How Mario Kart 64 Became the N64’s Best Racing Game

Mario Kart 64 turns 23 today. We celebrate the success of the iconic kart racing game and go behind the scenes of its development...

It’s no secret that part of Nintendo’s success in the last three decades is due to the myriad ways the company has used its iconic cast of characters to explore genres beyond side-scrolling platformers. Mario and his friends have played tennis, golf, soccer, baseball, competed in mini-game challenges in Mario Party, and punched each other in the face in the Super Smash Bros. series. And then there’s Mario Kart, the most iconic and bestselling Mario spinoff of them all.

Super Mario Kart debuted in 1992 as a lighter alternative to Nintendo’s classic futuristic racing game F-Zero, with an emphasis on casual multiplayer gameplay to set it apart from the latter’s more fast-paced single-player experience. Kart wasn’t designed to be a fast-paced racer, but instead a racing game that fit Nintendo’s decidedly wacky cast of characters. For Mario and friends, go-kart racing was a perfect fit. In fact, famed Nintendo developer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team spent some time at go-kart raceways studying how the karts zipped through the tracks in order to get the game’s unique feel right. Not bad for a day’s work.

Beyond its fun Mario Kart GP mode, the game’s most notable feature was its multiplayer Battle Mode, which pits two players against each other, as they tried to pop balloons attached to their go-karts by shooting shells at each other. The mode was a welcome break from the traditional racing experience.

Super Mario Kart was a huge success – a first attempt at using the Mario characters for a big non-platforming crossover game that ultimately inspired Nintendo to experiment with many other genres. The game was also responsible for inventing its own subgenre of racing games. Soon enough, plenty of other franchises, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, and even South Park, would stuff their characters into go-karts. (That Sonic kart racing game was called Sonic Drift and it only came out in Japan for the Game Gear. It begs the question: why does Sonic need a goddamn kart in the first place?)

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With the success of Super Mario Kart, which is the third bestselling title on the SNES, it’s no surprise that Nintendo greenlit a sequel for its next console, the Nintendo 64 – the platform that introduced 3D to the world of Mario.  

If you grew up gaming in the late 90s, nothing will make you feel older than the fact that many of your favorite video games from the era are now over twenty years old. Today, we add Mario Kart 64 to that list – first released in Japan on Dec. 14, 1996, before arriving in the U.S. on Feb. 10 of the following year. 

During the first official unveiling of the N64 – then known as Ultra 64 – at the 1995 Shoshinkai Software Exhibition, an early version of Mario Kart 64 was among the 30 games showcased for the new console. Originally known as Super Mario Kart R (the “R” could stand for the Japanese word “Rokujūyon,” which means “64”), this beta version was slightly different from the finished product. It’s unclear how close we were to getting this version of the game, but Nintendo originally intended to include this Kart sequel in the N64’s launch line-up. The only reason that didn’t happen was that Miyamoto took developers off the project in order to finish Super Mario 64 in time for launch, therefore delaying the release of the racing game. 

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Early footage of Super Mario Kart R showed a nearly completed version of the game – the track designs in the demo seem to be the same as the ones in the finished product – yet there were some changes made in the period between the launch of the N64 in Japan (June 23, 1996) and the game’s release the following December. 

Super Mario Kart R’s roster was a tad bit different. The demo shown at Shoshinkai featured Kamek the Magikoopa, one of the main villains from 1995’s Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. By the time Mario Kart 64 had officially launched in Japan, Kamek had been replaced by Donkey Kong. 

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There were a couple of smaller changes too, including the color of the item boxes, which were originally black with colorful question marks. The Cape Feather, a power-up first introduced in Super Mario World and later used for Super Mario Kart, was supposed to be in the game before it was excised. The item would have allowed players to jump high in the air in order to avoid obstacles and find shortcuts. 

Super Mario Kart R also allowed players to choose how to split the screen during multiplayer gameplay. The screen could be split vertically or horizontally, but the option was later removed from the final version, which splits the screen horizontally by default.

You can see the early demo in action in the video below:

One big difference between the Japanese and North American releases of the game was the billboards that made up part of the scenery in the racetracks. The Japanese version included parodies of real-life companies on its billboards, including “Yoshi1” and “Marioro” – puns on Mobil 1 and Marlboro respectively.

Nintendo decided to remove these logos from the North American localization for fear that they might face legal troubles in the U.S. As you can see above, the logos are quite funny. 

Another difference between both versions is the name of the course “Moo Moo Farm,” which is known as “Moh Moh Farm” in Japan. This is due to the fact that “moo” sounds more like “moh” in Japanese. 

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Unsurprisingly, Mario Kart 64‘s aesthetic was heavily inspired by its predecessor. One of the design choices that contributed to Super Mario Kart‘s success was the game’s use of familiar elements from Super Mario World. Power-ups, tracks, and characters were inspired by the beloved platformer and implemented in interesting ways. Clearly, fans loved playing in the world of Mario and didn’t mind switching genres, especially one as accessible as racing, to explore it a bit more. 

Mario Kart 64 took the same approach, taking visual cues from Super Mario 64, the system’s must-have flagship title. For example, if you take a detour in the course “Royal Raceway,” you can find Princess Peach’s castle. Award ceremonies at the end of each cup also take place at the entrance of the castle. By providing familiar surroundings from this new generation, Nintendo made Mario Kart 64 a vital companion piece to its platforming older cousin. 

While the game certainly ushered in a new era of 3D graphics for the series, Mario Kart 64 wasn’t without its technical limitations. For one thing, Nintendo used polygons to build all of the courses in the sequel, giving Mario Kart 64‘s tracks more texture as opposed to the first game’s Mode 7-generated flat raceways. Yet, Nintendo drew 2D sprites for the characters, undoubtedly to save some processing power for the actual courses.

All four cups from the original GP mode returned, but with fewer courses. Super Mario Kart included 20 courses while Mario Kart 64 had only 16. That said, Nintendo emphasized longer tracks in the sequel as opposed to the amount of them. Mario Kart 64 also included a mirror mode known as “Extra Mode,” which reversed all the courses in the game for a bigger challenge and thus adding to the sequel’s replay value.

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Perhaps the most controversial addition to Mario Kart 64 was the feared blue shell, an over-powered item that could hit any kart on its path to collide with the leader. Nintendo actually created this powerful shell as a workaround for what could be perceived as the game’s greatest limitation of all: the console didn’t have the processing power to graphically render a large group of characters crowded on one part of the track, which meant that the developers needed a way to quickly scatter them. The blue shell was implemented to perform exactly that function, bowling over a crowded racetrack.

An obvious cutback was the lack of track music when playing in three- or four-player split-screen across all modes. Fortunately, all sound effects – including the star power jingle – were intact. 

Of course, these were all small limitations compared to the novelty of racing with Mario in 3D. One could even argue that Mario Kart 64, more so than its predecessor, set the franchise on its future course, setting the precedent for how the franchise could work in 3D and introducing many of the series’ racing staples we still enjoy today. Mario Kart 64 introduced the drift mini-boost, for example, which allowed players to gain speed when drifting through a bend on a track. You could also avoid slipping on those cumbersome banana peels by quickly pressing down on the brake; and then there’s that dreaded blue shell, which you can still use to screw over your opponents today. 

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Mario Kart 64 benefitted greatly, not only from the N64’s processing power but the introduction of the analog stick, which allowed for smoother driving as well as more complex maneuvers such as the mini-boost while drifting. For at least a few months, there was no racing experience on home consoles quite like the N64’s, thanks to its controller’s innovative analog stick. The DualShock controller, which had two analog sticks, was eventually introduced for the Sony PlayStation, although not until late 1997 in Japan and 1998 in North America. 

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The game’s multiplayer modes also helped popularize four-player split-screen racing. Unlike its predecessor, which only had two-player split-screen, the N64’s more powerful specs allowed Mario Kart 64 to support up to four players at a time, a feature that became a mainstay of kart racing games. (It should be noted that Mario Kart 64 wasn’t the first racing game to offer four-player split-screen. The multiplayer feature has been supported since at least 1995’s Top Gear 3000 on the SNES. Kemco’s racing game used Nintendo’s multitap accessory to add two more players to the game.)

With all of these innovations and features included in the box, Mario Kart 64 arrived as the must-have racing game of the fifth console generation. For a time in the late 90s, Mario Kart 64 ruled as king of kart racing games, rivaled only by Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing and Naughty Dog’s Crash Team Racing – a particularly wonderful kart game I spent an equal amount of time with.

Some might even call Mario Kart 64 the greatest kart racing game of all-time (this writer included). In terms of numbers, the game is easily one of the most successful titles from the Nintendo 64 era – the second bestselling N64 game of all time, behind (unsurprisingly) Super Mario 64. But the true testament to its success and innovation in bringing the world of Mario to a 3D raceway is the fact that countless gamers who grew up playing in the 90s still dust off their old N64s and boot up their Mario Kart 64 cartridges – perhaps after a few drinks or just for nostalgia’s sake – and race their friends to the catchy tune of simpler times.

Additional Sources: Nintendo Life, The Cutting Room Floor, Did You Know Gaming?, Kotaku

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