In this series of articles we'll write about one Mario game every day for 30 days, each representing a different year as part of our Super Mario 30th Anniversary celebrations.
In our last entry for this series we covered Super Mario 64, a title that utilised the capabilities of the Nintendo 64 to revolutionise Mario platforming. Mario Kart 64's impact on the games industry is nowhere near as dramatic, but like a number of N64 games it was a notable departure from its predecessor; this was truly an age where generation gaps were meaningful.
The racer was originally supposed to be a launch title on the N64, and did hit Japan in late 1996, but it'd be 1997 before it would eventually make its way to the West. It was only the second entry in the franchise after the hugely popular Super Mario Kart on SNES, with a stark difference in style and approach. It's argued by many to this day that the 16-bit original is the superior title, though we'd suggest that it's the N64 game that was more vital to future entries in the series, simply due to the shift in approach that would inform the games to come.
The most visible change was in the significantly revamped visuals, adopting a polygon style with some pre-rendered sprites that were a necessity due to hardware limitations. The graphics arguably haven't aged well, as a result, but as highlighted above the general approach would become key to the game's successors on more powerful hardware.
Though its handling is a far cry from what we may expect in the current-generation entries, it started the early shift away from the 16-bit approach and introduced the art of drifting for boosts. Super Mario Kart's course design - no doubt a result of hardware limitations - focused on plenty of laps and tight, relatively short tracks. Mario Kart 64 switched to lengthier courses with less laps, with broader scope in the form of longer straights and turns. It was a significant change in gameplay style.
It was the N64 entry that also brought us the Spiny Shell / Blue Shell, which is still considered by some to be a curse on the franchise to this day. In its original form it would go along the ground in pursuit of first place, potentially hitting others en-route; in some follow up games it flew and only hit the race leader.
Mario Kart 64 also ramped up the multiplayer aspect, helping to establish it as a key game to play on the couch with friends back in the day. We should consider that it was still relatively uncommon to have four player matches in a console game back in 1997, and that feature alone made it a key part of any N64 collection - alongside some notable others. Whether racing around 16 tracks or fighting in four Battle arenas, at the time this title offered impressive variety and a great opportunity to take on other gaming buddies.
All of this contributed to Mario Kart 64 being the second best-selling game on the N64. It's not necessarily regarded as one of the better games in the series now, but its introduction of drift boosts, four player matches and 3D-style visuals were all integral steps in the evolution of the Mario Kart franchise.
Below is a Summer Games Done Quick run that shows off some exploits and tricks in the game.