Mario Kart 64’s Japanese roll-out was quite simply one of the decade’s most anticipated software launches. A nationwide time trial competition was supported by thousands of stores, as well as the hit TV show 64 Mario Stadium, The game itself came in a special presentation box, complete with free two-tone controller, all for the standard 9,800 yen price tag. Nevertheless, in the UK import prices soared to levels not seen since the 16-bit console boom. It is, after all, not every day the World’s Most Loved Race Game gets a sequel…
While EA grind out a new FIFA each Xmas, Nintendo prefer to get things right first time – five years after its debut Super Mario Kart is still topping the Super NES charts. A truly legendary game, it’s one of those titles which videogames journalists always mention in their top ten lists and – gasp! – even buy for themselves.
When it first appeared, in late 1991, Nintendo was so utterly dominant they never showed a game before it was finished. The first most journalists saw of it was a huge pre-production cart, and early impressions were disappointing. Graphics were cute, but simplistic and the first racing class was tediously slow. Only at 150CC did the game deliver enough speed to expose the kart’s subtle handling qualities. To save on memory, later circuits had to re-use graphics from earlier ones. More significantly, there wasn’t space to provide an optimised, full-screen version so one player mode used the same split-screen perspective as the two player mode. Finally, even all these compromises didn’t change the fact that the Super NES is a 2-D machine. Its Mode 7 trickery was limited to rotating entirely flat landscapes, albeit brilliantly disguised with clever track design and 2-D obstacles.
Challenging, but silly-looking in one player mode, it took persistence and competitively-minded friends to unearth one of the world’s best multiplayer games.
Back to the Future
Work began on the N64 sequel long before the console’s hardware was complete. Its importance to Nintendo was twofold: firstly, it provided the company with a guaranteed mega-hit to follow the launch titles. Secondly, it emphasised the N64’s unique support for four joypads – one of the features the company was keen to associate with next level, 64-bit gaming. Just as Super Mario Kart’s perfectly balanced two player mode made it at least twice as good as its rivals, Nintendo expected a similar multiplication of popularity with the sequel’s four-player mode.
Shigeru Miyamoto was, inevitably, the game’s producer but his commitment to Mario 64 and managing overseas projects, such as Paradigm’s PilotWings 64, left little time spare. Fortunately, in Hideki Konno he had a Nintendo veteran who could direct the project with minimal supervision.
From the start, Konno saw his principal objective as realising all the ideas they’d had for the original game, but couldn’t be handled by a 16-bit machine. True 3-D tracks, complete with tunnels and spectacular jumps were an obvious starting point for the sequel. Ample cart memory also meant there needn’t be any reusing of graphics – each of the 16 race tracks would have their own unique look this time.
Konno’s conservative approach contrasted sharply with the revolutionary tack Miyamoto was pursuing with Mario 64, but then again Mario Kart was from the start a 3-D game engine and didn’t need such a radical overhaul. Moreover, reworking the circuits in true 3- D, while retaining enough horsepower to run a four player mode, would push the N64 hardware considerably further than Mario 64. Despite Konno’s devotion to the original 16-bit concept, by the time of Mario Kart 64’s completion he felt moved to stress the game’s difference.
Luigi Circuit 717m
A simple starter circuit consisting of a figure of eight with two very gentle 180° turns. The N64’s 3-D trickery is limited to a gentle, Daytona-like bank to one turner and a dipping straight through a nicely lit tunnel. Further interest is provided by a balloon which rises and falls with a power-up temptingly suspended underneath – collect it and you’ll always get a Bowser Shell.
Moí Moí Farm 527m
After Luigi Circuit’s conventional layout, the Farm offers a wacky change of pace. In plan view it’s a simplistic, slightly irregular oval. In play, it’s a very broad, incredibly bumpy stretch of terrain which novices can easily get lost on. Watch out too for kamikaze moles who cheerily pop out of their burrows to upset karts which drive over their homes.
Noko Noko Beach 691m
A cheery breeze around the beaches of a mini-island. Tiny crabs amble about to provide skid-inducing hazards, but observant players will notice two crucial shortcuts: one with a semi-submerged stretch of land across a bay, another a leap into a tunnel through the middle of the island.
Kara Kara Desert 753m
A loose, figure of eight track intersects with a simple oval railroad track. In one-player mode, the beautifully detailed locomotive pulls a string of carriages which sadly disappear in multi-player mode. Either way, the train only rarely interferes with the flow of play. The openness of the track puts the emphasis on combat, but the narrow track makes for a mean speed trial.
Kinopio Highway 1036m
What sort of nutter sets a mini-kart race on a busy highway? Alongside the Koopa’s Castle, this is the game’s most technically impressive track with eight karts nipping in between a stream of huge juggernauts, school buses and cars. The lack of slowdown is highly impressive, and weaving between such massive vehicles is exciting fun. On the other hand, getting shot by a ‘friend’ and then run over by one car immediately followed by another can be annoying. Aside from the traffic, the track is a little dull – if it were more exciting it might also be impossible – so this isn’t quite the thrill you might expect. On the other hand, this is the one circuit which delivers a real surprise in Mirror Mode: the traffic switches direction and comes straight at you!
Frappe Snowland 734m
A beautiful-looking circuit complete with an ice statue of Mario and falling snow which looks gorgeous in one player mode. The track layout is relatively gentle and the snow isn’t that slippy – it’s the cute little snowmen which provide the real challenge. These chappies sit with just their heads poking up, but when driven over quickly pop up and send the offending kart tumbling into the air. Avoiding these guys requires quick, precise driving.
Choco Mountain 687m
A highly entertaining little track with tots of bumpy hills, a narrow mountain side turn and a great muddy feel for fast, aggressive action. There’s even a rockslide, although only the most careless drivers will get flattened by the handful of rocks which tumble down.
Mario Circuit 567m
This is the game’s second shortest circuit with broad run-off areas and only the gentlest of inclines and banked turns. Fast and simple. So why did Nintendo select this circuit for their Japanese time trial tournament? Power-slides. Speed around using the normal controls and th
is is a very bland track. Use power-slides and it’s a heart-stopping test of split-second reactions, slicing through hairpin turns with millimetres to spare, the wheelspin smoke burning yellow then red. Although there are no significant hazards, the track itself is narrow and demanding for true speed demons.
Wario Stadium 1591m
The second-longest circuit is played out in a huge mud-track arena complete with one crucial leap (miss it and you drop on the track about a third back on your original position). Initially, the circuit can seem a bit too long, but lots of corners and the slippery, muddy track are ideal for mastering those power-slides. Add in some outrageously hilly terrain and you’ve got Nintendo’s masterful take on Sega Rally.
Sherbet Land 756m
A short, fast course with some tight corners all played out on ice. Judging how close you can get to the edge isn’t easy, particularly with huge, mad penguins slidin’ about for fun. Fall in the water and you’re pulled out encased in ice-amusing, if only for your competitors!
Peach Circuit 1025m
A deceptively tricky, demanding course with a particularly nasty pair of hairpin bends leading into the main straight – a large lake provides a watery reception for the careless. On the right of the game’s largest leap is Princess Peach’s Castle, which also plays host to the reward ceremony. It’s exactly the same as in Super Mario 64, but is here sadly uninteractive.
Bowser Castle 777m
Proof positive of just what the N64 can do. Huge Thwomp cubes whirl about overhead, rush into the distance and then slam down on your head just as you’re negotiating a particularly nasty turn. A couple of narrow bridges and a leap over bubbling lava, plus a fire-breathing Bowser statue all add to the fun. Although a little overwhelming initially, it soon reveals itself to be an extremely fast and fun track. Unlike the similarly ambitious motorway, this is a real classic you’ll return to again and again.
Donkey Jungle Park 893mm
A wild, riotous track which consists of a long river jump, a tight corner located in a cave and some very fast twisting turns through the jungle. The latter are spiced up by rocks bouncing about in the jungle, veer off track and these provide a disorientating pounding for the careless.
Yoshi Valley 772m
An agreeably confusing track with most of its length consisting of numerous different routes running through a canyon infested with bizarre, hedgehog creatures. The shortest route is, of course, the most difficult and gives players an admirable insight into the precision of the N64’s 3D with kart wheels slippin’ and slidin’ on the edge of some very long drops!
Hyuudoro House 747m
Something of a homage to the original: an entirely flat wooden track suspended over icy water. The fact that some barriers have been left off tight corners makes for some hair-raising corners, while a bat-infested ghost house is particularly tricky if you’ve just been magically shrunk!
Rainbow Road 2000m
The track you loved to hate on the original – a long, fiendishly twisted course with no barriers, no run-off areas: only your skill kept you on track. The 64bit version is even longer and twistier, but sadly there’s barriers along every metre of its 2000m length. It’s impossible to fall off, except if you drift off on one long jump. A huge chain-chomp enemy whizzes about, boasting a beautiful mirror finish, but aside from this and some lovely neon graphics in the sky this is a real disappointment. Still, all the loop bits and slidey track make for some awesome power-slides.
Just like its illustrious forebear, first impressions of Mario Kart 64 are misleading. Once again, the 50cc class can be regarded as toddler fodder and should be ignored unless you want to spend time sight-seeing. 100cc is adequate for getting to grips with the courses and control system, but in very short order only 150cc will do.
The overall emphasis of the game is very much on four player mode which is undoubtedly its strongest point. The slower frame update, and consequently reduced responsiveness, don’t so much harm the game as perfect it. The game is never so demanding, never so fast-feeling as when operating under these limitations. It’s the first game I’ve seen which doesn’t just work in four-player split-screen mode, it actually soars and is brilliantly, irresistibly playable.
A wider, more powerful range of power-ups, with the really powerful weapons invariably provided to those in last place, mean players of varying ability can play together much more easily than the original. However experienced you are, however far in front your are, you can never totally relax with so much wacky mayhem exploding behind you. The Battle Mode variation does make you aware of how small your individual screen is, but the richness of four player gameplay more than compensates: ‘yes, of course we’re a team… oops!’
Without three or four players the game’s strengths remain, but the compromises become more evident. The most obvious of these is in the graphics. Preview shots of Kinopio Highway’s traffic and Kara Kara Desert’s locomotive suggested an outrageous new level of 3-D trickery and excitement. The reality is considerably different with just two tracks delivering on this promise. Bowser Castle is an unbelievable riot with huge Thwomp cubes whirling all about the place. At first it seems too much, even the screen shuddering as the cubes crash down, but with practice it becomes excellent fun.
Kinopio Highway, by contrast, looks excellent but is ultimately one of the less interesting tracks – not least for the way it transfers attention from interplayer combat to simply avoiding traffic. Perhaps because of this, other extravagant 3-D creations such as the riverboat, rock slide and locomotive are all limited to looking pretty, while affecting gameplay barely at all. In four player mode there’s no need for such distractions, but in two or one player mode you keep waiting for surprises which never appear.
Similarly, some of the arenas in Battle Mode can seem a little too spacious for less than four players, even if the increased range of power-ups and 3-D terrain makes it far superior to the original 16-bit version.
In Versus or Grand Prix mode, however, this wide range of firepower can seem initially overwhelming. The wildness of the combat, especially with the bias of power-ups against leaders, is fun but blunts the precision of Super Mario Kart and can make the tracks seem dull by comparison. It’s all very enjoyable, but some of the original’s buzz seems lost.
16-bit veterans should persist with the game, though, because under the gentle, forgiving surface there really is the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’
which its director has talked about. The key to getting a hard-edged, adrenaline-pumping racing game is the power-slides. Faster and more sophisticated than anything seen in Super Mario Kart, they emphasise just how much thought has gone into both handling and track design. Using this technique, even the most bland seeming tracks suddenly take on a fiendish challenge. While novices will have a ball fooling around with the firepower, experienced gamers will discover there’s a real race game underneath. Overall, Mario Kart 64 undoubtedly delivers on its promise of unrivalled four-player gameplay. In other modes, a consequent conservatism lessens the immediate impact but the familiar richness of gameplay, and plenty of underlying depth, ensures in no department does the game disappoint. It’s simply awesome fun and, once again, the more you play, the more you enjoy.