Retro Review Showdown, Which Mario Kart Game Is the Best?

This article is a debate between which old Mario Kart game is the best. I’ve been playing Mario Kart 8 lately (and love it), and that’s got me thinking about how big a part of gaming the Mario Kart series has been for me. Even so, we’re leaving Mario Kart 8 out of the mix—this is a retro review, after all. For us, the decision comes down to 1996’s Mario Kart 64 or 2008’s Mario Kart Wii.

Why Mario Kart Wii is better:

To start with, you have all the advantages of a more modern game – greater configurability, more modes, more characters, more vehicles, more tracks, more advanced graphics, etc. But of course none of that matters if an argument can’t be made for the core gameplay (which is why so many of us continue to go back to older games despite dated Mario Kart Wiigraphics and control systems and such – if the game is good, it’ll be fun despite that stuff).

The core gameplay in Mario Kart Wii is great – so many early Wii games failed to deliver on the promise of the system for motion-based gaming, but Mario Kart gets it right. I’m not a fan of the wheel itself, but I find it so hard to go back to Mario Karting on any control stick- or D-pad-based system after playing with the Wii Remote. I love the nuance I can put into the handling and the fun of basically being able to drive as if I have a steering wheel in my hands. It puts a smile on my face to yank up on jumps to get the speed boost or to yank up more frantically when the POW appears above my head so I won’t lose as much momentum when it goes off.

I’m also a fan of the wider variety of character/vehicle combinations– my personal preference is Funky Kong on a Standard Bike L because he can still throw his weight into other racers like a large character but the bike makes up for the handling tradeoff that comes with large characters (and for some reason, Funky seems to handle better than Donkey Kong or other large characters) and I like the wheelie speed boost on bikes, too. Mario Kart 64 doesn’t have Funky Kong – it doesn’t even have Waluigi! I love hearing Waluigi’s moral code collapse after a single sixth-place finish: “Everybody cheated. Next time…I cheat!” Also the courses are more detailed on the Wii, even those pulled from previous versions of the game.

When I went back to the N64 version after playing the Wii for awhile, I missed all the new challenges the Wii versions of the N64 tracks had added. I do have to concede, though, that most of my recent MK64 playing has been through the Virtual Console, not on an actual 64, and the Virtual Console version seems to have some weaknesses that snuck in during the port. Playing MK64 on the N64 gives you more control over the handling, I think.

On a final note, I will never until the end of my days understand why Nintendo never put out a second map pack for MK Wii…the best-selling racing game of all time. It seems to me that selling an additional 32 maps for $30 or $40 or whatever would have been a pretty easy way to make several dozen millions of dollars while making fans happy. How hard would that have been? Why didn’t this happen?

Why Mario Kart 64 is better:

First, in response to your question about a Mario Kart Wii Map Pack, I think you might be underselling how large a percentage of time in a MK development cycle is based around crafting their maps. I think a map pack, if it were to be created, would have to be packaged basically as Mario Kart Wii 2, which doesn’t fit with Nintendo’s style. With the exception of Super Mario Galaxy 2, Nintendo doesn’t really release sequels, y’know? This is an oversimplification but the SNES, N64, GBA, GC, DS, and Wii all got one Mario Kart each, so I don’t expect that to change with the 3DS or the Wii Mario Kart N64U. The good news is that if the Wii U continues to batter Nintendo financially and they’re forced to quickly release a new face-saving console, we might get the next installment in the Mario Kart series sooner rather than later. There’s always a bright side.

I’d like to admit before I start talking up MK 64, I have some pretty big blind spots when it comes to my knowledge of MK titles. I’ve never played the original, I only recently played Double Dash for the first time, which seems to be a fan favorite from my cursory glances online, and I unfortunately do not have the time or money to justify buying a 3DS so the reportedly superb Mario Kart 7 is beyond my reach. I’ve played the crap out of the N64, GBA, DS, and Wii entries in the series, and the one I keep coming back to is the N64 version. It’s the version I have the most fun playing, and I don’t know many better criteria for judging a kart racing game. MK Wii’s motion controls always seemed to be at best non-intrusive, and at worst frustration shout worthy when my character veers the wrong way due to my over-exaggerated movements, so that’s not a selling point for me.

The Wii version is shiny and pretty and the newly released Mario Kart 8 is even shinier, but I can get past how nasty MK 64 looks on any TV larger than a desktop computer monitor because I think MK 64 brings people together in a way no other series entry accomplishes. I’m talking about people roughly my age, so I’m going to ignore the kids entranced by the Wii’s motion controls in this argument. For people between the ages of 35 to 20 (there is no science to these numbers – I don’t peddle in facts) MK 64 has a degree of familiarity that encourages people unaccustomed or apathetic about video games to play a round or two. In the same way that someone who normally doesn’t play board games might enjoy a round of Apples to Apples with some friends, MK 64 occupies an extremely welcoming place on the video game intimidation spectrum. That’s why I like MK 64 the most. I can compete with other video game nerds like me, and I can still play with friends who don’t really know how to hold a controller correctly.

It also helps that I’m really, really good at MK 64.

So what do you think? Have we overlooked major strengths of weaknesses of these games? Are we wrongly snubbing other entries in the series by focusing on these two? Which Mario Kart game is your favorite and why?

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