If the question was “Name a chaotic racing game that is almost guaranteed to make you lose friends”, the answer would almost certainly be “Mario Kart”. As the years go by, this only rings more true as the series has been incredibly creative in finding innovative ways to make the game fun for players of all levels. Mario Kart 64, originally released back in 1996, was the first 3D outing for the series and has now finally made its debut on the Nintendo Switch via the “Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) + Expansion Pack”. Check out what we thought in this review!
Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack)
Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Released: 13/06/1997 (25/10/2021)
Digital copy provided by Nintendo UK
Mario Kart 64 boasts a humble roster of just 8 characters, with no options to customise any further than that, allowing the player to just jump straight in with hardly a care in the world. The simplicity is part of what makes this game such a brilliant entry in the series. There’s no need to concern yourself with speed, acceleration and weight stats being displayed whilst having to rush to pick what wheels or glider to utilise whilst a timer swiftly counts down to the map screen. Each character does have their own weight class which defines their acceleration and top speed which, for the most part, I would argue getting caught up in statistics which aren’t even clear in-game is a waste of time, unless you are looking to seriously compete for records and speed runs.
Possibly a pinch of nostalgia, but the sixteen race maps are some of the best in the whole history of Mario Kart. From Kalimari Desert where you will need to sometimes stop and wait as a train passes by, to Yoshi Valley having no indication as to where you currently place in the map, due to each player being covered by a question mark symbol, each racecourse feels unique and incredibly well thought-out. In some courses it is even possible to fall back into previous parts of the map which can see you drop a huge advantageous lead to trailing well behind in 8th place. I only wish there were more levels to unlock to further this amazing selection but the only version of this is the unlockable “Extra” mode (now known as Mirror Mode) which can be achieved by obtaining gold in all four Grand Prix.
I was pleasantly reminded with some of the features included in this early entry of the series, such as hanging behind another racer to obtain a boost (albeit minor) due to the lack of wind resistance or the fact that if you steer side-to-side too quickly your character will begin to lose control and eventually slip. It’s also occasionally possible to have the opportunity to hit your brake whilst your kart begins to veer out of control to avoid spinning after driving over a banana skin. These quirks build on the already fantastic experience.
Although some races can be punishing, finishing anywhere below fourth place will force the player to either replay the map or quit. If you ever find yourself trailing in second or third in a must-win race with no chance to catch up with first position, disappointingly hanging back to finish below fourth will have no repercussions and allow the player a “do-over”, making it a lot easier to manipulate and ace every Grand Prix with a perfect point score.
The Item “roulette” in Mario Kart 64 doesn’t feel quite as well balanced as it does in future games of the series. I often found myself in the top four during the race and randomly being assigned items such as Lightning, Starman and Golden Mushrooms when it felt a bit like an advantage I did not deserve. Although none of this occurred during my time in first place, it felt a tad overpowered when trailing by seconds and having the ability to chaotically and ruthlessly power my way into the lead. Don’t get me wrong, this is great fun in multiplayer when trying to oust a friend out of first, but in single player it wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying.
For those that wish to try something other than the traditional Grand Prix mode, Time Trials make a return in this game. Select any character and any map and take your shot at a new record for racing around the course as quickly as possible. Players will have just three Mushrooms and nothing more to accelerate through the maps to create new records. Sadly though, racing your own Ghost Data (a transparent copy of your previous record racing around the course with you) is not a feature available through the emulation of this game on the NSO + Expansion Pack. When selected, the game will inform the player to insert a N64 Controller Pak into controller 1, which of course is impossible. It’s a shame that Nintendo didn’t specifically create a work-around for this feature at all and it dampens my spirits for what future Nintendo 64 titles might miss out on. Mario Kart 64 will still save your record on a leaderboard of sorts and it is still possible to compete for your own record, just without the benefit of racing your own ghost data and seeing how far ahead you may or may not be.
If you’re feeling a bit bored of the sixteen maps and fancy something different, the mutli-player mode “Battle” is here in all its glory. Players would enter a stage with three balloons and race around maps designed specifically for this mode. The aim is to reduce your opponent’s three balloons down to zero by utilising the usual hazards from races such as shells, bananas and fake item boxes. This is one of my all-time favourite Mario Kart modes and, though it does feel a bit basic here. It was the debut for battle mode and is always a boat-load of fun when you want to get away from the more regular gameplay.
In terms of the Nintendo 64 control translating to the Joy-Con or the Pro Controller, this is handled really well. The “C” directional buttons are utilised by holding down “ZR” with “X” and “Y” for “C-Up” and “C-Left”, “A” and “B” are “C-Right” and “C-Down” respectively. This doesn’t interfere with gameplay whatsoever as the only feature hidden behind the toggle is the ability to change your Heads Up Display, with the default setting being my preferred choice. Every other button is mapped as you would expect. “A” handles acceleration, “B” for breaking, “ZL” for items (which replaces the traditional “Z” trigger button) and “L” for changing the volume of the music. Playing docked with a Nintendo 64 controller would be the optimum way to enjoy the experience with the game but is by no means necessary, as the Joy-Con and Pro Controller function perfectly fine and do not hamper the experience whatsoever.
As far as the emulation of this Nintendo 64 classic goes on the NSO + Expansion Pack, Mario Kart 64 is generally a pleasant experience. I didn’t encounter anything during my time with this game which made me feel like it left too much to be desired. As others have probably noticed and already pointed out, plenty of Nintendo 64 Games would utilise a fog effect to make the games look better and so pop-in and draw distance was less noticeable, as it was generally blanketed by the fog. Regrettably, for some reason the fog effect doesn’t appear to be present here, and so some of the graphics aren’t as easy on the eye as one would hope. This appears to be a recurring theme across other titles featured in the Expansion Pack such as Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and so isn’t limited to Mario Kart 64. It is especially evident when karts not too far off in the distance suddenly disappear on tracks where there aren’t quite as many twists and turns. For what should be considered a premium service, it is disappointing for this to be the case, though overall it did not ruin my experience of Mario Kart 64. Maybe if we’re lucky there will be some form of update to the service to fix this however, it’s not a deal breaker for me.
Playing online with friends is something we come to expect nowadays, especially with titles such as Mario Kart, and thanks to NSO + Expansion Pack this is now a possibility. Players can invite up to three friends to join their session and play either of the multiplayer modes together in the game. Given the nature of relying on other people’s connections as well as my own, this particular section is difficult to provide an overall impression for. I personally found the game thrives with a three-player session maximum and that I had a more stable connection with those either in my city or neighbouring towns. Playing in a four player session or with friends who were much further away and even overseas left a bitter taste in my mouth. The connection was spotty at best and doesn’t live up to the standards I expected from Nintendo, especially when playing games like Smash Bros. or Mario Kart 8 DX can be such fantastic experiences. Granted, Nintendo doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation for online gaming, the NSO + Expansion pack is not the definitive way to enjoy Mario Kart online.
Unlike modern Mario Kart titles, there is a lot less variety in this game to keep you coming back for the single player campaign. With the online mode of the NSO + Expansion Pack not living up to expectations, perhaps it is best to seek your Mario Kart fix from the likes of Mario Kart 8 DX. If you are looking for a fix of nostalgia or just curious about the history of Mario Kart then you will not be disappointed – just be warned that this game is probably best enjoyed as a single-player experience, or in a local multiplayer session with friends.