Mario Kart 64 Set the Course for Kart Racers That Followed
Mario Kart has definitely come a long way. The series has stood the test of time as the pinnacle of racing games that shied away from the serious aspects of nearly any arcade or simulation driver in favor of a far more amusing and accessible experience. Super Mario Kart established the idea of a kart racer featuring item-based racing with a cast of colorful characters and tracks, but it was Mario Kart 64 that standardized the idea of varied chases through wildly varied 3D terrains full of strategies and shortcuts to be found by the intrepid racer. Many have followed, but few touch the bar that Mario Kart 64 established for kart racing, and it found its way to North American shelves on this day in 1997.
Mario Kart 64 was initially supposed to be a launch title for the Nintendo 64 and, in fact, a prototype of the game was showcased as early as 1995. Shigeru Miyamoto claimed that the game was nearly complete by the time it appeared for demoing purposes. However, as Nintendo was exploring the 3D space and learning new tricks, it was determined that more time and resources should be given to Super Mario 64. Mario Kart 64 was placed on the backburner until late into 1996 when the team would return to utilize what they had learned to push it even further than before in the new challenging new 3D frontier that the Nintendo 64 presented.
Much of the original cast of Super Mario Kart returned to the game with the exception of Koopa Troopa and Donkey Kong Jr. Wario would come to replace Koopa Troopa as a playable driver, although in the prototype, a Magikoopa was originally also selectable. However, Donkey Kong Country had gained quite a level of popularity around the same time and Nintendo opted to call on Rare for use of their version of the ape. Donkey Kong would replace Magikoopa and Rare supplied the work and visuals for DK’s in-game appearance.
Mario Kart 64 was the first in the series to utilize 3D environments. Though the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 simulated a 3D effect, it could not allow for elevation or descent in terrain. Mario Kart 64 allowed the team to provide unique challenges with the new properties that could be given to maps. New obstacles, pitfalls, enemies, traps and shortcuts were devised to make the tracks far more interesting even on multiple playthroughs. Even then, environmental flair gave each track new life that was otherwise unattainable on the Super Nintendo. In every way, the team sought to explore the extent of what 3D space could provide in their racing series.
Mario Kart 64 is also where various functions and features originated. Rubberbanding was introduced in this game to keep each race fair and competitive. This is the function that adjusts the speed of the race leaders and those behind to allow some catch up and keep the chase tighter. To this end, it’s also where the infamous first-place killing Blue Shell came from. This massively powered winged shell allowed even last place to catch a break and take a crack at making their way up the ladder while possibly devastating the racer in first and their chance of winning with ease.
Interestingly enough though Mario Kart 64 heralded the transition to 3D for the series, not every major element was actually 3D rendered. As a cartridge-based platform, the Nintendo 64's limited processing power was an obstacle that would have made it difficult to feature full 3D models of characters and have eight racers on the screen at once. Instead, characters and items were actually sprites positioned at different angles on the screen in a process known as billboarding. By using the player’s focal point as an anchor from which the player should see the various sprites at different angles and distances, the developers were able to simulate a 3D effect with the characters, saving the performance of the game while not sacrificing too much in visuals.
As the first leap to 3D for the series, Mario Kart 64 took what its predecessor had done pushed it forward in massive ways, becoming the standard bearer for the series going forward. Its intensely fun design challenged players to look high and low and always think ahead as they navigated the intensely varied track design and the enjoyment of challenging the computer and our friends in a head-to-head chase for pole position. Many kart racing titles have come and gone since and though the Nintendo 64’s graphics never aged well, Mario Kart 64 features an exciting racing experience that holds up to the test of time.