N64 Nostalgia: Mario Kart 64 or how I fell in love Nintendo

This is not going to be a conventional review. As the title suggests, this post is about nostalgia and I provide fair warning, because I have so much nostalgia for Mario Kart 64. For starters, this is the ever first N64 game I played at the tender age of seven. That experience then prompted begging my parents for an N64 for Xmas that same year. This was the same game that brought me that much closer to my brother, the game that first instilled in me a love of Nintendo’s games and characters, and finally, the game that revived the N64 as the ultimate party console more than ten years after its initial release in my small flat in my student days. Now that’s what I call replay value!

Let’s go right back to the start. For as long as I can remember, both my parents have always worked. Not a problem during term time, but during school holidays my parents send my brother and me to whichever family friend owed them favours at the time. It was at one of these family friends’ houses that we were first introduced to Mario Kart 64. It was a family home, but the mum took care of us. Her own children were grown and out of the house most days, so her son gave us permission to use his videogames when he was out. His games, as far as I can recall, consisted of Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 (with an enormous, full-featured joystick that required two small hands to grasp!), and an N64 with two controllers and Mario Kart 64. After several attempts at piloting planes – I feel sorry for those planes – my brother and I naturally gravitated towards the N64, where we spent the majority of our playtime. And so Mario Kart entered my life.

The Sidewinder. No comment.

The Sidewinder. This is an anecdote about childhood so no suggestive comments are allowed.

It came at a key time. A year or so earlier, I’d learnt that my brother was autistic. No one told me, it just dawned on me one day that my brother was different from the other kids at school. He was older than me, but he acted younger. I told my parents, and they confirmed what I’d already guessed: he was different, he had something called autism. I was very upset, even though at the time I obviously didn’t have a true grasp of what autism was. In any case I almost immediately resented my brother for not being “normal”.

All of this was going on when I was introduced to Mario Kart. Being brought up on the Commodore Amiga, Mario Kart was one of the few simultaneous multiplayer games either of us had played at that point, and boy did we milk it. GP, Battle mode, Time trials… we played them all to death. We had two favourite courses, coincidentally the longest tracks in the game: Wario Stadium and Rainbow Road. Wario Stadium was cool simply because there’s a big screen monitor in the stage’s background that basically duplicates your camera view, minus the HUD. It’s a nice touch that’s unique to that stage.

You can't see it very well, but it's there.

You can’t see it very well, but it’s there.

Rainbow Road on the other hand offered something else. The music, for one, is beautiful. Occasionally to this day when I hear that music and think about that time I well up. But while the music was great even as a kid, Rainbow Road meant so much to me and my brother then because of the neon constellations of the characters that show up throughout the track. Anyone who knows the stage will no doubt recall it’s like a slideshow of smiling faces as you go round the track. My brother who was a very quiet child, as is typical for autism, really liked these faces. When driving round the course he would always announce, enthusiastically, the name of each character as their constellation appeared on-screen.

mario kart 64 rainbow road 3

It was a small thing but for the first time, maybe ever, I felt as though me and brother were, could be, on the same page about something. Not only that, but him saying the names in such an enthusiastic way was very moving to me even at the time. Mario and the gang’s smiling mugs suspended in the sky above a rainbow track represented something safe, something happy, warm and caring that my brother and me could see and understand as well as each other. To this day there’s something very special and nostalgic about Rainbow Road. Certainly it was special enough that it brought my brother and me together, and created a Nintendo fanboy of me right there and then at 7 years old.

mario kart 64 rainbow road 1

Fast forward ten years to my student days, and a time when I would discover that Mario Kart 64 can not only bring people together – it can ruin friendships and drive people apart (in the nicest way possible). The collective rediscovery of Mario Kart 64’s battle mode in my student flat wasn’t moving, but it was certainly competitive. Ultra competitive. Hours upon hours were spent in the circular opus that is the Big Donut, the rooftop spectacular of Skyscraper, and the confusing layers of Double Deck. But the most hours of all were spent in the Wild West of stages, the Block Fort.

Block Fort is where fortunes are made and lost. Everyday dreamers come here to strike it big, but only a few will make it out alive.

Block Fort: where fortunes are made and lost. Every day dreamers come here to strike it big, but only a few make it out alive.

The Block Fort set the stage for probably the second most memorable moment I’ve had with Mario Kart 64. Namely this was the time when I notoriously destroyed my flatmate’s three balloons (their health points essentially) in Battle mode with just a single invincibility star. I’ve seen, and occasionally used, a single star used to hit the same kart twice, but nothing like this – never three hits in a row. But it happened here – first I accelerated into the kart, activating the star less than a second before the collision. Then I reversed into the kart as it tried in vain to recover and drive away, adding insult to injury. Finally I accelerated and yet again collided with the kart, piling on additional doses of insult and injury. My flatmate dropped the controller, stormed out of the room and refused to speak to me for 24 hours. Weeks later I was still trying to atone and explain what had happened.

Such is the power of Mario Kart 64.

Advertisements

12 comments

  1. Sir Gaulian

    Brilliant stuff. All too often people take an entirely too objective and historical contextual look at retro games, but you’ve nailed the importance of building an environmental and life context for why you love a game. Excellent read.

    On Mario Kart itself, i wasn’t really a Mario Kart guy until Double Dash. But man did i love that game, and years later, i can’t play that game without feeling nostalgic for a hot summer’s day in my early 20’s huddled around (a now) small CRT with my siblings having a right royal blast. Good times, those.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks! Many of my recent posts could be classed under “historical/objective” analysis, and while that has its place, it’s definitely good to mix it up.

      I was also a Double Dash fan. Not to the same degree as 64, but the co-op element was an excellent addition that my brother and me could also bond over!

  2. Red Metal

    I too have fond memories of Mario Kart 64. I remember my friends and I would spend hours playing battle mode, especially the Block Fort level. It got really chaotic when we just launched the green shells whenever we got them; it made landing on the lowest floor a death sentence!

    I like Rainbow Road for being a long track where you can’t let your guard down for a second. I also remember annoying my brother by jumping off the edge at the very beginning of the track and landing on a further point, thus getting a nearly insurmountable lead (especially if I could pull it off more than once). A do-or-die strategy to be sure, but I found I really enjoyed the results.

    All in all, I would pick this as my favorite game in the series.

    • veryverygaming

      Ah yes, the Block Fort is amazing for chaos, especially when four players are involved. When you have a group of people play that stage over and over it’s amazing the way strategies develop, followed by counter-strategies, then counter-counter-strategies etc. Certainly the group I played with was similar to yours, the lowest floor was the most dangerous place to be because of green shells and banana peels, and also because often someone would be all too happy to jump off of a fort with a star and try and run you down in classic hit and run fashion!

      That Rainbow Road shortcut… I heard of it close to the time through magazines but had no idea how to pull it off or where to do it. Obviously it’s at the start but whenever I fell, I’d simply fall. I had similar problems with the Wario Stadium shortcut, I was never able to pull that one off either. That’s what Youtube is for I guess *sigh* Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know how to do the Rainbow Road one because I would not have had the same memories and experiences of the track had I cheated like that! Regardless, of the few Mario Karts I’ve played, this is my favourite too.

  3. Matt

    That one-star destruction of your friend is the stuff legends are made of! It must have been quite a moment, at least for you!

    Nicely written, and that’s quite a beautiful story involving your brother and Mario Kart 64!

  4. moresleepneeded

    I have played this game. In fact, I also milked it, achieving Mirror Mode by coming first in the Mario Grand Prix tournaments. I worked with a friend so that one person stayed in first position during all the races and the second person acted as a bodyguard to keep the other racers behind. I do not really remember having a favourite track, but I hated Sherbet Land because the racer froze for a few seconds after entering the water. I liked Rainbow Road, but people I played with didn’t because the track was long with few obstacles to add enjoyment. I do remember playing the track with someone who used the shortcut at the beginning and becoming unbeatable. I knew some of the levels came from the games, but I was not sure what inspired some of the race courses.
    Your recollections of playing the game were interesting.

    • veryverygaming

      That’s smart co-op strategising there, and I can see how that sort of team work is necessary, particularly on the higher difficulties. When I eventually got the game at home, like you I got very much into beating everything (got to get that alternate title screen!). Looking back Rainbow Road is not actually that interesting as a track. It’s too long and as you say there’s not enough going on. One of our other favourites at the time was DK’s Jungle Parkway – we loved jumping over the lake and occasionally the boat – and that is a much more exciting course that I’m still very happy to play today. Also, for some reason my current N64 cartridge plays that particular course at double speed so it’s complete chaos.

      As this was my first Nintendo game, I had no idea what inspired any of the courses. Later after I had my own N64 though and particularly after playing Mario 64 I loved that in Mario Speedway you could drive round the grounds of Peach’s Castle. Wonderful stuff.

      • moresleepneeded

        I forgot about the alternative title screen, which I thought looked more dramatic and colourful than the original screen. In general, I always thought that the harder stages were the most interesting (such as Yoshi Valley compared to Moo Moo Farm). I like the way Peach’s Castle formed part of the level, but it did seem a bit pointless, considering it was placed separate to the course and probably severely affected the player’s position if they visited. I tried to claim it was a shortcut if the player went left and drove over the hill in the corner, but it did not work.

        • veryverygaming

          Smart tactic there, I hadn’t thought of that one! I agree too about the harder stages being more interesting, although I have a soft spot for one or two like Toad Turnpike.

  5. themancalledscott

    This was a wonderful read. This is also a nostalgic favorite of mine, and it holds up much better than most N64 games. I have many fond memories of Block Fort, and how I’d try to “control” a single fort by blocking every entrance/exit to a fort (always the blue fort, because favorite color) with bananas and fake item boxes, and then trying to hoard red shells and shoot them off the top of the fort (this strategy rarely accomplished much, but I couldn’t deny myself of it).

    I think Mario Kart 8 may be the first Mario Kart since 64 to make me question if 64 is still my favorite. Picking between them seems pointless, since they’re both so good. But I must say MK8’s butchering of Battle Mode is that game’s one great flaw (that, and Pink Gold Peach…laziest Nintendo character ever).

    And that is a great story between you and your brother. Without going into too much detail, I myself would not be considered “normal” by most standards, but video games have always been one of the things that make me more approachable (for lack of a better word).

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for the kind words! Videogames are great for communication – generic terms like “competitive” and “co-operative” barely scratch the surface of the many kinds of communication games can foster between people. And with so much choice and variety in games there’s something out there for everyone. I remember being introduced to someone who would eventually became my flatmate (not the one from the above post), and basically we met playing Smash Bros. And wouldn’t you know it, a few rounds of that game was enough for me to feel good about inviting this person to live with me! So I definitely get what you mean about approachability.

      Block Fort is an amazing stage, and knowing what I know from those competitive times I can see how your strategy is good on defence but not so hot on offence! My favourite was to stay on the middle tier for the most part, preferably with a star that would enable me to activate and drop next to any unsuspecting passerby on the lower tier. Some of the funniest moments I can remember involve two survivors circling the top tier of the fort. That kind of deadlock is one of the few times when bananas and fake item boxes are the deadliest and most useful weapons – shells are pretty useless given the lack of room.

      I’ve heard great things about Mario Kart 8, and I have to admit it is tempting. I haven’t been really into the series since Double Dash so now seems a good opportunity to get back into it. But as you say, the lack of a decent battle mode… it’s a big turn off for me because over the years I’ve put way more time into battling in Mario Kart than racing, relatively.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s