By Robert VerBruggen
In addition, for experienced players in the racing modes, the only real character options were Bowser and Donkey Kong, who played identically. Their large size, in defiance of basic physics, translated into higher speed -- once a player learned not to spin out so much and stay on the track, the corresponding loss in acceleration was an easy tradeoff. And finally, while the Super Nintendo's Mode 7 graphics and cute character sprites served the game perfectly well, one couldn't help but wonder what the idea would look like with a more 3-D world.
It took only five years to find out, and Mario Kart 64 sold amazingly well. The only Mario Kart title thus far available on the Virtual Console, it harnessed the new generation of hardware to make a game that was just as fun, if not really more so, with a number of new features.
The items got a serious upgrade, making first place an even more dangerous place to be. Now red shells (and green shells, which travel straight rather than seeking targets) often came in packs of three. The new Spiny Shell followed the track, taking out everything in its way until it smashed into the frontrunner. Speed-boost mushrooms also came in bundles. No lead was safe.
There were fresh and exciting ways to attack those trailing behind as well. Where only single banana peels graced the roads in Super Mario Kart, drivers in 64 could pick up a whole bunch, which, when activated, dragged behind the vehicle in a straight line. One could sweep the line across a kart close behind, or let loose a whole barrage of individual peels, making the road nearly impossible to traverse without spinning out. Alternately, gullible opponents might fall prey to a fake item box, spinning out when trying to collect it. The three-packs of shells revolved around the kart until one shot them, so they could serve as protection from attacks.
The game also introduced a small speed boost one could execute while power-sliding -- a move that risked ruining the turn but, when done properly and repeatedly, could give a significant edge.
Unfortunately, Battle Mode took a bit of a step backward, one from which it never fully recovered. The arenas were simply too large -- the N64 had four controller ports, but outside of parties, few gamers have more than one other person to play with. Trying to find one opponent on a multiple-level course got boring in a hurry.
But the biggest problem: The new Rainbow Road had walls and long straightaways. Lame.
The next game in the franchise, Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance, was basically Super Mario Kart remade with some extras and a touch of Mario Kart 64 -- 40 tracks total, including all the SNES originals. While the controls were a bit tough to get used to (has there ever been an ergonomic handheld?), the game met with near-universal positive reception. It's hard to go wrong sticking with a tried-and-true formula.