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Mario Kart 64 Review

Publisher - Nintendo
Developer - Nintendo
Platform - N64
Type - Racing
Score - 8/10

You may wonder what Mario and the Princess do in the down time between adventures. What do they do late at night in that luxurious, romantic castle... All alone with no one to see... THEY RACE GO-CARTS! What did you expect?

We've been expecting a sequel to Super Mario Kart for a long time- since before there was a Nintendo 64 console. It was a sure bet like Batman Returns or Back to the Future Part II. If something makes money once, it'll do it again. It looks like Mario Kart 64 will make a ton of money.

The Basics

Mario Kart is another great game from Nintendo. It has a look that is similar to the Mario 64 game. It also has an incredible immersive quality to the individual levels. While previous Mario games have had tons of levels, the levels were all variations on a particular theme. Mario Kart 64, much like Mario 64 takes the idea of a level to the next plateau. Each race in this game is like a separate universe. While the stunning quality of the images makes the game fun to watch, it's the sheer imagination and creativity that infuses each race that makes the graphics in this game so neat. It looks like the racers are prerendered, 2D images (although they don't particularly look 2Dish). Everything else is 3D-a-ramma. Similar to Waverace, the player character stays anchored in a fixed spot while the world spins around him. The effect is quite nice.

The first time I played this game, I was a little disappointed at the speed. It didn't seem like things were moving quickly. I was playing on the 50cc level. There is a big difference in speed between 50cc and 100cc. There is a colossal difference between 50cc and 150cc. Once you get off the low level, you get the look and feel that a racing game must deliver. Despite this game's obvious wackiness, it more than surpasses Cruis'n USA as a racer. There is only one level (Donkey Kong's Jungle level) where the backdrop suffers from a flat look, like Cruis'n USA's redwood forest. In Mario Kart's case, it is only a small part of the board and it doesn't detract from the gameplay.

Mario Kart provides players with a choice of 8 different racers. Unlike Waverace, the player's abilities do not seem to be diametrically opposed. Where Waverace's characters have clear cut strengths and weaknesses, Mario Kart's racers are more like shades of grey. Some of the racers ARE identical, but others only seem that way- until you get them in particular situations.

The control in Mario Kart is precise and accurate. There isn't much of a learning curve when it comes to steering and braking- the mechanic that drives the racing engine is sliding. Perfecting this technique requires the player to read the course, gauge their traction, and predict when to enter and exit a power slide. It seems like the game designers made sliding a necessity in every course. While there are hills and jumps, Mario Kart doesn't have the same quality or feeling of leaving the ground as you'd get wave hopping in Waverace.

The sound in Mario Kart is also top notch. While the music isn't as expressive as in Mario 64, the themes set the mood for the individual raceway-worlds. The incidental sounds are also good, and just as goofy as the rest of the game. The characters speak if they win the race and some characters respond when you trigger traps they've set in the courses.

One great aspect of Mario Kart that no other N64 racing games have is... BATTLE MODE! Battle mode however, is not a great name for it. There's no blood, carnage, injuries, boo-boos, or anything else violent. Each player has 3 balloons attached to his kart. If he is injured, one of the balloons peacefully floats away. Mario Kart gives you 4 battle courses which, like the standard races, are separate worlds.

And now the part you've been waiting for..... you've heard that Mario Kart supports 1-4 players? Well that IS true but......

Mario Kart looks incredible when 1 person is playing. When 2 people are playing on the 2-way split screen, it STILL looks good and plays well. The split screen doesn't work as well as Waverace, but that's because there's more up and down to worry about and see in Mario Kart. Once you get into 3 and 4 person mode, the action does slow down. The field of view is slightly reduced and the frame rate is so low that it feels more like a PC flight simulator than a Nintendo 64 masterpiece. Also, your television has to be very large before you can even consider playing 3 or 4-way. Each player only gets 25% of the screen- trying that on a smaller screen will make your eyes bleed. I'd say Mario Kart works for 1-2 players. You can play 3-4, but don't expect the same experience. Considering that you're asking your N64 to do almost 4 times as much works as it's used to, it's not all that bad. All in all, the first 4 way, 1 screen game from Nintendo was a valiant attempt. Other factors besides split screens tend to slow down the game. Playing a GP race (Mario Kart Grand Prix- all 8 racers play, either controlled by players or the N64) slows down the game a bit. I noticed that going over some of the huge jumps slows the game down, but I'm pretty sure that's on purpose- trying to make the leap seem dramatic.

What's Different

While Mario Kart 64 is a sequel to Super Mario Kart, it has major differences. First of all, the Koopa Troopa is no longer a racer. He has been replaced by Wario. This seems like an odd choice- Wario is a minor player in the Mario pantheon at best. It's my assumption that Nintendo may move Wario off Gameboy onto the N64 (like they're planning to do with their puffy protagonist Kirby), and this is his introduction to the 64 bit players.

As far as the levels go, there's just no comparison to the 16 bit predecessor. Much like Mario side-scrollers exploded into 3D reality in Mario 64, the levels in Mario Kart 64 seem like distant cousins to their flat, 16 bit primitives. The game ISN'T Super Mario Kart- it's a whole new ball game. Luckily for us, it's a fun game. You're not going to see the 2D blocks that constructed every wall and cluttered every ice course in the Super Nintendo version. Also, you can't jump over the walls anymore. That's because we have fully rendered hillsides and fortresses in place of the old level boundaries. In some ways I'm sad to see the flatness go. What Super Mario Kart lacked in graphics it made up in strategy and gameplay. Of course in Mario Kart 64 we can roll down slopes, launch weapons in mid-air, and zip up and down real hills. Another big change is no coins. You go as fast as you can go and that's it. There are no coins to gather or steal from opponents.

Besides the new, real 3D environment the biggest change is in the power ups. In the old game, you ran over flat question mark boxes to get items. In this game, there are multicolored polygons littering the course which contain items. Unlike the flat boxes these polygons refresh themselves almost immediately (in the old game, all the boxes must be used before they are replenished). I think this was a bad plan on Nintendo's part. You can park your kart on top of a power up and get unlimited goodies while you wait. That doesn't affect the race much, but it wildly changes strategy in battle mode.

The power ups are also different in this game. There are multiple shells (green and red), multiple bananas, multiple mushrooms, and a new shell that hits whoever is in first place. Most of the new power ups are welcome additions. Keep in mind that there is no more hopping over the walls and the ghost acts a little different. In the old game, triggering a ghost would steal your opponent's power up- even if it was still spinning in the box. In the new version, the ghost only works after your opponent's random power up has been determined. A minor difference, but it may catch you off guard.

The last big difference between the new version and the old version is braking. In the original you could use your brakes to turn on a dime (provided you were using Toad or Koopa). In the newer version braking to execute extremely sharp turns usually results in your spinning out of control. Granted, there aren't as many places in Mario Kart 64 as in the original where you'd want to try this maneuver, but keep this in mind before you steer straight into a brick wall. It seems that all the nuances in the new driving engine lie in power slides.

The Bottom Line

Mario Kart may not be as revolutionary as the original game was, but it is definitely a very fun game. It's worth renting and it's worth owning (if you have at least two controllers). This game is great for all age groups. Even if you don't like the wackiness, you'll probably enjoy the feel of racing or the competition of head to head battles.