How Mario Kart 64 became the gold standard for 90s kids and arcade bars

By Alex Alusheff

There’s nothing worse than being struck by a blue shell in Mario Kart. Unless it’s being struck by your older brother after you blue-shelled him.

We drained a lot of hours into Mario Kart 64 for the Nintendo 64 when we were kids. The game was released in 1996, when I was 6 and my brother was 8, right around the time our brotherly love dissolved into a bitter rivalry. In a sense, the game fueled it.

“You buttmunch! Don’t be such a gus-blow! Fartknocker!” These are some of the insults we’d hurl when knocked off course until one of us threw the first punch.

Winning at Mario Kart was a huge deal. It was the first racing game I can remember playing and it was in beautiful 3D. Half the fun of the game was the glorious cutscene at the end (which is sorely missed in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe).

For those of you who grew up with the game,  tell me you don’t tear up when you hear that trophy music: Bum! Bum! Bah! Bah-duh-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah! 

My brother would always come in first and force me to watch the cutscene before resetting the system. The one time I tried to reset the game before the cutscene ended, I got a beat down. It was a point of pride for him. And it became my destiny to dethrone him.

It took me years, but one day I did it. I finally did it! I would get to watch Luigi drive up to the winners podium.

My brother turned off the N64 and stormed out of the room before I could even hear the trumpets. My victory ceremony was stolen, my win soured.

Mario Kart 64 was one the best competitive party games of the 90s and early 2000s. How wicked was it to use the lightning power up on someone right before the jump in Wario Stadium or Royal Raceway? Which one of your asshole friends always picked Rainbow Road? How pissed would your friends get when you bombed them in battle mode well after you lost?

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Of course many new and shiny Mario Karts have been released since then. But in my experience, it’s a game 90s kids always circle back to.

The N64 title made a resurgence during my college years from 2010 to 2014. If you went to any dorm, you could find at least one Mario Kart 64 match being played in one of the common rooms. 

My roommates and I proudly displayed an N64 at our house senior year. At my 21st birthday party, we played Beerio Kart. In this drinking game, you must finish a beer before you finish a race, but you cannot drink and drive. I chose to chug my entire beer from the start and play catch up while everyone drank theirs intermittently. It was one of the few matches I won against my very competitive roommates. 

By college, I had ditched Luigi as my character of choice. He had only reminded me of my ruined victory years back. And my brother ruined Mario for me because I never got to play as him.

I now play as Peach to piss people off. No one in my friend group liked her because when the AI controlled her, she was always on your ass. This was due to the game’s notorious rubber banding, which ensured you never got too far ahead of the AI. And she has that royal smugness in her voice whenever she hits your or passes you. 

Mario Kart had made me cruel. And everyone would suffer with me controlling Peach. I wasn’t one to win a lot of games, but I made sure I’d screw over whomever was about to win and shell them right before the finish line. 

Even nowadays, Mario Kart 64 remains prevalent. In every arcade bar I’ve ever visited, there has always been a group of 20-somethings and 30-somethings huddled around an N64 playing Mario Kart. A crowd of strangers watches them in excitement, lining up to play next. Not many arcade cabinets and pinball machines receive the same love.

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Mario Kart 64 has remained a proving ground for 90s kids. It’s a way to test someone’s skills in gaming. I’m sure you’ve heard the following:

“You think you’re better than me at video games? Bet I could beat you in Mario Kart 64.”

And there’s a few reasons why it’s still so coveted. Aside from the nostalgia factor, the gameplay remains solid at its core. The drifting is smooth, the power ups are balanced enough and it’s home to some of the best racing tracks and soundtracks in the series. I personally love Koopa Troopa Beach and it’s awesome theme takes me to my happy place. 

Admittedly, the game isn’t perfect. The fall recovery time is brutally long and the aforementioned rubber banding is the worst in the series, but those elements make the challenge that much more alluring for multiplayer matchups. Winning a race after a fall is way more rewarding than in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which barely penalizes you for falling.

Another reason Mario Kart 64 remains a staple is because the N64 and its cartridges were also built to last. 

The fact that you can still find plenty of working units and games in any retro store is a testament to their sturdy design. Nintendo was popping out cartridges at a time when everyone else had moved onto CDs, which are more prone to scratching. 

I’m not saying that the Nintendo Switch lacks staying power; it will be a favorite for people in the years to come.  But will you be able to play one in 20 years? It’s already got joy con drift issues, and the delicate technology it’s packed with is more susceptible to breaking over the years.

Look at all the problems people have with their 3DS. It’s subreddit is bombarded with people asking how to fix the broken touch screen. Systems today aren’t built to last because you’re supposed to buy replacements.

There’s no red ring of death or blue screen of death for the N64. If your N64 doesn’t work, you dropped it or spilled water on it. If your cartridge doesn’t work, you let it corrode under improper storage conditions. Or maybe it’s because you shoved the cartridge all the way down.

And is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe the better game? In many aspects, yes. Playing it with three other friends on my couch reminds me of pulling all-nighters with the N64 in the 90s and 2000s.

But that game doesn’t have a Cheep Cheep puking out a golden trophy, now does it?

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