Mario Kart 64 Biased Review

Select your player.

Author’s Note: This is the first in a semi-regular series I’m starting for the blog. As the title states, every entry in this series will be a 100% biased review of the game in question and each one will receive a final score of 11/10. Yes, that’s right, 11/10. The reviews will be of games that I’ve either played the heck out of, have fond memories of, or I absolutely adore them for one reason or another. I hope you all enjoy!

If people were to ask me (they don’t) what game I’ve played the most in my entire lifetime, my answer would be Mario Kart 64. It’s impossible to say how many hours I’ve played Mario Kart 64 since the game came out before hour counters in video games were a thing. Despite this, I can confidently say that I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours playing it. Was it a waste of time? Do I regret spending that much of my life playing one video game? The answers are no and I regret nothing. If given the chance, I would happily spend that time playing Mario Kart 64 again. Why? Because I spent most of that time playing with my brother and sister. It was well worth it.

Mario Kart 64, when you get down to it, is a really simple game. You can choose between three modes: Mario Grand Prix, Battle, or Timed Trials (there’s technically a fourth mode, Versus, but it’s basically Mario Grand Prix without A.I.-controlled characters). Sure, there are different options within each category but they don’t change the gameplay all that much. The simplicity continues in the character select screen. There are only eight characters to choose from: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad, Yoshi, D.K., Wario, and Bowser. That’s it. It’s been so long since I first started playing the game that I don’t know if all of those characters are unlocked right away or if you need to play the game to get them. I do, however, know that you unlock more options and levels as you play through the game.

Mario Grand Prix can be played by your lonesome or in two-player co-op with A.I. You can play with three or four people but there is no A.I. and I believe you can only select one level at a time. Mario Grand Prix consists of choosing one of four Cups that each contain four levels. You also get the option to choose between racing the Cups in 50cc, 100cc, 150cc, or Extra mode. The different modes determine how fast the karts can go along with if there are railings to keep you on the road in certain levels. Extra mode is where the levels are essentially flipped. It’s basically like playing a mirrored version of the normal levels. I know that’s not a great way to describe it but that’s the best I can do.

The goal in Mario Grand Prix is to score as many points as possible. Unlike other Mario Kart games, in Mario Kart 64, you only score points by coming in 1st-4th place. 5th-8th are out of luck and receive no points. I will admit that the scoring system is a little wonky since 1st-4th receive 9, 6, 3, and 1 point respectively. That 1 point the 4th place person receives can make or break a victory. There is no better feeling than beating someone by 1 point in the final tally and, alternatively, there is no worse feeling than being beaten by that 1 point. It was a big point of contention with my brother. He hates that scoring pattern. But I digress.

What differentiates Mario Kart 64 (and, indeed, the Mario Kart series as a whole) from other racing games is that you have access to a variety of power-ups during the races. There are blocks with question marks set at regular intervals throughout the levels that give you these items when you run through them. These items are randomly generated (at least somewhat, which I will explain further on) and each one provides a different power or benefit: green shells can be shot at other players to hit them but they don’t track; red shells can also be shot at other players and they do lock-on and track; stars make the player invincible and give a speed boost; the lightning bolt makes everyone except the player who used it small, slow, and they can be run over, etc. There are many more items than what I’ve described here but you get the gist. All of these items make for exciting races and add a new level of challenge and fun not found in most racing games.

The second mode you can choose to play in is Battle. Battle mode is a fan favorite and with good reason. Essentially each player receives three balloons that appear above their character and these balloons represent the number of times a player can be hit. A player loses a balloon every time they’re hit until they run out of them and, in a twist of logic, they turn into a bomb which can be maneuvered around the level. The matches can get pretty hectic with people trying to dodge not only the attacks of other players but also the moving bombs.

Most of the power-ups from Mario Grand Prix can be used to defeat your opponents in Battle. The lightning bolt and mushrooms aren’t included in this mode because they really aren’t that useful in this instance. With only four levels to choose from, one would think the fights would get repetitive after a while. This isn’t true, however, since 1) the only level you ever need is Skyscraper (it is the best) and 2) the battles are so chaotic that it’s fun every time. The last person standing in these matches receives one point. There is no set number you can play to in order to win so you and your friends just have to pick an arbitrary number and play to that. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan of Battle in Mario Kart 64. My only complaint about it is that the game lags horribly whenever there are four people playing it. Basically, this makes three the maximum number of people who can play at a time.

The third and final mode, Timed Trials, is single-player only. I guess you could technically switch back and forth between a few people to see who can get the best score but it would get boring quickly. Timed Trials is where you pick a character, choose a level, and then try to get the best time per lap and for the whole level as a whole. The only power-ups you receive are three mushrooms that give a temporary speed boost. This is the mode that I’ve played the least since it isn’t very fun for me personally. My brother has gotten all of the speed records on our cartridge and all of them were done with Toad. I think that definitively proves that Toad is the fastest racer.

As much as I love Mario Kart 64, it does have its faults. The graphics, while fairly good for when it came out, haven’t really stood the test of time. I think they’re fine (but remember, I’m biased) but most people will be like “Holy crap, what is that?!” when they see what the game looks like. In addition, button presses don’t always register when they’re supposed to (it may just be the fact the controllers are really old but who knows). There have been times when my brother or I have heard the audible click of a button but then nothing happens onscreen. And let’s not forget to mention the wide variety of glitches present in Mario Kart 64. Some are fun (like falling off the track on Wario Stadium and then being placed half a lap ahead of everyone else) and some are not so great (like falling through the floor of a track). The glitches aren’t game-breaking but I imagine most people would find them annoying. My brother and I have come to accept them and are quite used to them at this point. I would almost put the glitches in the positive category since they add an element of surprise to every race. And finally, Rainbow Road has to be the worst track ever designed, of all time. It’s not like it’s poorly designed, it’s just that it is extremely long and not very fun (even with the shortcut). If you get behind on Rainbow Road, you’re never catching back up.

As stated above, my brother and I have put thousands of hours into Mario Kart 64. We have seen every power-up and item used a million times, every shortcut discovered, and every strategy used against each other. For all these years and during all the races we’ve played, we have continued to use our own terms for some of the items in the game. When we were kids, we didn’t know the official names of these items so we just came up with our own lingo for them. We call the lightning bolt a “shocker,” the mushrooms “blasters,” and the blue shell a “first-place shooter.” I much prefer our naming scheme for these items than the official titles but most people give us weird looks whenever we use them. We still use these terms to this day. I don’t think we’ll ever use their real names.

When you play a game enough, you begin to notice all of its gameplay quirks and eccentricities. You also have plenty of time to ponder its creators’ design choices. Below is a list of everything I’ve come to notice from my time playing Mario Kart 64.

 

  • No matter what race you’re on, if you fall through the floor, you will always land in water.
  • There is a pecking order to what items you receive from the blocks. The person in first place always receives the worst items, second place gets the best items, third through seventh place seem to receive items on a truly random basis, and the eighth-place person is usually given stars or shockers (lightning bolts).
  • There are no stats given for each character on the selection screen. You have to find out what each character is best at by using them. My brother and I have discovered that Toad is the fastest racer and Bowser can smash into other players and easily spin them out (since he’s so fat). I am always Toad and he’s Bowser while my sister chooses Princess Peach.
  • The A.I. players don’t use any of the shells.
  • Hopping doesn’t really accomplish much but it does put a smile on your face.
  • On Mario Grand Prix, whether playing solo or against someone, there are always two A.I. characters who give you a run for your money on each Cup. I don’t why this happens but I’ve noticed it a lot. It’s never the same two characters each time but there is always two of them.
  • Red shells, when used, track the person directly ahead of you. If you’re in 2nd-5th place, they will track the person but they will take the shortest path to get there. This means they will, more often than not, hit a wall and disappear. When in 6th-8th, however, the red shells will track people around corners by staying in the middle of the track.
  • You can block red shells by holding an item behind your character while racing: a banana, other shells, etc. Despite this, the person with the red shell behind you can fire the shell just past you and it can circle back to strike you. This trick is very useful.

In Conclusion:

If you couldn’t tell, I enjoy Mario Kart 64 quite a lot. Sure, it may just be nostalgia for my childhood but I don’t think that’s the whole story. There are plenty of games from my childhood that I have fond memories of that don’t play anymore. What makes Mario Kart 64 so special? I think it is because I just love everything about it. I like the way it controls, how it sounds, all of the different modes, and, probably above all, it’s simplicity. You select the mode, your character, the level you want to play, and then you’re playing within seconds. There are no stat screens, no long lists of different vehicles, and (God be praised) no microtransactions. It is a simple game from a simpler time and it remains one of my favorite games of all time even after all these years.

Final Score: 11/10

 Pros:

  • Simplicity
  • Mario Grand Prix and Battle modes
  • Power-ups and items
  • Gameplay quirks and eccentricities

 Cons:

  • Graphics
  • Glitches (though this could be counted as a pro since they’re actually kind of funny)
  • The lag with four players
  • Rainbow Road

 

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the start of the Biased Review series!

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