Mario Kart 64 Retro Review
It’s Retro Time!
To change things up a bit I’m going to occasionally be doing a ‘Retro Review’. The aim really is highlight some pretty amazing games of the past that I used to enjoy playing and hoping others would have had similarly good experiences with. To kick things off, it’s all about Nintendo’s racing franchise entry for the N64 for this hub – Mario Kart 64.
Not only was this game a great step up graphically from the previous release on the SNES thanks to the 3D engine and enhanced power of the N64, but I still firmly believe it was the best entry in the entire Mario Kart series.
Benefits that the N64 version had over its predecessor were incredible at the time apart from the graphics. You could play with 3 other players via split screen, save ‘ghosts’ which would record your character driving and then this could be imported into Time Trial to literally mean you could race yourself to beat your best time and see where you slipped up. There were also much more complex courses with varied obstacles, jumps and detail which wasn’t possible on the SNES version.
On the slim chance that you haven’t heard of the series, allow me to give you a bit of insight. The Mario Kart series started out on the SNES and is essentially a racing game full of well known Nintendo characters from various games such as Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad and even Bowser. The object of the game is simply to cross the finish line and win the race but you’ll have to contend with environmental obstacles as well as other racers and various powerups that can be used to hamper your race. In the SNES version there was a Grand Prix mode, Time Trial Mode, Battle Mode and Versus Mode. These modes were carried over to the N64 version.
Start Your Engines
Grand Prix Mode essentially pits you against 7 other characters (total of 8 racers) across a Cup comprising of 4 courses in with varied difficulty in terms of speed/engine size. Starting from 50cc (beginner level) all the way up to 150cc (very fast) and even a mirror mode which reverses the courses which is the hardest mode available and has to be unlocked by getting Gold in all of the cups on 150cc. The 4 cups are Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, Star Cup and Special Cup with each increasing the difficultly level in the course group. Coming 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th will earn you points while coming any other place will get you nothing. Coming 1st, 2nd or 3rd overall in points standings allows you to pick up a shiny Gold, Silver or Bronze cup!
Versus mode has you play against your friends without AI opponents and can freely choose the stage you want to race in or you can have one other player join you in Grand Prix Mode to experience some Cup action. Battle Mode is very different as there is no racing or finish line to cross but you each have 3 balloons and the object is to hit the other player 3 times to get rid of their balloons using shells, banana skins, star power ups or even your own Kart if you are a heavy character and build up enough speed to crash into them. Battle mode is great fun and plays very much like a game of cat and mouse especially if you know the stages well, of which there are 4 in total and are completely unique.
One stage has you fighting in a donut shaped course with the centre full of lava whilst another has multiple levels not dissimilar to interconnected forts. All are really good fun to play in and these stages aren’t available for racing in the Grand Prix or Versus because they are built so differently.
Character Selection Matters
Whilst characters don’t have individual power ups exclusive to them (like some other Mario Kart versions on the Wii or Gamecube) they are built into groups and have their own strengths and weaknesses. You have 3 different groups which make a big difference to how you will perform and according to your own preference. The groups are Normal, Light and Heavy.
Normal Characters – These are the most balanced and essentially just comprise of Mario and Luigi. They have decent acceleration, decent speed and a middle weight to their Kart. They aren’t especially amazing at anything really but because they are pretty good in all areas they are perfect characters for beginners.
Lightweight Characters – These characters are Toad (Mushroom), Princess Peach and Yoshi. The lighter characters have better acceleration than others and because their Karts are lighter they have better handling and corner better allowing them to escape some tight situations and quick turnarounds with ease. They are also not slowed down as much on sand, snow or dirt tracks as the other character groups. This character group is good for courses that require quick manoeuvring to escape dangers or obstacles such as Choco Mountain or Toads Turnpike. Their top speed isn’t that strong however and can get outraced by other character classes.
Heavyweight Characters – These are the heaviest characters in the game – Bowser, Wario and Donkey Kong (DK). They have poor acceleration because they are so heavy, are much slower in sand or dirt (essentially anything off road) and their handling is not as good as the others. They can however knock other characters around with relative ease by shoving them causing them to lose speed or even spin out with enough force. They also have very good top speeds but it takes them much longer to reach it than the other characters. They also lose less speed when turning compared to the lightweight characters especially. I have used Bowser consistently for years and personally find him the best character despite many shortcomings this class has. Great for battle modes, bullying other characters in the race and above all, once you are used to him, he really can be a beast... you just have to play him almost perfectly in a race because of his poor acceleration so track knowledge is key... mistakes cost you more when you use him.
It wouldn’t be a Nintendo game without some creative courses and there really is a great variety of race tracks to sink your wheels into. You have courses with lots of obstacles like Bowser’s Castle where you’ll be avoiding lava pits, stone Thwomps and tricky turns, Choco Mountain with falling boulders and very tight cliff edges or even a full on motorway complete with traffic to avoid in Toad’s Turnpike!
Separate to these you have fun, colourful courses like Koopa Troopa Beach full of tropical palm trees, crabs and funky steel drum music; a neon lit and super colourful raceway complete with neon characters floating in the air on Rainbow Road and even a monster truck style dirt track complete with giant video screen capturing the action as it happens in Wario Stadium. There’s a track to suit all tastes and they are all fun without being too frustrating... Yoshi Valley not withstanding!
All of this would be fine and dandy but what about the powerups? Luckily Nintendo have created some really funky items to help you avoiding the dreaded 8th place slot!
Can You Feel the Power?
The powerups really help make the game so much fun and each one can be used in lots of ways which makes it a very versatile game. You pick up powerups throughout the game by driving through the floating question marks at certain set points on the track. It acts like a random slot machine of sorts in that it cycles fast through the options and then selects something automatically or you can press the Z button to stop it yourself. Some powerups you can activate which remain with you (bananas, 3 green shells, 3 red shells) allowing you to bank an extra powerup in the empty slot. You’ll also find that the worse a position you’re in, the slightly better the powerups you find become, so there is always a chance to make that dream comeback. Let’s have a look at them!
These come in single use, packs of 3 or as a Golden Mushroom. They give you a decent speed boost for your character and handy for overtaking characters or pipping them to the post. The Golden Mushroom is special in that you can keep boost for unlimited uses for 10 seconds.
These are either single use red or green or come in packs of three. Green shells you can fire ahead of you or directly behind you and follow a straight line. Green shells can bounce off walls and continue to do so until it hits something/gets lost in a hazard. Red shells have the ability to home in on the character directly in front but if they hit a wall it stops. For the single shells you can also hold down the Z button to hold the shell behind you protecting you from attacks and freeing up the item slot. In the packs of three the shells (red or green) circle around the character protecting them and also freeing up an item slot. You can then fire them off one by one or leave them as a barrier. If another character touches the barrier it will remove a shell. The only other shell in the game is the Bowser shell. It’s Blue/Purple and covered in spikes and aims directly for the person in 1st place hitting anyone else who happens to be in the way. This can also be held behind you and can suffer multiple hits before it disappears.
Bananas make your opponents slip spinning out of control and halting them for a little time. They come as single use or in a line of 5 which hangs behind you and allows you to place each one individually unless someone crashes into them which then separates them and they are placed automatically.
This gives you temporary invincibility makes you faster and letting you pass through any traps without being hurt as well as knock over any characters in your way. It only lasts around 10 seconds but very useful.
This shoots out a flash of lightning turning all other characters very small for a short period allowing you to squash them. Another great tactical tool to either catch up or scupper opponents near the edge. You’ll learn to hate it when your friend has this one!
- Fake Question Mark
This is essentially a trap that looks like the powerup question mark but has an upside down question mark. If touch it, it explodes causing you to take a hit and stopping you... just like from a shell hit. They are crafty and you place them behind you like the banana.
Final powerup is the Ghost which allows you to steal another item from another player from, their item box. You may steal nothing at all but you may steal something incredibly useful like a star or lightning. Also when you use it, you’re turned into a ghost for a small period allowing you to avoid shells, lightning and other damaging powerups from others.
Tips and Tricks
Hope you manage to play the game soon somehow if you’ve got an N64 somewhere and they are quite cheap second hand or from ebay. Great console and a great game. Also available for digital download on the Wii I believe. Some tips for you from a long time player!
- To get a boost at the start whichever character you use, press the acceleration button JUST after the second light at the beginning of the race. If timed correctly you’ll fly past all of the other competitors to give yourself an early lead. Two main considerations however. If you are a character in a lightweight class (Yoshi, Toad, Princess Peach) and there is a heavyweight character in front, you will crash into them at speed and then make yourself dizzy. If you are in a heavyweight class (Bowser, Donkey Kong, Wario) as well as getting a boost you can dizzy many of the characters in front due to your power which is an added bonus.
- To avoid spinning out on a banana skin, just after you hit it, press the brake button. If done correctly a small musical note will pop up and can save you a potential major disaster.
- Make use of the drift boost. When you drift around corners (jumping and shoulder button with directional input) if you wiggle the stick from left to right quickly you will see the colour of the smoke change behind you from white to yellow then to orange after doing three times. Release and you’ll get a mini turbo boost. This is handy when you need to catch up a little or for courses with long corners such as Luigi Raceway. It helps the lighter characters compete with the top speed levels of the other characters.
- Banana String – If you leave all of the bananas in the string behind you and someone crashes into them then you lose all of them. Try and place 4 of the bananas at strategic positions (near edges, hazards or enemies) and leave one always behind you. This way you protect yourself from any shells (green or red) for one hit.
- Stage Tip - Wario Stadium – If you are lucky enough to get the lightning power up then save it when a lot of the characters are going to go over the big jump. If timed right they will all fail the jump, setting them back a way allowing you to either catch up and take a really strong lead.