‘Mario Kart 64’ is 20 Years Old, Weird, and Still a Series Highlight
Looking back at a beloved racing game from a kinder time.
Mario Kart 64 was my very first 'next-gen' game. I got a Nintendo 64 in early 1997, after saving all my Christmas and birthday money for like, a year. (I was 13, so, no, I did not have a job at the time). When we first brought the system home, and let the attract screen run, even my parents were amazed by the graphical fidelity. The rich colors and 3D (!) graphics. The coolest thing they'd seen, to this point, was Aladdin's pants billowing on the SNES, so, you can imagine, this was an event.
"Oh wow," my mom gasped, as the Donkey Kong sprite plowed through DK's Jungle parkway. "Richard, look at this!" My dad, though less breathless, was also impressed.
I was amazed too, naturally. And I played my first two games (this and the evocative-though-maybe-more-fondly-remembered-than-it-deserves-to-be Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire) nonstop. Every day, I would come home from school, do my cool 13-year-old workout, and play battle mode with my younger sister. There were only four maps, but we didn't care: battle mode was a tense, weighty, insanely fun duel for the two of us on our brand-new console.
Mario Kart 64 is pretty much always cited as a social experience, and it very much was for me. I remember having N64 parties as a young teen, the aforementioned battles with my sister, and heated races with family friends at every get-together. But I played everything in my life at that time solo too.
I remember so many weekend afternoons, learning every curve of every track, always wondering about the worlds they took place in. I was a weird kid: I loved the stages in my games not just for their challenges and flow, but also for the impossible and beautiful places they evoked. Those bramble forests and abandoned theme parks and icy mountains of the DKC series were places I liked to go to, and Mario Kart 64 held the same mystique.
Better, Mario Kart 64 let me drive around in those lands and explore them in… wait for it… 3D!
It was fun for me to pop into the Kalimari Desert track on 50cc, even long after I mastered the higher classes, just so I could drive around and wonder where that train really went to, what that rock tower off in the distance really looked like. To wonder what was around the corner from the ice cave in Sherbet Land. These were whole worlds to buzz around in, think about, imagine.
The 3D camera fly-throughs from the game's attract mode were an obsession of mine, because they showed places on those courses that I couldn't get to. I watched that thing for hours. Hours.
Imagine if they made open-world games when I was 13?
Above: Kalimari Desert gameplay.
Maybe it's better that they didn't. In a racing game like Mario Kart 64, I could be awed by a sense of scale and place without finding out that half the world was boring, or filled with fetch-quests. Better that the gameplay was so focused (and fun) that I could let my imagination wander and my thumbs stay on task.
I know that Mario Kart 64 has something of a mixed reputation. I've heard arguments for those who hold the original in the highest regard, and many who prefer Double Dash (they're not wrong), and still others who think the most recent in the series is the best. They may very well be right.
But there's a weirdness to Mario Kart 64 that I still love to this day. There's a giant cheep-cheep that— barfs? Explodes?— the trophies out of its mouth. The snowman obstacles in Frappe Snowland still have their bizarre twitchy heads intact after you plow through them. There's something warm and fun and fuzzy about the humor in this game, something that the cleaner lines of more recent games has left behind.
I'll be playing a few races on February 10th, on the 20th anniversary of the game's North American release. Maybe I'll even have an N64 party.