‘Mario Kart 64’ Turns 20 – Why We Still Love It

Bob Mackey
Games Nintendo
Games Nintendo Super Mario

It may be hard to believe, but Mario Kart 64 just passed its 20th lap around our 365-day calendar. Even if you didn’t live through its original release, the changes and improvements the 64-bit edition made to the series can still be felt to this day. And with its recent release on the Wii U Virtual Console, there’s never been a better time to jump back to the ’90s for Mario Kart’s first truly 3D outing. Though it can’t help but feel like a product of its time, we still have a soft spot for Mario Kart 64.

A New Dimension of Kart Racing

In 1992, the first Super Mario Kart worked via some impressive-for-the-time visual trickery. Still, its collection of tracks amounted to extremely flat, simple creations. Coming five years after the series’ debut—and with some much more powerful hardware on its side—Mario Kart 64 truly took advantage of the third dimension. Courses now featured tiny bumps, steep inclines, caves and tunnels, and huge jumps that send karts rocketing through the air. Wario Stadium, with its muddy raceways, bumpy patches, and stunt jumps, feels as different from the original Super Mario Kart’s course design than you could possibly get.

Power Sliding Takes Precedence

Every Mario Kart veteran understands the importance of power sliding: if you’re not doing it as often as humanly possible, you’re doing it wrong. While the original Super Mario Kart allowed players to tap L or R to jump for a sharper turn, Mario Kart 64 evolves this idea with the introduction of power slides. As with every subsequent game, if you hold R to continue drifting through a turn, pulling this move off for long enough allows you to come out of said turn with a boost of speed. This ability would take a much more intuitive form in future Mario Karts, but here, it’s more of an optional expert technique. Even so, it still feels so good to pull off correctly.

The Mushroom Kingdom Gets a Voice

Though he had a voice in prior cartoons, 1996’s Super Mario 64 gave Mario his official, falsetto voice (performed by actor Charles Martinet) we know and love today. Months later, and Mario Kart 64 would define two additional characters’ voices. This game finally gave a voice to Luigi, who speaks in a deeper but still high-pitched tone that shaped his character in following years. Wario, too, would be voiced for the first time, sounding very much like an angry Luigi—even with the same cartoonish Italian accent. The immortal cry of “I’M-A WARIO! I’M-A GONNA WIN!” still echoes through the skulls of racers he’s shoved off the track with his enormous bulk.

Rainbow Road Sees Its True Debut

From the very beginning of Mario Kart, Rainbow Road has always existed as the grand finale. And typically, it’s a track where one important rule changes: veer off the raceway, and instead of slowing down, you’ll drive off into the black, remorseless oblivion of space. The Rainbow Road in Mario Kart 64 would define the features of future versions of this track like loop-the-loops, corkscrew climbs, and vertigo-inducing jumps. But, most importantly, Mario Kart 64’s Rainbow Road features the absolute best tune from any iteration of this track. Future games would make admirable attempts to capture the same feeling, but the hopeful, soaring Rainbow Road theme in Mario Kart 64 can’t help but turn your mood around and make you believe again. Seriously, if the only redeemable feature of Mario Kart 64 amounted to this single song, it all would have been worth it.

Aw, what the hell—here it is again.

Bob Mackey
Bob Mackey is Games Editor at Fandom. Since joining the games press in 2007, he's written for sites like 1UP, Joystiq, The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, USgamer, and many others. He also hosts the weekly podcasts Retronauts and Talking Simpsons. Follow him on Twitter @bobservo.
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