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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.