Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #9: Mario Kart 64 – Part I

In N64, Virtual Console on November 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Title: Mario Kart 64

Format: N64, Virtual Console

Released: June 24, 1997

Box_art_image
Mario Kart 64. It was always going to come to this. Possibly the greatest multiplayer experience of all time. How to quantify the memories of a thousand red shells looping round the track to nip the heels of the race leader? How to convey the satisfaction of tricking a friend’s brain into hitting a fake item, even when it’s sitting on its own in the middle of the track? How to describe the Gandalf-at-Helm’s-Deep feeling that is firing off a blue shell in the dying throes of the last lap, undoing someone’s entire race of careful driving, and squeezing past their accelerating form to take the win?
Taking_out_image

Mario Kart 64 is the concept of balance boiled down into cartridge form. Later iterations of the game relied on wacky weaponry and ker-azy courses to artificially simulate competition, but the second game in the series hit the balance on the head with a single green shell from halfway down Luigi Raceway.

Every weapon can be defended against. Every track has its ideal racing line, and its time-shaving shortcuts – though woe betide anyone who thinks they can’t be compromised with a banana-shaped minefield – and most importantly: you can’t come close to winning a race without skill.

This is crucial. Never does a victory more hollow than intentionally squatting in last place for two laps to save up the best weapons and smashing through to take the podium. Mario Kart 64 has no time for such coarse methods: “Let the chancers languish in last place”, it proclaims. “We shall aim higher”.

Poor_etiquette_image

Mario Kart as a series has been part of my gaming diet since I first played it on the SNES when I was 8 and had to go round to David Ossack’s house every morning before school because my mum had to go to work. To my charitable 8-year-old mind, other people’s houses sucked balls, but I let this one slide, because it meant that for a tantalisingly scant 10-15 minutes every morning, I got to play on David Ossack’s SNES and eat marmite on toast before the day began.

These were hallowed, ghostly mornings of instant absorption and painful, inevitable withdrawal. The call of “Time for school!” was never less welcome. Whether it be traversing Cheese Bridge in Super Mario World, or taking bobbling steps into the colourful, underappreciated platform lands of Plok, these sessions were delicious partly due to the marmite, but also, because of their brevity. It was the teasing promise of greater things, which has helped fuel my love for gaming that exists so strongly today. Scarcity creates desire.

Plok_image

Then came the N64 days. On that first great weekend when my mate Jay got one, I drove with him and his dad to a games outlet called “Special Reserve” that did good deals on electronics, to help him with his choice of games. I was a platformer fanboy at the time, and I recall being unimpressed when Jay opted for Mario Kart 64. Driving games weren’t cartoon platformers; what was he on?! Jay drunk a Ribena on the way back and did a purple sick on the front lawn when we got to his place. I guess we were both pretty confused.

Firing it up for the first time, it soon became apparent what we were dealing with. These were worlds of their own, with wonderful scripted pathways to race through. Even before I understood the simple fact that every Lakitu-held green light signalled the beginning of a new, self-contained racing story, the tracks themselves enticed me. The early courses: Mario Raceway, Kalimari Desert, Koopa Troopa Beach – to say nothing of the graphics – but once we unlocked the Special Cup, the creepily rickety Banshee Boardwalk and the psychedelic danger of Rainbow Road were delights upon themselves.

We soon turned our attentions to Battle: the stellar four-player combat mode, finding that to be a different, fresh form of competition. I was now sold on the game, and a new genre opened up in front of my eyes. Mario Kart 64 became a staple at any get-together, a group of boys crowded around a screen, losing themselves in a hail of “Yips” and “Owowowowows” and the sounds of us pissing ourselves laughing at each life-representing balloon we claimed. Breaking out a star at the last minute. Bouncing a green shell off the walls to send it round a corner in a friend’s face. The small but potent irony of taking out Donkey Kong with a selection of hazardously-placed banana skins. Joy.

But we moved on, as boys do, and other delights and fads took Mario Kart’s place. Diddy Kong Racing enthused for a while, being the least pale facsimile of the cartoon racing genre of the time (fuck you, Crash Team Racing. Just. Fuck you) followed by Lylatwars, Perfect Dark et al, and then Playstation 2s and growing up and Halo and all the crazy rest of it. Gaming forged onwards.

Dkr_image

But I had a feeling Mario Kart 64 would endure. It was partly the Nintendo seal of quality; not just a label on a box, but a genuine, tangible legacy of constant attention to detail and pleasure-inducing games which continued to blow my mind with each passing release. But it was also the timing of Mario Kart 64. Most gamers my age were having their tastes shaped at 12, sure, and it’s more than likely that nostalgia plays a part in why it tops so many “favourite game” lists now. But it’s more than that. Nothing else was like it then, and though in 1997 that was because it first, with the benefit of 14 year’s experience, it’s now because it’s the best.

Mario Kart 64 did not rely on gimmicks. It had fantastic track design, an incredibly well-balanced set of weapons, a small but robust selection of characters. Charm by-the-oversized-penguin-load. There’s a reason why future Mario Kart games include so many of Mario Kart 64’s tracks in their canon.

Bowsers_castle_wii_image

14 years. It’s a long time for a game to rule a genre. Pretenders to the throne come a-knocking every year, but the old, ugly, battered king holds them off. What’s his secret? Is it the wafer-thin veneer of nostalgia? The young things are all too scared to attack because, from afar, he’s still as unbeatable as he was all those years ago? But what if you get up close, and peek under the curtain, and he’s just a frail old man, surviving on family name alone?

Final_image

To fully answer these questions, we have to go forward 11 of those 14 years to 2008, to a University in the north of England…

Advertisements
  1. […] bounty hunters and trolls). I became so emotionally attached to Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 that I couldn’t really understand why all video games couldn’t be EXACTLY THE SAME as those […]

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: