Back when Nintendo announced the very first Mario Kart game in the early '90s, there were some in the industry who proclaimed it as a sign that the veteran firm had finally lost its marbles. Sure, Mario had appeared in other games, but his forte was 2D platformers – he had no place on the racing track, and Super Mario Kart was initially viewed as a questionable attempt to shoe-horn the famous mascot into a genre where he simply didn't belong. As you might expect, when these same nay-sayers actually got to play it, and they changed their tune.
Since then, Mario Kart has become one of Nintendo's most successful properties and has sold in excess of 100 million copies worldwide across all titles. But, you may well ask, which one is best? That's not an easy question to answer in a series which has only seen eight console entries (nine if you include Mario Kart 8 Deluxe), but all of those instalments are solid gold classics (before you ask, no we've not included the arcade entries, because we like being stubborn traditionalists at Nintendo Life). We have added the mobile-only Mario Kart Tour - we quite like it, but no prizes for guessing where it finished up. The rest were incredibly tough to place, though.
Still, we like a challenge, so here goes. Please don't hurl any rotten fruit until the end.
The first entry in the series to make the jump to mobile devices which aren't Nintendo handhelds, anyone coming to this expecting a facsimile of the console games will probably be disappointed - this free-to-play version was never going to rival the majesty of Mario Kart 8! The game has been built around one-handed mobile play and can't even be played in landscape mode. Couple that with some confusing and questionable monetisation mechanics and it's easy to see this as a blight on the series' good name.
However, you're not obliged to go in for all those unseemly microtransactions, there's no limit on playtime as found in many other mobile games (including some of Nintendo's) and - taken in context - it's a pleasantly diverting mobile take on your favourite kart racer. Crucially, it costs nothing to find out for yourselves, so there's no reason not to take this for a test drive.
After the success of the SNES original, people had high hopes for the N64 sequel; it was one of the console's most anticipated early releases and it was clear, even back then, that Mario Kart as a franchise would seriously benefit from the shift to 'proper' 3D. What we actually got was rather underwhelming; Nintendo opted for pre-rendered 2D sprites for the racers so only the courses themselves were presented in full 3D. The 'rubber band' AI that has since become a series hallmark is really exaggerated, too; it can make some races feel like a slog as only a perfect lap will suffice, especially when racing at higher levels. Even with these issues, Mario Kart 64 is still a million times better than the many 'me too' kart racers that populated the gaming landscape back in the late '90s.
Those fans who loved the flat tracks and tight power-sliding gameplay of the original Super Mario Kart were pleased as punch when Nintendo confirmed that it was bringing the series to the Game Boy Advance with a more 'retro' look. The portable was only really capable of replicating the performance of the SNES – it certainly wasn't up to the standard of the N64 or GameCube – so Mario Kart Super Circuit ended up feeling like the Super Mario Kart sequel we never got on Nintendo's 16-bit console. Sure, the visual style has arguably aged worse than the SNES version, but this pint-sized speed-fest packs in plenty of content. If multiplayer is your thing then make sure you go for the original game on original GBA hardware – the 3DS Ambassador version and Wii U Virtual Console version lack any multiplayer features.
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! divided fans at the time of release and even got some pretty negative reviews in the gaming press; while it's certainly not the best Mario Kart outing available, its reputation is undeserved. At the time of release it was effortlessly the most visually attractive game in the franchise and the introduction of a second character was a neat touch – even if it's something that hasn't been reproduced in the subsequent sequels. Double Dash!! is unquestionably a fun game but the lack of any truly new ideas holds it back somewhat; again, this is only when comparing it to other Mario Kart instalments. The competition at the time was nowhere close.
The game that started it all remains surprisingly playable and accessible, even after all this time. There's no worrying about picking karts or wheels here; you select your character and hit the track. The split-screen layout (which is present even when racing solo) encourages a second player to pick up the pad, and it's certainly a game that is best enjoyed with a friend (or foe). The Battle mode has also stood the test of time superbly, and that iconic power-slide move still feels natural and intuitive. Sure, it's rather bare-bones when compared to its successors, but Super Mario Kart is fun distilled, and its narrow focus actually ends up being a benefit – especially if you're looking for the ideal pick-up-and-play multiplayer challenge.
Mario Kart DS may look crude when compared to the other 3D efforts included in this list, but its place in Mario Kart history is secured by the fact that it was the first in the series to offer online play – and that was a real game-changer back in 2005. Sure, the online modes were limited even by the standards of the time, but being able to play against people all over the world really took the game to another level. While it was soon bettered by the likes of Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7, Mario Kart DS will always have a place in our hearts.
Following the online exploits of Mario Kart DS it was almost a given that Mario Kart Wii would follow suit and include the ability to play against the world – thankfully, despite the console's rather anaemic online capabilities, the experience was nothing short of stunning. While the visual weaknesses of the Wii hardware are sometimes a little too obvious, Mario Kart Wii remains a solid racer and the introduction of motion controls (who could forget that plastic wheel accessory?) help to make it one of the most accessible entries in the series – which is probably why it has sold a staggering 37.14 million copies since launch. Phew!
A vast improvement in visual terms over Mario Kart DS – and a great showcase of the autostereoscopic capabilities of the 3DS itself – Mario Kart 7 (the first game in the series to have a number at the end of its title, fact fans) is perhaps one of the finest racers ever made, and certainly one of the best on the 3DS (it still sells well, even today). The ability to customise your kart is also a welcome addition, and one that was carried over to its direct sequel, Mario Kart 8.
Please note that some links on this page are affiliate links, which means if you click them and make a purchase we may receive a small percentage of the sale. Please read our FTC Disclosure for more information.
While it may have had the misfortune of initially releasing on Nintendo's worst performing home console, even in its pre-Deluxe state, Mario Kart 8 was an utterly fantastic racer and we've decided to package it up into one entry with its Switch update. The big twist this time around is the introduction of 'anti-gravity' sections which allow tracks to bend and twist on themselves in surprising ways. This doesn't impact the gameplay all that much but during anti-grav sections it's possible to collide with other racers and gain a small speed boost, adding a welcome layer of tactical play. Thanks to a massive selection of parts to unlock and some lovely DLC, Mario Kart 8 is feature-rich – but if you own a Switch you get all that and more.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe repackaged the original for the hybrid handheld for all of the millions of people who didn't play the original and added in an excellent (and sorely missed) Battle Mode for good measure. This is the pinnacle of the entire series; a fast, attractive and sublimely playable romp which has to rank as one of the best racing games of all time. We can see this selling well throughout the entire life of the Switch as it's one of those games that perfectly suits the console's core ethos of 'anytime, anywhere'; all you need is a flat surface, four Joy-Con and some willing players, and you've got a Mario Kart party. Essential.
So there you have it; the running order of the Mario Kart series. If you think we've got it all wrong and Mario Kart 64 should be at the top, make sure you race to the comments section to jolly well tell us.