If there's one thing positive that sticks out in my mind about my first year of university, sheltering out the parts about eating cardboard-style pizza for dinner and the time I left my backpack in the cafeteria and lost my CD player and some school books, it was the late nights spent huddled by the television with my roommate, snacking it up on salted treats and playing round after round of Mario Kart 64. The thrill of staying up extremely late, possibly to see the sun rise in the distance out our dungeonesque window, and the digital smell of burning rubber just kept our adrenaline going 'til dawn. Saying that we would play "just one more race" didn't mean squat. That is the definition of an addictive game: you can't put it down, even if you know you really need to and have an exam the next morning. Err... I mean...
The bottom line about Mario Kart 64 is that if you're expecting a serious racer, you'd better think again. This could not be more fun-lovin' and fancy-free, my friend! There's no tough storyline of gangsters street racing for money. It's just a bunch of characters from the Mario universe gathering together for some fairly saccharine kart racing adventures. We've got Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, and Princess Peach all ready to roll, along with Bowser, Toad, Wario, and even Donkey Kong joining in on the fun. There are sixteen different race tracks in all, varying from your standard asphalt racetrack to engulfing lava pits, from spooky haunted houses to the coconut rumbles of the jungle. However, even I will admit that nowadays, sixteen tracks can get a tad dull after so many years. Games such as Mario Kart DS seem to remedy this a bit, but the fact that the first Mario Kart game offered more tracks than this really puts things into perspective. I know they are 3D and thus more complex, but that complexity wears off over the years. Perhaps they were looking at Mario Kart 64 for the short-term appeal only. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I see a need for a few more racetracks.
Yep, Mario Kart 64 is a sight-seer's dream... provided you only want to see it in pre-Y2K 3D. Actually, the graphics are nice for the most part. Everything is well-rendered in 3D, and you do get a nice atmosphere. You can easily tell that some things, such as trees and some backgrounds, are definitely sprite based, rather than 3D models, but it still provides a nice all-around effect. Plus, everything is going by quickly so you don't have a lot of time to gawk at any one item on the sidelines. The draw distance does leave something to be desired: it is particularly noticeable on the Rainbow Road course, when you can only see some constellations in the sky when you are getting really close to them. However, the truly striking thing is that all your characters are not actually 3D, but they're sprites! I was surprised when I heard this. Typically, racers in this type of venue would be 3D polygonal figures, but instead, they are sprite-based. There's nothing horribly terrible about this in itself, but I would think that the Nintendo 64 could handle better. Mario Tennis had polygonal characters. Mario Golf did, too. Am I missing something?
Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. A Mario Kart game wouldn't truly be Mario Kart without a handful of items at your possible disposal. Along the way, you can drive right through diamonds with question marks on them -- don't worry, they won't hurt you -- and pick up a randomly-selected item that can help you out. First are the shell trio: there's the green shell for firing at an enemy, the red shell at actually homes in on the driver ahead of you on the road, or the coveted blue shell that targets whoever is in first place, knocking down any others that get in its way. There's also the Star for invincibility, the Mushrooms for a boost of speed... and there's no Fire Flower, but maybe that will pop up some other time. And let's not forget the Ghost power that makes you temporarily disappear, and the Fake Item Block, for dropping at your leisure and fooling fellow contenders to run into for a little surprise. Using these items, you can aid or annoy your friends (or the often cheap CPU players) to no end.
The controls are pretty decent for a racing game, although there are some people -- mostly those who have difficulty driving a piece of bread into a toaster -- who may disagree. Most of the karts handle pretty well, and there are enough differences between the racers to provide a challenge in each set of races so that nobody is really in an extremely advantageous situation overall. I appreciate the ability to powerslide, occasionally an important though not necessary feat, as well as the ability to jump a tiny bit (complete with the word "BOING!" springing from the back of your kart, or at least I hope that's where it's coming from). The Mario Kart series has always been about getting the general populace interested in playing with its simple controls, and this is a good example of that. It's much easier to control than Super Mario Kart for the SNES. Along the way, you get to listen to some cheerful tunes. They're not all going to stick in your head, but you won't hear it much over the angry beckons of buddies when they are hit with a renegade shell. Or, if you're playing alone, you might be distracted by the many voices in the game. All the characters have their own unique shouts throughout the game, and that includes Bowser and Donkey Kong who do not really have discernible voices. Well, I guess they do now.
I spent many a lengthy starry night salivating over my Nintendo 64 controller while playing this game until upwards of 6:00AM, and although in retrospect I realize that this was probably not the wisest decision from a sleep perspective, it didn't really matter at the time. All the shortcomings that the game may have had simply disappeared, being replaced by utter enjoyment. The company of fellow gamers, the anticipation of a blue shell entering your inventory, the sweat off your brow as you cross the finish line in first place... That's really what Mario Kart 64 is all about. This is the thrill that I wish to pass on to all of you!