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The Mario Kart franchise is one of the most consistent in Nintendo’s arsenal. Its games are renown for their quality, providing fun for all types of gamers. The series has become a global phenomenon because of it, but which entry is the best? After considering each game’s tracks, gameplay, and innovation, here’s my take on the series’s current standings.
Mario Kart Super Circuit isn’t a particularly bad game, but it does rank as the weakest entry in the Mario Kart series. That distinction isn’t entirely fair, however. A lot of Super Circuit’s shortcomings are a result of the Game Boy Advanced’s limited hardware. No one could accuse the game of being overly innovative, but Super Circuit did add the cup rankings that have become a staple of modern games as well as retro cups featuring tracks from previous games. Still, it’s stale visuals, overall forgettable tracks, and limited multiplayer options force it into this inglorious position.
I really enjoyed Mario Kart DS. It had a few very good new ideas, including a mission mode that added to the single-player offerings. Online play originated here as well, and wireless download play made it easy for anyone with a DS to jump in on the action. Customization really began here as well. You could unlock different karts with in-depth statistics for your racers and even create a custom logo for your kart! Still, Mario Kart DS never stood out as a particularly memorable game. It had some cool tracks, like Cheep Cheep Beach, Luigi’s Mansion, Wario Stadium, and Airship Fortress. Overall though, the tracks were pretty meh. Mario Kart DS isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but most Mario Kart games achieved greater heights.
Mario Kart 64 is beloved by so many, although I think that its praise is somewhat overdone. Stripping away the nostalgia reveals a game that is uninspired in a way not many Nintendo games are. Mario Kart 64’s track list is weak, filled with barren courses that lack any distinctive features, and its battle mode is similarly disappointing. There’s a reason people always want to play on Block Fort: It’s the only decent battle course in the game! 64’s controls are also suspect, especially it’s frustrating drifting mechanic. It wasn’t long before far better racers, like Diddy Kong Racing, existed on the N64.
However, it would be foolish to ignore just how important the addition of 3D tracks was to the series. It gave the courses a sense of tangibility. Driving up ramps, boosting down hills, all of that started in Mario Kart 64. Still, a lot of that innovation stems from the N64 itself rather than the game. You can say the same for 64’s other big Mario Kart first, 4-player multiplayer. Aside from its 3D visuals, Mario Kart 64 didn’t do anything to separate itself from the Super Nintendo version of the game, unlike every other entry in the series. It did add Mirror Mode and Ghost Data, but those minor additions don’t redeem the game as a whole. Its other big innovation? The hated blue shell.
The game that started it all, Super Mario Kart can’t be placed any lower than fifth on this list. Just about all of the series’s key concepts started here, from the iconic green and red shells to battle mode. Super Mario Kart executed the concept of a hectic, multiplayer racer brilliantly. While the game doesn’t totally hold up against Father Time, it does a surprisingly good job of it. The visuals were incredible at the time of its release, with colorful courses that were engaging and replayable. Plus, its Rainbow Road is criminally underrated!
Mario Kart 7 is the first entry on this list that I believe is an elite game. It smartly built upon the ideas introduced in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart DS, especially where customization is concerned. The modern kart customization system originated here. Players could create their own kart from scratch. Choosing the optimal set of wheels, body, and glider to suit one’s individual play-style added a new element of challenge that Mario Kart desperately needed. Coins were reintroduced to the series, serving as both small boosts and the currency used to unlock more kart parts. Most notably, however, Mario Kart 7 opened both the air and the sea to racers. Both ideas allowed for dramatic changes to track design, making individual courses feel more unique and varied. The more stable 3DS online connection made racing against others a joy, making Mario Kart 7 the strongest handheld entry the series has seen.
A master class Mario Kart game, Mario Kart Wii doesn’t get enough credit for beginning the “Modern Era” of Mario Kart. The ideas that this game introduced made it the most innovative game in the series since Double-Dash, and some of its key concepts have yet to be topped. Optional motion controls made the game accessible to everyone, even those who hadn’t touched a controller in years, and the wheel accessory succeeded in making driving feel authentic. Bikes were also added, and dramatically changed the strategy behind picking your vehicle. Being able to pop wheelies, performing tricks while going over ridges, and all-new drifting mechanics made racing feel faster and more intense. Having 12 racers instead of the typical 8 added to the competition, and made the game more fun for beginners who now had a better chance of avoiding last place. Automatic drifting made things even more accessible to newcomers.
The courses that make up Wii’s 32 tracks were incredible as well. Mushroom Gorge, Moo Moo Meadows, Maple Tree Way, Coconut Mall, Daisy Circuit, Koopa Cape and an incredible Rainbow Road are just a few of the highlights. Mario Kart Wii’s online services were the best Nintendo had ever created at the time, and even though that’s not saying much it has to count for something. Mario Kart Wii is a gem, and one could certainly argue that it’s the best Mario Kart ever made.
Mario Kart Double-Dash was and always will be special. It’s two characters per kart mechanic changed the game dramatically, both on the track and at your gaming parties. Nothing was more fun than grabbing three friends and facing off in 2 vs 2 races. The entire experience of playing Mario Kart changed from a single-player free-for-all to a more chaotic and fun team game where your kartmate served as both a trusted ally and worst enemy. That free-for-all fun was still an option, however, and everyone who has played the game knows just how thrilling it was to race to pick that one character that everyone wanted first.
On the track, two racer karts added a weight to driving. You could feel the kart sling about with a light racer clinging to the back as the driver took on a sharp curve, while heavy racers made it difficult to cut the angle just right. Double the items meant double the chaos, and character specific items made team building fun and strategic. These items were all a blast to use, but the Baby Mario and Baby Luigi Chain Chomp is the standout. The game’s 16 courses were phenomenal as well. Luigi’s Circuit, DK Mountain, the incomparable Baby Park… and the greatest Rainbow Road of all-time. Shine Thief, a classic battle mode game, was born here as well. Double-Dash still holds up today because of just how different its gameplay was, and it too could be considered the best Mario Kart ever made.
Still, the best Mario Kart game ever is the newest entry. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe takes this prestigious position because it combines elements from every game before it and masters all of their mechanics.
Before I go into detail just how Deluxe masters the other game’s mechanics, I need to point out just how great its racing is. At 150 CC, the sense of speed thrilling in a way no other Mario Kart game has since achieved. Steering is smooth and drifting is concise, while the zero-gravity areas allow for bumper-kart fun while also offering additional speed. Adding the Smart-Steering option as well as auto-acceleration make the game accessible to everyone.
Deluxe has the amazing glider sections found in Mario Kart 7, and with its unparalleled visuals, this makes for even more jaw-dropping moments. Both the glider and the returning underwater areas give Deluxe’s tracks have that constantly evolving vibe that 7’s courses had. The new anti-gravity mechanic adds to that, creating courses that are easily the coolest in the series. Driving up waterfalls on Shy Guy Falls, hanging on the side of an icy cave in Mount Wario, and hanging upside down on Mario Circuit forces you to stop and think about just how cool these courses are.
Double-Dash’s excellent Shine Thief returns, as does Bob-omb Blast, earning its battle mode the distinction as the greatest of all-time. The new Renegade Roundup game further cements its status. This spin on Cops and Robbers steals the show and is sure to be a fan favorite for years to come. Plus, just as Double-Dash’s two drivers changed the game, 200 CC forces racers to approach well-known tracks from an entirely different angle.
Mario Kart Wii’s motion controls return, although they’re strictly optional once again. The previously mentioned Auto-Accelerate and Smart-Steering, just as the motions controls before them, make the game more accessible to all players. While Bikes were a bit overpowered in Wii, they’ve been smartly balanced here in Deluxe and still have those creative designs that were found in the Wii version.
At the end of the day, it’s all about great tracks. Deluxe features by far the best tracks in the series, with each having a distinct identity and packed with charm. Old favorites from the N64, SNES, and GameCube games return and have new life thanks to the new zero-gravity and glider segments that were wisely added. DLC courses like Animal Crossing and Hyrule Castle take classic Nintendo franchises and smartly transform them into unforgettable Mario Kart tracks. Each course has catchy tunes that convey a sense of joy and fun to each, and their stellar visuals make them pop.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the best Mario Kart ever made. It’s truthfully impossible for me to think of a way to top it in the future, outside of fixing their online services. It’s a masterpiece and could be at the top of this list for a very long time.
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