I love Mario Kart. The games are always a blast to play with friends, offer a good balance of competition and fun, and have some of the best course designs in any racing series. From the Super Nintendo to the Nintendo Switch, I’ve been enamored by the series from start to finish… save for one road bump known as Mario Kart 64. Mario Kart 64 is the worst Mario Kart game and one of the most overrated titles Nintendo has ever released. You may be thinking “well, yeah I guess it could be a little overrated. It’s an N64 game that people loved growing up. But just because it’s overrated doesn’t mean it’s bad.” But you’d be wrong in that assessment. Mario Kart 64 is a flat out bad game. It was a bad game then, and it’s still a bad game now. All the nostalgia in the world can’t mask the fact that Mario Kart 64 didn’t offer players much variety, had sub-par courses, and failed to take the necessary steps to separate itself from the SNES entry.
Starting off small: Mario Kart 64 only has 8 playable characters and 4 Cups
Let’s start with the smaller points and work our way to the bigger ones. One of the things that’s most striking about Mario Kart 64 is the pitiful lineup of characters it offers. Characters are a huge part of making Mario Kart what it is. Ask anyone in the fighting game community: Players identify with the characters they choose. I’ve raced as Diddy Kong and Baby Mario my entire life (save for in Mario Kart 8, I love Rosalina in that one), and that’s because I identify with the characters. Mario Kart 64 doesn’t give players the option to pick the character that best fits them because there are only eight to choose from: Mario (boring), Luigi (boring), Yoshi (everyone’s favorite), Toad (everyone’s second favorite), Peach (the only girl!), Wario (who likes playing as Wario?!), Donkey Kong (solid choice), and Bowser (also a solid choice). Where’s Koopa Troopa? He was in the SNES version! And DK Jr. as well! Would it have killed them to add Shy Guy or Dry Bones?
The roster is weak. You do have all the staples, but there’s no truly fun choices available. And that theme of limited choice applies to the course line-up as well. There are just four cups to choose from, and while some of the courses are well-themed and creative, most are bland. More importantly, there’s not one stand-out cup. Each has two decent tracks and two terrible/boring ones. Mushroom Cup is probably the best, but it’s got the dreadfully vanilla Luigi Raceway opening things up. Flower Cup has the absolutely dreadful Toad’s Turnpike and Frappe Snowland. Star Cup has the standout, Royal Raceway, but also the horrific Sherbet Land. Even the Bowser’s Castle is bad in Mario Kart 64. Circling up the tower at the end is pretty fun, but that’s the only stand out part of the course. And Special Cup is actually awful. DK’s Jungle Parkway is a strong track, but Yoshi’s Valley is a disaster, as is Banshee Boardwalk. And don’t get me started on Rainbow Road. Beloved by many, it’s legitimately the worst course in the game. With impossible to see in split screen Chain Chomps charging at you, an entirely enclosed course, and an extremely long lap time, this course is irredeemable.
Even battle mode is weak. There’s a reason everyone loves Block Fort: It’s the only good battle course in the game. The others are either boring or, in the case of Skyscraper, unplayable.
Say it with me… “Overrated”: Presentation and Controls
Every other Mario Kart game has beautiful visuals, a standout soundtrack, and charming sound-effects. Mario Kart 64 has none of that, to the point that it seriously detracts from the little fun you might be having with the game. It’s visuals are fairly terrible, even for the N64, but the biggest offender is the lack of music when you add in four players. This is true for many racers of the time, the superior Diddy Kong Racing had the same issue, but I need music with my Mario Kart. 64 actually has some good songs. Moo Moo Farm is a classic, and Sherbet Land’s tune keeps you sane while sliding on the rage inducing ice track. Without these peppy tunes in the background, there’s nothing to distract you from the terrible driving found in the game.
Mario Kart 64′s drift system stands out as the worst part of the gameplay. I know it’s unfair to compare it to the drifting of modern games, but hanging tight turns is so much more difficult when the drifting mechanic feels so sloppy. I get that perfecting it is difficult, and that doing so does save a second or two each lap, but the pay off just isn’t worth the frustration.
Going back to the terrible visuals, it’s impossible to ignore the impact they have on gameplay. It can be so tough to see traps that are even just a few inches in front of your because of how pixelated they are. This is compounded when playing with friends, which is really the best way to play Mario Kart. If you’ve played newer Mario Kart games, you’ll also be immediately taken back by how empty the courses feel. There’s not much going on in the periphery, and that robs the game of whatever Nintendo charm it may otherwise have.
The Biggest Offense: Mario Kart 64 Does Not Improve upon Mario Kart SNES
Here’s where the game fails the most and why, in my opinion, it is the worst Mario Kart game ever made. Mario Kart SNES got the ball rolling. It wasn’t perfect, and hasn’t aged well, but it started the whole series off. Double-Dash broke the mold with two players per-kart. Wii introduced motion control driving, making the game accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike. It also added bikes to the mix, adding a whole new style of gameplay. Mario Kart 8’s zero-gravity sections forced players to change strategy in mid-race, while offering mind-bending fun and exciting visuals. Even the handheld games added important elements that made their way over to console entries. I won’t defend Super Circuit, but Mario Kart DS added kart customization and online play. 7 gave us the thrilling glider and underwater sections that were then perfected in Mario Kart 8. What did 64 add? Nothing. It added nothing, aside from “improved” visuals.
For a game to be the best in its series, it needs to be innovative and nail the mechanics better than any other entry. Mario Kart 64 does none of those things. It’s the same game as Mario Kart SNES, but with a different coat of paint and new tracks. It doesn’t have the best driving mechanics. It doesn’t add new and interesting ideas to the series. It doesn’t even have a roster of 10 unique characters. Mario Kart 64 is a boring sequel to a promising idea that didn’t reach its potential until Double-Dash on the Gamecube. But if Mario Kart 64 is the worst entry (aside from Super Circuit), then what is the best?
Racing Perfection: Mario Kart 8 (Deluxe)
Yes, the newest entry in the Mario Kart series is undeniably the best entry to date. You can also make a strong argument for Double-Dash or Mario Kart Wii, on the backs of their innovations, but I’ll defend MK8 to the death. It’s racing is perfect. Sharp, concise, fast, and fun. The graphics are some of the best you’ll find in any video game on the market, and it’s packed with Nintendo charm. The Luigi Death Stare? Classic. It offers 12 Cups, each stuffed with great courses. The roster is huge, with choices from Mario to Ludwig Von Koopa. You can play online or locally and experience the same quality racing found in single player. Plus, you can’t overlook the high-speed fun of 200 CC! And with an all-new battle mode that critics adore, the original game’s only weakness has been remedied. Mario Kart 8 (Deluxe) is brilliant, and may very well go down as the best Mario Kart game ever made.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Some my personal favorite games, such as the original Sonic Adventure, just don’t hold up against Father Time. Still, Mario Kart 64 is a special case in my opinion. It was released to great review scores back in 1997, and is still treasured today. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The game is just flat out bad by today’s standards, and at best uninspired by 1997’s. Of course, this is just my opinion. But I’ll defend it to the very end: Mario Kart 64 is overrated, and it never was anything more than that.