With just over one week to go until the launch of Mario Kart 8 (it launches global between May 29th and 31st) and the numerous positive review scores already in the anticipation is growing ever stronger. In this retrospect I go back the series’ big entrance into the 3rd dimension, (no not Mario Kart 7, the other 3rd dimension) that being Mario Kart 64. Like the GameCube, the N64 had modest sales during its lifetime (managing to see off Sega but struggled against the new threat of the PlayStation) and Mario Kart 64 was one of the biggest selling titles for the console.
There will be many for who MK64 holds a special place in their nostalgia section of their memory, particularly for its excellent couch based multiplayer. It’s still surprising that the N64 was one of the first consoles to have four controller ports built into every unit, but this addition allowed for four people to enjoy the item filled mayhem that MK64 provides and setting the scene for all future entries in the series. MK64 cemented the reputation of the N64 as being one of the best consoles for multiplayer, this was further supported by other titles such as Goldeneye, Super Smash Bros, and Perfect Dark. The simplicity and excellence of the multiplayer provided is still enjoyed by people today, coming back to Uni after the summer break I would often hear from people how there were many times where they got out their old N64 and spent most of the day with a group of friends and some beers playing numerous races and battles of MK64.
Whilst I do have an N64, unfortunately I don’t own a physical copy of MK64 (I bought my N64 and a load of games from a friend after having owned my GameCube for a year), but I did download the Virtual Console version on the Wii a few years ago. Admittedly it’s not quite the same as playing on the N64 itself, but thanks to the ability to use up to four GameCube controllers the experience can largely be replicated.
I think one of the reasons for its lasting appeal is due to the ease of control of the karts. They still have a slight slipperiness to them, but nothing to the extent found in Super Circuit, but the handling is very good and you can tackle most corners effectively without the use of the drift. In many iterations of the series it has been the use of the drift which has separated the novices from the experts. That does not mean that the drift is redundant in MK64, but it is not as essential and, when casually playing with friends, victory depends more on how items are used than if someone perfectly drifted round a certain corner to gain a one second advantage.
The single player experience is a rather simple affair compared to subsequent entries in the series, as there are no additional characters which can be unlocked and the only unlockable extra is the Mirror Mode which vertically flips the courses making them more difficult. Although the single player Grand Prix does begin to offer a challenge once you make the move into the 100cc engine class, but not quite to the extent of Super Circuit, with the difficulty progressing as you move from track to track and between cups. The rise in difficulty is particularly noticeable by the time you reach the Special Cup such as the devious Yoshi Valley.
The tracks themselves offer some of the challenge, although more so in the Special Cup, with most of the challenge coming from the other racers. Those in the top four will persevere in their aim of remaining at the top. Often when I was in 1st I would find those in second and third right behind me waiting for the opportune moment to overtake, sometimes they would successfully do so right at the end of the race, resulting in my victory being taken away by less than a second. This is where the effective use of items comes in, as careful deployment of item against those behind is often essential for maintaining position, more so than in other titles.
Despite the challenge provided by the other racers in the top four MK64 is very supportive if you find yourself at the back. In one race I found myself constantly ending up in 8th place (FYI the slopes in Royal Raceway are treacherous) but the game provided me with plenty of useful items from the Item Box’s which helped me get back into the top four and just missing out on 2nd place.
During my time re-playing MK64 I found myself admiring just how the games visuals have fared, I’m not sure quite how much impact at being a Virtual Console release makes, but for a 17 year old game it holds up well, allowing the tracks to provide an appealing backdrop while racing. As well as demonstrating the lasting simplicity of N64 games, MK64 adds its own unique charm with the inclusion of visual sound effects such as when a kart drifts around a corner or lands a big drop, this is a feature which is absent in all following titles and makes MK64 stand out just a little bit more when going back to it.
Mario Kart 64 was a great step forward for the series and established many of the conventions still found in the series today. Although because of the amount of small but constant innovation throughout the series over the past 17 years MK64 comes across as strangely unique due to its idiosyncrasies. As a whole because of its simplicity and commitment to multiplayer it remains the quintessential couch based kart racer.
Check back again soon for the final part of my Mario Kart retrospect as I play through another classic Mario Kart title in the lead up to Mario Kart 8.