The second installment in the Mario Kart series sees the franchise take a leap in technical advancements: tracks are larger and longer, the y-axis is finally able to be utilized, and there is a general upgrade in detail to the game as a whole. But what constitutes as “upgrades” in this game lacks the sleek compactness of its predecessor, Super Mario Kart, and it caught me off guard because I had expected to enjoy this game more than its primordial forefather.
As a Mario Kart game, MK64 maintains its identity. The game contains treacherously designed tracks with unbarred edges and many zany, Mario universe obstacles (monty moles popping out of the ground, thwomps that deliberately place themselves in front of the player), a recognizable cast of characters each wielding unique traits, and the unparalleled inclusion of game-changing items, which arguably is what stands out most from the series. While these aspects are undoubtedly what make Mario Kart 64 a part of the bunch, there’s no ignoring the behind-the-curtain, flawed engineering mishaps that paint Mario Kart 64 as pointedly rough on the edges.
While I lightly criticized the tracks in Super Mario Kart for being too tight (even though they were still fun because players could just slow down), a handful of tracks in Mario Kart 64 are too stretched out as Nintendo still seemed to be struggling to find that perfect balance. Tracks like Wario Stadium and Rainbow Road (which can take up to 7 minutes to complete) are two examples of this. These long tracks wouldn’t be such a problem, but due to what I’d assume were system limitations, there are long stretches of road that are bare of obstacles or twists/turns (the chain chomps on Rainbow Road are about it), and the CPUs aren’t always there to offer adversity.
But, compare this to the great tracks on the opposite spectrum. The best ones in MK64 usually have a gimmick, like Kalamari Desert. Although this track contains some of the same long stretches of road I was just complaining about, I rather enjoy the train that passes directly in front of the racer’s path, and trying to beat the train before it completely blocks the path feels like a classic action movie scenario. Another gimmicky track that works is Yoshi Valley, which contains a dozen branching pathways, and the HUD doesn’t inform the player who is in what position. Toad’s Turnpike is another eventful and difficult track simply because of the abundance of cars the player must weave past (this track on mirror mode is especially challenging).
This isn’t to diss the non-gimmicky tracks, however. Bowser’s Castle is probably the best of these while DK’s Jungle Parkway, Frappe Snowland, and Banshee Boardwalk all leave impressions and exemplify the range of different settings the world of MK64 has to offer. Koopa Troopa Beach is another great track and contains a fun mushroom shortcut that cuts right through a large wall. (On a side note, Rainbow Road has an accidental shortcut that I successfully executed on one Grand Prix, just felt like boasting.)
Controls were another part of Super Mario Kart I criticized, but the controls for Mario Kart 64 are totally fine. The turning sensitivity takes some getting used to, yes, and drifting is still not very easy or practical. In fact, drifting feels as though it’s not useful at all. When the player comes out of a drift, there’s no noticeable “boost” the player earns, rendering the drift mechanic frankly useless. It’s probably a good thing it is totally useless, because otherwise, it’s difficult to pull off a “successful” drift in the first place.
Even if the drifting was a practical mechanic, it’d probably still come off as worthless due to how broken the AI are programmed. Gaining a considerable lead has no advantage to it, as the godlike CPUs will one way or another always be able to catch up. It’s understandable if the CPUs are theoretically able to get mushrooms in order to do so, but I hardly think that’s the case. However, I can’t bring myself to call this a “flaw” as it still offers a challenge for single-player mode; the AI simply could’ve been programmed better.
Mario Kart 64 also has a handful of mechanical problems. The most annoying perhaps is the fact that you can run into your own shells immediately after throwing them because the player speed and shell speed are the same — it’s just an issue that wasn’t caught, I suppose. Another problem, as was a usual problem with most games in the 64-bit era, is graphical glitches. And if I had to name one more specific gripe it’s that certain tracks take an eternity to get back onto if one falls off a steep edge.
For the most part, Mario Kart 64 still accomplishes the action-packed volatility that is Mario Kart, but it has a fair share of issues that would be later and better refined as gaming hardware evolved. This game is certainly enjoyable with its iconography and old-school fun, but certain issues frequently took me out of the experience to keep me from loving it.