You need to play Nintendo's greatest racing game of all time on Switch ASAP
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Millennial nostalgia hit new peaks when Nintendo announced it was bringing Nintendo 64 games to Switch Online. The console, first released in 1996, likely conjures up memories even for those who never owned one. Before online gaming was the norm, friends with the right console had their dens become social hubs, a pattern that continued when millennials got dorm rooms in college. Having your own N64 controller was a requirement for many social gatherings.
Aside from the original Super Smash Bros., no game was a social lubricant quite like Mario Kart 64. And right now, if you’ve got a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack, you can time-travel back to a common room in 2006 as soon as you’d like.
Mario Kart 64 was one of the first games the company ever planned to bring to the N64. Videos showcasing its colorful three dimensions were shown as early as 1995. The move was a relative no-brainer considering that its predecessor, Super Mario Kart for the SNES, is the best-selling SNES game of all time in Japan and the fourth best-selling SNES game globally.
The idea behind Super Mario Kart was a simple one: Take characters from the era-defining Mario franchise, put them in go-karts, and give them special attacks just like Mario might get in Super Mario Bros. 3. It was a novel yet wildly successful model for a racing game, one that Nintendo would later replicate with the Super Smash Bros. fighting game series. For Shigeru Miyamoto, producer of both the original Mario Kart and the Nintendo 64’s 3D sequel, simplicity was always essential.
Speaking in a Japanese language strategy guide that has since been translated into English, Miyamoto said that the underlying philosophy beneath Mario Kart was one “where anyone, from age 3 to 100, could jump in and start competing right away.”
That same mindset is present in Mario Kart 64. There aren’t really any explanations given because not many are needed. All a player really needs is a button for gas, break, and attack. There are a few special moves, like figuring out how to send shells and bananas in different directions or performing a little hop to drift around corners, but the game remains mostly similar for players on their 100th race or on their first.
With the basic elements of the series set, the development team focused on under the hood developments that could innovate on what was already there. Their chief focus was a development that would keep Mario Kart around for years and years: four players.
Breaking the screen into four blocks, Miyamoto described the mode like “playing on 4 separate little TVs,” crediting the N64’s CPU with the ability to run four perspectives simultaneously. There’s not just multiplayer racing in Mario Kart 64, after all.
There’s also Battle Mode.
During Battle Mode, your kart rides around various arenas with three balloons tied to its back, ducking and dodging various attacks from your fellow players. Viewing your own racer in their tiny box is an experience full of tension, constantly monitoring the screen for any trace of your opponents. The brave might even take their eyes off their corner of the TV for an instant to try and gauge where their enemies are driving. When a tiny screen gets crowded, every attack can feel thrilling.
The dev team behind Mario Kart 64 were mostly car nuts, and a major challenge for them proved to be actually making the game less realistic than they would have if they were making a game strictly for themselves. Kenji Yamamoto, a programmer, said in the strategy guide interview that being “insistent on realism” would have meant “the racing component suffers,” which explains the loose physics.
Some elements of the funhouse physics driving Kart 64 hold up today, others don’t. The infamous “rubberband” AI, which virtually guarantees that AI will challenge a player who is in first, can be charming when the game isn’t that hard. But as the tracks increasingly rely on sharp angles, curvy roads with no walls, and even intrusive penguins, one can find themselves wishing for a little more of a reliable drive.
Another once marvelous, now humdrum aspect of Mario Kart 64 is its interactive levels. Watching the train drive through the Kalimari desert was once astonishing, but it might not have that same magic. Several levels now feel noteworthy for their wide amount of empty space.
“From a physics perspective, stuff like mini-turbos and jumping karts is all a bunch of nonsense anyway,” Yamamoto said in his interview. That’s part of Mario Kart 64’’s long-lasting appeal. While the game may have been overtaken in many ways by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the original nonsense is still there in all its glory.