Everyone who's been playing video games since their youth will have fond memories of certain games. There'll be at least one game that you remember playing over a school holiday, most likely with friends, or a game that you spent all your free time trying to beat. In my case one such game is Mario Kart 64; so when it arrived on Nintendo's Virtual Console I had to see if those great memories would come flooding back or be ruined by seeing the game ten years after its original release. The truth is a bit of both.
Mario Kart 64 was never that great as a game to tackle alone (unless time trialing, which I'll get to later), and with Virtual Console titles simply being the original games, nothing has changed to make this aspect of MK64 any better. With 16 courses, eight characters of varying ability, three race classes (the standard 50, 100 and 150 cc) and the ability to play through each race series with another player via split-screen, it's not that there's a lack of content; it simply doesn't fulfil its potential as a standard racer.
To be fair, that's true of all Mario Kart games, but the Grand Prix mode in MK64 feels particularly soulless. But it's not the GP mode that people buy Mario Kart games for; it's the immensely fun multiplayer modes, and Mario Kart 64 happens to offer some of the best multiplayer karting of any game in the series. With up to four players supported via split-screen, you're able to partake in simple races where the use of power-ups create a unique experience every time. Or, and this where those memories come flooding back, you can enter the battle arenas.
The gameplay mechanics of Battle mode in MK64 are simple yet brilliant. You and your opponents whiz around one of four arenas and the goal is to take out all three balloons that are attached to each kart. What happens when someone exits the battle, though, has to go down as one of the most inspired game design decisions of all time. You become a bomb. Ten years ago, the player who became the bomb amongst my group of friends would almost instinctively scream out, "I'm the bomb!" and then set out to pick on whoever had been doing the most damage during the round. Ten years on the fear of the bomb is still present and it adds a brilliant twist to an already entertaining multiplayer mode.
'Ten years on the fear of the bomb is still present and it adds a brilliant twist to an already entertaining multiplayer mode.'
And then we come to time trials. As our very own News Editor will testify to, time trialing in Mario Kart 64 can become a dangerously addictive activity. Due to the boost system in the game, which requires you to jump into a slide and then perform numerous flicks of the analogue stick, each track is open to be boosted around as if you've got a near endless supply of boost mushrooms. Competing against your best lap ghost racer proved to be one of the most satisfying racing experiences around back then, but this Virtual Console release is tarnished by a rather sad omission.
Mario Kart 64 on the Virtual Console has no emulated support for the Nintendo 64 memory pack, so, seeing as this little devil was used to save ghost lap data, saving ghosts isn't an option here. Your best lap in the current session will be shown in ghost form as you race, but without the ability to save your all-time best laps time trailing becomes an altogether less enticing mode of play. It's not a game breaking problem, but it means many players may want to stick with the N64 original.
On the Nintendo 64 Mario Kart looked very good indeed, but things have quite obviously moved on a fair bit in the ten years that have passed. On the Wii the visuals seem crisper and brighter than before, and the frame rate is definitely smoother than I remember it, but some of the shortcuts made on the old hardware stand out like a sore thumb. The characters themselves and many scenery objects are made of pixels rather than polygons and this gives them a rough appearance.
These are minor cosmetic issues, but there is one major technical problem that spoils things somewhat. Somewhere along the line the speed of multiplayer races has been, to put it bluntly, bodged - or at least we think it has. Two player races seem fine, but when playing with three or more players certain tracks cause the game to run at an insane speed. Battle mode courses thankfully seem to be excluded from this problem, but many of the main courses are made far less enjoyable, even at 50 cc. It seems that this problem arose in the original release but no one on the Pro-G team can remember it being such an extreme increase in speed.
Mario Kart 64 is an immensely enjoyable game and one of the most entertaining multiplayer racing experiences ever to hit consoles, but this Virtual Console edition suffers from numerous problems that will disappoint many players. The time trial ghost problem is something that really hurts that particular game mode and the speed issue in multiplayer races could surely have been sorted out prior to release. Still, for £7 you'll be hard pushed to find a multiplayer game that offers this much entertainment.