"Hey! I'ma freakin drivin' here!!"
Do me a favor. Close your eyes...let your mind wander back, before the 64 bit revolution. Keep going...now you're passing by the 32 bit madness of a few years back....don't be afraid...let it flow...there you go, slowly passing those two giants of days past, the 16 bit SNES and Genesis...we're almost there... it's up ahead a little... ah, here we go...that ancient machine of lore, the Nintendo...and what's that I see?...the little man running around bumping into things?...and his brother?....
AHHHHH....when Mario and Luigi were infants, when their only concern were pesky turtles, when they spent their days doing the one thing they were born to do ----- Plumbing.
Somewhere along the line, someone took those lovable little Italians and transformed them into ridiculously shameless charicatures of themselves. Their mustaches beefed up, their bellies filled out, and their accents thickened into a hearty tomato sauce, the kind that mama used to make. And then they were dropped into go-carts.
Mario Kart 64 is a remake of the SNES version, with the added firepower of the new system. Indeed, the power of the N64 lends itself to smooth graphics and pretty pictures. Gameplay is another matter, however, and it is in this area that the N64 has been struggling. Games such as Cruis'n USA and Shadows of the Empire failed to break through the haze of fancy graphics and didn't deliver the goods. Mario Kart manages to put some excitement into the system, but not enough to save it from mediocrity.
The idea is simple. Take a slew of overexposed characters from the Mario universe, throw 'em in "karts" (lawnmower engine powered), and watch 'em go!! The gang's all here: Mario, Luigi, evil Wario, Yoshi, Bowser, Princess Peach, Toad, and even that old arch-enemy Donkey Kong are included. You can choose to be any racer, the differences being slight. Three carts are lightweights, they are fast, but weak. Mario and Luigi are the middleweights, the best balanced in terms of durability and speed. The three heavyweights are a bit slower but can plow through traffic with ease.
The format is simple as well. You can race in any of several modes (single race, time trials, grand prix, vs., battle). The object, obviously, is to win in the shortest time possible. To aid you in your mission are power up items such as turtle shells that pummel your opponents, invincibility stars, turbo charged mushrooms, slippery banana peels, and lightning bolts. You can get these items by driving over Item boxes which are randomly distributed across each track. You don't know what item you'll get - just have faith in the powers that be.
There are 16 total tracks, divided into 4 separate "Cups": Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, Star Cup, and Special Cup. The tracks gradually get more difficult as you go. To continue racing for a trophy in each Cup, you must place at least 4th. Points are awarded based on placement; at the end of the Cup tourney, you can win the gold, silver, etc....
The controls are basic - gas, brake, turn, slide, yawn. There is a difficult to learn "mini-turbo" turning technique to add excitement, but it's hard to pull off and isn't THAT much fun...
Graphically, the N64 continues to kick butt. The racers look great and drive smoothly. There is almost no pop-up, a definite improvement over other N64 racers like Cruis'n USA. The backgrounds, unfortunately, are fairly boring. In fact, the beginning tracks are very boring looking, though the more complex tracks have, well, more complex graphics. Most of the power is put into smooth texture mapping - you won't find any breaks in the action.
And action there is. There's not a whole lot of strategy involved; maybe a well-timed lightning bolt or a banana booby-trap. But the best part of the game is the frenetic energy of whipping around turns at breakneck speeds. Er, okay, so the speeds aren't quite breakneck. And you don't really "whip." For the most part, just haul some Mario ass.
So the graphics are pretty good, the controls are easy, the action is fast paced: what's the problem, you ask? Simply put, the game feels pretty bubblegummy. It goes from "cute" to "puke" in a matter of minutes. Perhaps I'm spoiled, as I've recently had the honor of experiencing the far-and-away best game for the N64 right now, the amazing Turok. Mario Kart 64 is really just a souped up version of the SNES game with added graphical power. No new ground is broken, or even scraped.
This isn't a bad game. This isn't a good game, either. Frankly, what you see is what you get - kinda dorky, outdated characters thrown into an average cartoon racing game. Oh yeah, you'll also get some pretty painful Italian stereotypes... nothing that a "large-a plate of-a pasta" won't fix!