Note: I only used this title in order to stick with the pseudo-protocol that I have developed when discussing quality.
In writing a blog post like this, I think I’m supposed to build my writing up to a climactic ending where I state my verdict. That’s how I did it last time. However, this is different, because I think the title has a very obvious answer, because Mario Kart 64 is good.
The more important question here is “Is Mario Kart 64 Good in the context of every Mario Kart game?” That answer is more complicated.
One of my old camp friends, who I doubt will ever read this, told me that he believed that everyone’s favorite Mario Kart game was the first one they ever played. While I don’t think this is entirely true (My first was Mario Kart 64, for instance, but my favorite is 7), I definitely understand where he was coming from. Compare how many times Double-Dash is referenced in this GameSpot thread from 2014 with this one from 2008. That’s not a perfect example, but you can see how newer forum-goers started saying they liked Double-Dash and cooled off on 64.
The narrative now, from what I can tell, has shifted. Take the general opinion here on this reddit thread for example. Mario Kart 64 is the worst (disregarding the Mode 7 ones, which are unfortunately handicapped), and there’s a lot of debate on what is the best.
The second caveat to the titular question is the general high quality of the Mario Kart series. A “bad” Mario Kart game is still significantly better than, like, half of the games on its console. So the question isn’t “Is Mario Kart 64 Good?” on a general scale, but moreso “Is Mario Kart 64 Good?” on a scale of the other eight Mario Kart games.
I believe that Mario Kart 64 is at least not the worst Mario Kart game.
For reference, here is my top-eight list. I didn’t put the arcade game on there because you’ll only ever play it through the Dave & Busters fog of mediocre cocktails and so many kids running around everywhere and you nearly just kicked one accidentally you monster, you drunk monster, and with that you’ll be lucky if the cabinet isn’t broken.
Since all of these games are above average game quality, I sort of have to nitpick in order to pick the best one. The differences in quality between the top three are basically just that 7 has superior courses to DS though they mechanically are the same, and I feel like they took an extra step too far in terms of driving mechanics in 8 (that’s hard to really describe properly. I liked collecting coins in 7, but it feels like 8 has too much going on on top of the driving itself).
I feel like I have to defend Mario Kart 64’s lofty perch at fourth, though. Mechanically, it might actually be the worst Mario Kart (though I still have a hard time getting over Double-Dash’s entire gimmick). The N64 controller isn’t the best for it. Graphically it’s muddy and the characters are obviously sprites taken from pre-rendered characters, which doesn’t make sense because the N64 should’ve been able to handle a few polygonal racers, especially when the PlayStation totally could.
It’s heavily flawed. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Even if the handling’s imperfect, it still works, and it’s fair to assume that something so mechanical would be improved over the next few iterations. I have a hard time faulting the game from early 1996 for not controlling as well as the one from 2014. Even knowing that, if Mario Kart 8’s karts handle at an A+ level, then 64’s karts handle at a B+ level at worst. That chasm isn’t that wide, and it’s not enough to make 64 unenjoyable.
The main difference that separates 64 from the other four behind it is an idea that I’m probably misusing here: artistry. The word I used Monday night when discussing this with some friends was “charm”, which I think also works.
That artistry shines through the racetracks. That artistry had to come out because 64 was only the second game in the series, so there wasn’t much to come from there. The designers had to come up with course ideas out of nothing, especially considering they didn’t repeat basic course designs like in the original game. This is probably why, though Bowser got his typical castle and DK’s course was a standard Jungle, Toad got a bustling city highway and Wario ended up with a basic ATV course with his face posted up all over the walls. On top of that, there was no precedent for a random farm track. The agricultural makeup of the Mushroom Kingdom had never been discussed, but there it was. The Kalimari Desert didn’t exist before Mario Kart 64, either, though the railroad and the stage’s music comes back in Paper Mario. The Yoshi Valley as a location is never discussed before or after, outside of it’s reappearance in Mario Kart 8.
There’s just a lot of weird stuff in Mario Kart 64. I think that makes the game unique, and it has a personality that the other Mario Kart games don’t. There are so many little details that are anomalous in terms of the whole series. For instance, this game spawned several new recurring aspects of the Mario universe, one of which was the blue shell that has become a definitive trait of the series. Others were as inconsequential as the Moo Moos, which are just cows, and the train, which is just a train. The little bomb carts that you can turn into when you loose all your balloons in Battle mode never appear outside of Mario Kart 64. Koopa Troopa beach had that weird shortcut in the rock, an obvious shortcut that never really appears again in any other Mario Kart track. The voice of Toad, which is the voice that I still tend to attribute to Toad, was a game tester at Nintendo, who never really did any other Nintendo voice work, and apparently is the guy wearing the San Jose Sharks hat in this video. Toad’s vocal style was never the same after this game, and he never had a voice before this game.
Mario Kart 64 exists in a weird vacuum away from the other games in the series. That’s what makes it fun to go back to every now and again. It’s full of artistic quirks, but those quirks make it one of the most unique games in the Mario Kart series.
If you asked me to play one race in any Mario Kart, I would pick 7 or 8, probably. That’s how it goes. If you asked me to play all the way through any of the Mario Kart games, I would likely pick Mario Kart 64, because it’s the most interesting 16 track experience in the series.
So, yes, Mario Kart 64 is good, but it’s good in a different way compared to all the others.
Also allow me a second to sell out this video series I did on it back in summer 2014.
All of the still images I used here were taken from gamefaqs.com. I don’t know if whoever put them up there need credit or care about getting it.