: the "ghosts" in Time Trial mode, the new items (special shoutout to the infamous Spiny Shell item, or "Blue Shell" that saw its first appearance here), the interactive environments (falling rocks, real-time video feeds), the ability to "hold" items behind you as protection, power sliding for an extra boost, the unlockable "Mirror Mode," and more.
But, more than anything else, this game was absolutely defined by its rank as one of the best multiplayer games of all time.
Aside from 3D graphics and analog control, the N64 brought one other major innovation to the table: support for four controllers as a standard feature. In the SNES days, a clunky "multitap" adapter was required for more than two concurrent players. When the N64 released in the US in February of 1997, it had only been out for five months, and I was smack dab in the middle of eighth grade; in short, it was a perfect time for endless four-player parties. In fact, this was one of the games that really helped elevate the N64 as the go-to party system of the day (along with titles like Goldeneye 007, Star Fox 64, and Super Smash Bros., among others). It was such an engrained part of the culture surrounding the N64 that Nintendo made a carrying case specifically for the controller so you could easily transport it to your friends' houses. I don't think I've seen any other console get an official bag for a single controller since.
Racing on these larger, more elaborate courses was a huge step up for the series, and the more diabolical item list helped make group racing even more of brutal affair. The ability, for example, to strategically lay out multiple banana peels or to drop a fake item box in a cluster of real item boxes made it possible for shrewd racers to own the course in ways not possible in the previous game. Each track had the potential to become a fast-moving game of chess, but with the game's AI engine ready to knock over the pieces at any moment. Much more than in SMK, the game engine in MK64 was notorious for its increased use of rubber banding to give those lagging behind a fighting chance with more aggressive items. It bears repeating that the Blue Shell item, which viciously hunts down whoever's in first place, was a major (if controversial) addition to this (and most subsequent) Kart games. Sure, it's a little groan-worthy to have your carefully executed race pulled out from beneath you, but the satisfaction of using it to regain a seemingly-lost victory is hard to match.
Perhaps the biggest shift from multiplayer on Super Mario Kart to Mario Kart 64, however, was the explosive popularity of Battle Mode. Part of this is surely due to the increased number of players: the SNES' restriction of two players for a head-to-head battle was a bit limiting in terms of fun, especially if the skill level of the players was unbalanced. With three or four players in the mix on MK64, Battle Mode came alive in a big way. Smaller arenas, like Skyscraper and Big Donut, kept the action frantic and close-quarters whereas the larger (and layered) arenas, Block Fort and Double Deck, allowed for games of cutthroat hide-and-seek. While the same "three balloons" system returned from the SNES game; but Nintendo smartly added the "Mini Bomb Kart," a feature that allowed players who had lost all of their balloons to be reincarnated as a roving bomb for one last ditch attempt to knock out a few more balloons. It's just one more piece of evidence that Nintendo was starting to realizing that the secret sauce of Mario Kart was giving players as many ways as possible to screw over their friends.
Mario Kart 64 is a flat-out awesome game that completely holds up today. Many Nintendo 64 games end up looking a little rough through a modern lens, but MK64's charming graphics and tight gameplay help it to stand the test of time.