Taking a bunch of Mario characters and having them speed around race circuits using a range of special items to rush or smash past each other is something that has worked very well since the Mario Kart series began in 1992. The games are amongst the most enjoyable on whatever platform they turn up on, and many people buying Nintendo hardware look forward to the inevitable karting action that will be appearing on their system. To not release a new Mario Kart would be a foolish move akin to ignoring F-Zero for over ten years, bringing out an amiibo-focussed Animal Crossing board game in lieu of a regular series entry or charging money for Urban Champion. The Wii U, of course, has the brilliant Mario Kart 8 whilst backwards compatibility and Virtual Console releases have made a number of the earlier games available too; the latest eShop arrival being Mario Kart 64.
This second title in the series was originally released for the Nintendo 64 (clue was in the title) and has of course been available to Wii U owners since launch via the Wii Menu/Shop Channel. For the Wii Virtual Console release time trial ghost data could not be saved as the Controller Pak was not emulated, and unfortunately that is still the case here. One improvement for gamers in Europe and Oceania, however, is that after getting the slower PAL-region release on the Wii, this Wii U download is the US version in glorious 60Hz.
Mario Grand Prix is the main mode of play where you pick one of eight characters, then race the other seven in four cups, each featuring four three-lap races. Available to play alone or in two-player mode, the cups can be tackled at the usual 50, 100 or 150cc difficulties and a mirror mode can be unlocked too. Points are awarded for a top four finish, collect enough points and you may earn a trophy at the end. In a race you must finish in the top four to proceed to the next track; this can be used to your advantage as if a rival has finished ahead of you, you can slam on your breaks, drop to fifth and try again.
Making use of the more powerful N64 hardware, there was a graphical upgrade over the first game with the SNES' Mode 7 ditched for a combination of polygons (the tracks) and pre-rendered sprites (the racers). There are more things to look at around the circuits and this is apparent from the first track with advertising boards and trees off to the side, an action-mirroring video screen and a drive through a tunnel – the light adjusting accordingly. Elsewhere in the game there are waterfalls, caves and a simple but effective snow effect. The visuals are not without fault, however. Track edges and scenery at times looks very angular and the sprites of the racers can look rough around the edges, but generally the bright, cartoony style works well - particularly when viewed on the GamePad.
Sound effects add to the experience with revving engines, hard thumps, screeching brakes and voices accompanying the on-screen action. There are some very effective sounds such as when you drive over a rickety bridge or the shattering of the ice that surrounds you after Lakitu has fished you out of freezing water. The music is very catchy, typically upbeat, exciting and matching the locations well such as the Carribbean sound to Koopa Troopa Beach, or the more sinister sound of Bowser's Castle.
The biggest change the switch to polygons provided is that it allowed Nintendo to add elevation to the tracks. Many Mario Karts later it's not something unusual, but at the time the use of slopes, drops and uneven terrain allowed for different racing experiences to its predecessor. There's the usual range of locations across the sixteen tracks with relatively traditional racetracks alongside mountainous terrain and wintry stages. The game has some memorable tracks such as Toad's Turnpike where you weave through vehicles on a public road, Choco Mountain where you have to look out for falling rocks or Kalimari Desert where you must decide if you can get over the crossing before the train arrives, or if you must stop and wait for it to pass. There's a lot of fun to be had racing on these tracks, with one highlight being Yoshi Valley, a course with multiple routes, plenty of places to fall off and the positions of all characters hidden until they've finished the race.
Including tracks from previous games is something of a Mario Kart tradition, but unfortunately it's a tradition that would not start until the third game. Many of the tracks from Mario Kart 64 would return in subsequent titles however, and in fact should you have picked up all the other Mario Karts playable on Wii U only four of the sixteen tracks here are "new". There are differences though (and Mario Kart DS is single-player only on Wii U), whilst these are the original versions of the tracks with the original choice of characters, handling the way they originally did.
It's Mario Kart from a simpler time, when the go-karts were go-karts and all you had to do was pick a character rather than faff about selecting tires. Characters have different top speeds and acceleration, whilst the heavier you are the better chance you have of muscling your way past someone. The controls are as straightforward as you would expect with the usual buttons for acceleration, hopping and using the special item you've collected. There's also a button for breaking, not something you'll typically need but worth remembering as a quick press after colliding with a banana skin will stop you spinning out. The controls work well but you may want to do some button remapping as the defaults on the various compatible controllers are not always ideal. Hopping is used to slide around corners and it's also possible to get a mini speed boost. It can take practice to perfect as you experiment on different corners on different tracks, but it's worth persevering with if you are hoping to get around the track as quickly as possible.
As always you can pick up a special item such as a Koopa shell (green or homing-red variants available) to throw or a speed-boosting super mushroom, and this is the game that introduced multiples of some items like a bunch of bananas or triple Koopa shells. Also making their début are fake item boxes, the golden mushroom that provides as many speed boosts as you like for a limited time and the infamous blue shell. Having battled through the field and put in some fantastic lap times you can find yourself in first place only for someone to fire the blue shell, which then tears through the field hitting you at the final corner to destroy your race. Some people feel it's unfair whilst others think it adds to the excitement. This writer has no strong feelings either way, but simply hopes that the person who came up with the idea was fired. Out of a cannon. Into shark-infested waters.
In a change from Super Mario Kart (that has stuck for subsequent releases) CPU controlled characters also collect special items, although they mainly seem to be given banana skins and fake item boxes. Aside from bumping into you (which admittedly can knock you towards danger) they don't really attack. Instead the main trouble they cause is from the fact it's difficult to pull away from them. You can be in first, you make some mistakes and then you find your rivals directly behind you. That's understandable but often you can send someone into a spin, take a series of corners without error, use a super mushroom and still find they're right on your tail – perhaps they found a secret stash of golden mushrooms.
It's not just a case of them upping their game to match you, the game keeps the field close together and should they start to pull away too much they'll forget how to steer, collide with something and allow you back into the mix. With everyone close together it's a lot of fun to work your way up through the pack, weaving around some karts, fighting with others for a bit of track, narrowly avoiding a penguin and then taking someone out with a well timed shell. The downside is it sometimes feel like you're battling to complete faultless laps rather than racing. Should you be in second place, midway through lap 2 with a red shell there's no reason to use it. You could take out the race leader, send them plummeting in to a pit and move up to first, but what's the point when your rival will be back trying to pass you before the final lap has commenced? Best to save it, stick with them and use it towards the end of the race.
For those seeking human competition there are a number of multiplayer options available for two, three or four players. The versus mode sees you race each other on any of the tracks. There are no CPU controlled racers, but bombs are scattered about that may wander into you. Alternatively there's the Battle mode where you drive around one of four maps, collecting items to pop the balloons attached to your opponents. Should you be playing with three or four players there's a visual downgrade with some effects (and a paddle steamer) removed and there's also a lack of music. This can feel strange, but the chaotic battling provides a lot of enjoyment that greatly reduces this disappointment.
Much time can be spent with the multiplayer modes, but like many racing titles a lot of replay value can be found with the time trial mode. Trying to find the best point to slide around a corner, or where to use one of the super mushrooms you are given, keeps you busy as you try desperately to improve your time by a small fraction. Due to the lack of a Controller Pak, ghost features are limited. Retry a track immediately after your first go and the ghost from your previous attempt will race around the track with you – although it disappears should you pause the game. Not being able to save the ghost data is disappointing but there's a great feeling from managing a new previously unthinkable best time and, should you be extra impressed with it, you can post a screenshot to Miiverse to see how you compare with players from around the globe.
It's more Mario Kart, offering the usual colourful frantic action, and although the rubberband AI can cause irritation the racing remains entertaining. Time trials will keep you busy after you've cleared the cups and then there's the multiplayer options too. The loss of the music when playing with three or four players is disappointing but there's plenty of enjoyment to be had from these modes. Mario Kart 64 has its faults, but there's enough fun here to keep you (and your friends) returning for more.